You Can Murder a Man, But Never His Spirit: Dennis Hopper in Mad Dog Morgan
There has always been a certain appeal about the Outlaw. The elements of violence and crime appeal to our baser human nature while the anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian aspects play to anyone with an individual’s spirit. Americans and Australians are two countries that have always had a major love affair for the outlaw, especially given that both places were formed by people getting away from less than ideal circumstances in their home countries. In fact, the British used the American South, much like Australia, as a place to ship off criminals. That said, there is something a little extra special about the Australian outlaw or as they were called back then, “bushrangers.” A lot of them had extremely legit reason to rebel and one of the best examples is “Mad” Daniel Morgan, whose store was beautifully retold in Philippe Mora’s film Mad Dog Morgan.
Morgan (Dennis Hopper) is a moral man with a quick temper, something that is immediately evident within in the first five minutes when he punches the crap out of a guy who is picking on one of the Asians working in the work camp. This simple act sets up the man’s inherent nature perfectly. After witnessing one of his friends get shot in the head in a particularly gory scene, he flees a hate crime as a mob of whites burn down a Chinese encampment. It’s a nasty bloodbath and one in which you never really see any legal action brought down, which is important given what happens to Morgan. After stealing blankets and some clothes, he is arrested and sentenced for 12 years in a penal colony that is basically Hell on Earth.
This strong yet sensitive man is physically beaten, gang raped and branded with the letter “M” for malefactor. The cycle of human abuse continues for six years when he is released on parole for “good behavior.” The damage is done, however, and the die is cast for his life as an outlaw. After all, when the rules are being made by plump, upper-class white men who view anyone that defies them as “half-animal,” you’d be tempted to break them too.
The law is quick to look for Morgan after he steals a horse and gets shot for his troubles, though he still manages to elude them. Laying in the grass and dirt bleeding, he is saved by Billy (David Gulpilil), an Aboriginal bushman and fellow outcast. After the white man tried to kill his tribe and then his tribe went after him for being mixed, Billy retreated to the wilds. Turns out that the nature of the earth and animal are easier to deal with than the nature of man. The two misfits quickly bond and soon go into the business of being a bushranger together, with Morgan pretty much taking the active role while Billy plays look out.
The more Morgan and Billy outwit, outrun and often outshoot the law, the more infuriated the police become until there is a 1,000 pound reward and trust is a rare commodity. But how long can any man, especially one as volatile and spirited as Dan Morgan, keep running?
Mad Dog Morgan is, simply put, a beautiful movie. It’s a thoughtful work without ever resorting to either sermonizing, demonizing or worst of all, the arch-demon of pretension. Daniel Morgan the historical figure is a folk hero but Dennis Hopper’s Morgan is both hero and a good, flawed soul forced to resort to violence and a life of crime in an absolutely unforgiving landscape. This is a man who didn’t act out of greed or sociopathic thrills, but instead survival and a rage towards a system that had little heart towards its lower classes. It’s very revealing that the real villains in the film are the upper classmen who can afford to look down on men like Daniel because they’ve never had to really struggle. He’s the one outraged at real injustices, like racism and workers being treated like near-slave by bosses whose pockets are lined with gold and nary a drop of their own sweat.
In fact, something that both the Hopper version and the real life Morgan did was they would force a lot of work camp bosses to give their employees extra money, food and rest breaks. This is the act of someone who is fundamentally not a bloodthirsty bastard but someone who could have done even more good if he had been born in a better time and in a better land. Classism still exists without a doubt but nothing can compare with what a lot of people’s ancestors went through 100, 200, 300 and more years ago.
Visually, this film is a love song to rural Australia, boasting some color rich cinematography from Mike Molloy, who has worked on films ranging from Performance (1970) to the extremely underrated Rocky Horror not-a-sequel-but-equal Shock Treatment (1981). The landscape looks alternately lush and harsh, which sums up the reality of Australia as a whole.
The pacing is very reminiscent of the works of Werner Herzog, where it is leisurely without being lazy or inconsiderate of the viewer. It is the porridge that Goldilocks chose. The same can be said for the music, which is a mix of a rich score by Patrick Flynn and some amazing aboriginal music and sounds courtesy of David Gulpilil.
Speaking of Mr.Gulpili, he is extremely likeable and charismatic as Morgan’s sole true friend and watcher. Sadly, he’s probably best known in the States for doing films like Crocodile Dundee (1986), but he has actually had an impressive career. In addition to his turn here, he starred in Nicholas Roeg’s early classic Walkabout (1971). Much like this movie, he deserves more love over here.
That said, this is undoubtedly Dennis Hopper’s show, which is a blessing for us because he is unflappingly great as Morgan. Everyone and their momma knows that he can pull off wild-eyed and insane better than anyone this side of Klaus Kinski, but what Hopper nails beautifully is the vulnerability of this man. One of the most standout moments is when he wanders alone in a little tavern and is approached sexually by the bar maid there while her creepy mother sits alone in the corner. “Mad Dog” is a total gentleman and gently turns her down; explaining that the only woman he has ever seen naked was his late mother. He then quietly exits. The subtle emotion in Hopper’s face is perfect, capturing the mixture of temptation, trauma and loss. If this had been a Hollywood picture, he not only would have bedded her but probably would have lived happily ever after and had a brood of little “mad” puppies running around, stinking up the front yard. Dennis Hopper, whether you love or hate him, is one of the best actors to have come out in the last 50 years and that talent shines brightly in Mad Dog Morgan.
Mora, who is best known for his delightfully fun and occasionally campy films like The Return of Captain Invincible (1983) and one of my personal faves, Howling II: Stirba-Werewolf Bitch (1985), handles the material like a total professional. Balancing art and history can be a sticky wicket, as evidenced by a legion of films that have gotten it wrong, wrong, wrong. (Yes, Kevin Costner, someone is giving you the side-eye and it’s me!) But Mora demonstrates nothing but respect and creativity towards the material, with the highlight being one effective and nightmarish vision of Morgan’s.
Now given the seriousness of this film and how masterful it really is, having a company like Troma release it honestly seems really bizarre. Don’t get me wrong, I love Troma and at one point even had a poster for Terror Firmer (1999) proudly displayed in my bedroom. But when you think Troma, poetic historical films from Australia do not immediately come to mind. Where is Criterion? Yet, another company I generally adore, but why release dreck like Armageddon (1998) or Chasing Amy (1997), when real gems like this have languished for years? Their loss, however, is Troma’s gain and they have actually done a decent job with this release.
In addition to the film finally coming out uncut, you also get a veritable bonanza of extras. To the point that this is a two-disc release, which includes trailers, theatrical programs, a radio interview with Mora, deleted scenes, a location featurette, audio commentary with Mora, video interviews with Mike Molloy, associate producer Richard Brennan and Mora himself. The real treat, however, is a sit-down talk between Mora and Dennis Hopper. The big highlight is Mora recounting how he flew down to Mexico where Hopper had been living, only to be greeted at the airport by the actor wielding a shotgun and driving a bullet hole ridden truck. Hearing Hopper cackle over this bit of story is worth viewing alone. Troma have really out-done themselves here and have actually managed not to foul up anything with their brand imagery, though you do get a handful of Troma trailers. But compared to, say, something like their release of Argento’s last great masterpiece, The Stendahl Syndrome (1996), this is a massive step up.
Mad Dog Morgan is a film ripe for rediscovery and while others waste their time with bad Hollywood Oscar-baiting tripe, do yourself a favor and pick up the real deal. This is a brilliant, brilliant film.