Philippe Mora’s contribution to the modern Australian bushranger genre instantly set itself apart with the astute casting of American counter-culture icon Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, The Last Movie). Hopper’s unbridled portrayal of nineteenth century bushranger Daniel Morgan is charged with a visceral intensity lacking in - for comparison’s sake - Mick Jagger’s portrayal of that later, better known and likewise notorious outlaw son of Irish immigrants in Englishman Tony Richardson’s 1970 curio, Ned Kelly, (shot on location in Australia). Mora likewise filmed in many of the northern Victorian locations that the historical Morgan frequented. Alongside impressively staged action sequences, including a bloody attack on a Chinese miners’ camp, Mora elevates the film above mere exploitation flick by also striving for psychological authenticity in charting Morgan’s descent into madness.
Repeatedly brutalized during an excessively long stint of hard labour in Pentridge Prison, Morgan exacted what he considered fair retribution on his release; his gruesome exploits earned him the moniker of “the most blood-thirsty delinquent to ever take to the Australian bush” before he was killed in an ambush at the hands of police and volunteers in 1865. Screening in Official Selection at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976 (where it received the John Ford Award to mark the U.S. Bicentennial), Mad Dog Morgan nonetheless sparked controversy. Brutal, violent, stark and gritty, it represented an unsparing departure in tone from ‘prestige’ Australian historical dramas of the time. In an 2010 essay Mora wrote that his intention was to create “Francis Bacon figures in a Sidney Nolan landscape, with stunts inspired by Jean Cocteau”. Alongside the mercurial Dennis Hopper, a noteworthy cast also features Jack Thompson, David Gulpilil, Bill Hunter, Frank Thring - who, Mora recalled, absolutely terrified Hopper - Michael Pate, Graeme Blundell and Bruce Spence.
– Roberta Ciabarra - Curator, Film