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August 1, 2013

Mad Dog Morgan

by Franz Patrick


Mad Dog Morgan (1976)
★ / ★★★★

In the 1850s, Daniel Morgan (Dennis Hopper), an Irishman, goes to Australia to find gold and get rich. However, his quest for fortune is thwarted and he ends up poor and desperate. After committing one robbery where no one is hurt, he is caught and sent to jail for twelve years. Released in six years due to good behavior, he promises to himself that he will exact revenge on those who wronged him.

Based on a novel by Margaret Carnegie, “Mad Dog Morgan,” directed by Philippe Mora, might have been an interesting story of how a person can be broken and changed for the worse after being institutionalized if it had not been so sloppily written, shot, and edited.

We see him get branded with the letter “M” by his fellow prisoners and perform hard labor in the forest and desert, but the images fail to move beyond superficiality. While his collective negative experience pushes his mind to break, which might later explain the schism between his humanistic and animalistic behaviors, at what point during his sentence does Morgan change from a man to a beast? To get a complete sense of this, we need to have spent more time with him in that environment and understand how he might have attempted to adapt, in conscious ways and subconsciously.

After his early release, Morgan steals horses and is shot. He is rescued by an Aborigine named Billy (David Gulpilil) from an almost certain death. Later, there are plenty of irksome montages, which consist of about half the movie, where the duo is shown stealing from the rich, giving to the poor, and burning simple business establishments.

Instead of achieving a flow and giving us a chance to get to know more about Morgan and Billy as a team–a foreigner and a native, respectively–and their complex motivations, it is like watching a series of comic strips that consists of a one-note bad joke: Morgan and Billy are shown stealing, hollering, and being out of control then officials end up red with rage. The latter’s frustration grows to the point where they actually hire bounty hunters to get Morgan, dead or alive. And yet when a bounty hunter manages to come face-to-face with Morgan, there is no build-up of tension. A gun is fired and then it is over.

I think it is the filmmakers’ intention to tell a story of an antihero amidst the backdrop of a country that is on the verge of critical change. While it is partially successful in delivering the necessary violence and chaos, Morgan remains a mysterious figure. It is a missed opportunity because if anyone can deliver insanity and sympathy simultaneously, it is Hopper. If the screenplay, accompanied by a focused direction, had been sharper about circumstances that lead to psychological and behavioral changes, Hooper might have had a chance to highlight trends in his character’s madness.

Throughout the film, officials hope to obtain Morgan’s skull, assuming he is alive when captured, so they can compare it to an animal’s. They hypothesize that the two should share many similarities. And since Morgan defies the law, as an animal is seemingly unable to abide by rules, he can and should be treated as less evolved. While the hypothesis sounds ridiculous given what we know now, I found it interesting. Still, a few good ideas are not enough to save a largely inconsistent work.

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