The first action Dennis Hopper takes in the 1976 film Mad Dog Morgan mixes compassion with violence. While trying, and largely failing, to get rich off a mid-19th-century Australian gold rush, he watches a policeman abuse a Chinese immigrant, and he registers his protest with his fists. Before long, the powers that be answer his kindness with a bloody show of force that he barely escapes. It’s a pattern he’ll follow for the rest of his short life.
A bushranger—Australia’s equivalent of an Old West outlaw—Hopper becomes an unstable rebel hero thanks to his unrestrained performance and director Philippe Mora, who uses him as a vehicle to make the Australian equivalent of a revisionist Western. Part of a wave of films that made the world notice Australian filmmaking had come into its own in the 1970s, Mad Dog Morgan is a film of blood, dirt, sprawling vistas, and a well-placed disrespect for authority. At one point, a dandified lawman who knows just enough Darwin to get in trouble muses about the possible relationship between outlaws like Hopper, and gorillas. But for all of the scenes of a rum-fueled Hopper ranting and robbing, the barbarity is pretty one-sided in Mora’s film. Imprisoned, raped, and let loose to make his way in a world filed with dishonest landowners and corrupt authority, Morgan rebels in a way that looks like someone turning over the tables of a rigged game.
It also gives him a companion in the form of another wilderness-dwelling outcast, a half-white/half-aborigine wanderer (dancer/musician David Gulpill, a fixture in Australian films from Walkabout to Australia), with whom he forms a companionable bond he never found possible in civilized company. Hopper plays Mad Dog Morgan as a misfit weirdo, a man more at home under the stars than under a roof. While Hopper probably couldn’t have played him any other way at that stage of his career, the interpretation fits perfectly into the world Mora creates, one in which a cruel conspiracy of bad luck and inequity easily explains the character’s retreat into madness. Using lightning-quick edits and transitions that leap forward minutes or years without explanation, Mora cuts the film almost past the point of comprehension. But the approach is in keeping with the film’s brutal world. This happens, and then that happens, and then bang, it’s over in a flash, leaving the civilized types to write the history of the land, except for the rough edges they can’t smooth away.
Key features: The genial Mora introduces the film, and shows up in various supplements. But the real key feature here is something of a negative. Though Troma has restored the film to its uncut form and proper widescreen aspect ratio for the first time, the sub-YouTube transfer is beneath acceptable. It’s too good a film to look this bad.