In January 2010, Dennis Hopper was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer, which was in an advanced state and had spread to his bones. At roughly the same time, I was lucky enough to view the documentary Not Quite Hollywood, a retrospective concerning Ozlpoitation fiilms, an intriguing and insightful doc concerning the Australian film industry and its bid for international recognition during the 70s and 80s. This film brought to my attention a rather curious Dennis Hopper vehicle called Mad Dog Morgan. Said film was produced by Australian investors, with a B-movie director (Philippe Mora, who preceded to craft such cinematic abortions as Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch and Howling III), I wasn’t expecting much. To my surprise, Mad Dog Morgan delivered on all fronts. It functions as a comedy, a tragedy, an exploitation film, a period drama, a western, and finally (and most importantly) a work of art. It is truly a credit to Hopper’s skills as an actor that he rises above the source material he is given and creates a character both brutally violent and beautifully flawed and imperfect. Sadly, Mr. Hopper’s time grows short, and we begin to brace ourselves for the loss of a man who helped to define a generation.
Mad Dog Morgan is based on the true story of John Fuller (aka Dan Morgan), an Australian bushranger (the outback equivalent of the outlaw gunslingers that roamed the western United States at the close of the 19th century), a fairly irredeemable individual who shot game and man with equal disregard, yet lived by a code whose particulars were known only to himself. He eventually met his end at the hands of police while trying to escape from the house of a family he had recently held hostage in 1864. The film paints a much more sympathetic picture of Morgan than his real world exploits do, yet one must remember while viewing the film that this is less a historical retelling than it is a dramatic character study, seeking to delve into the mind of a character that would rather reject civilization than continue to exist in the maelstrom of its hypocrisy.
Hopper is a force to be reckoned with here, jumping face first into the most brutal and savage creature that vaguely resembles a human being ever committed to celluloid. Oh, he certainly walks upright and speaks in complete sentences, yet there is something in Hopper’s performance that radiates something primordially feral, a thing so far removed from what the average human experience constitutes. Throughout the drama of the narrative we understand how Morgan came to this point. This film contains one of the most disturbing male rape scenes this writer can remember being forced to endure in some time (albeit shot with considerable care and not intended to be titillating or exploitative), committed against the title character, thus giving the audience a window into the experiences that eventually drove Dan Morgan to become the man-beast that we encounter latter in the film.
Eventually the film devolves into Australian law enforcement hunting Morgan, his criminal exploits becoming a public nuisance and embarrassment. At his point, Hopper’s acting is what keeps the viewer enthralled as the film reaches its logical conclusion. Frankly, “acting” is a very liberal description of what Hopper doe on screen. He inhabits Morgan; is possessed by his renegade spirit. Reportedly, Hopper got into the character of Morgan during the shoot by downing 151 proof rum every day, and it shows. The man is visibly crab-hammered through the entirety of the film. This actually serves him well, as the real life Morgan was a complete fall-down drunk.
Mad Dog Morgan is a forgotten treasure of exploitation cinema, and a remarkable film even when viewed outside of genre conventions. Dennis Hopper delivers some of the best acting of his career, despite an all time low, both professionally and personally. At a point when Hopper’s alcohol and drug abuse had become the stuff of legend, he turned in a performance so striking that the film was awarded the John Ford Memorial Award for Best Western at the Canes Film Festival in 1976. Nowhere else can you view such an complete encapsulation of the violence and mayhem that plagued Hopper’s life while watching him rise above it and convey possibly the most honest and pure performance of his career.
– Adam Rosina