The film Easy Rider (1969) made its director and star Dennis Hopper, and the film’s producer and co-star Peter Fonda, counter-cultural icons of the late 1960s. The film’s minuscule budget, roaring box office success, and critical acclaim paved the way for a movement within Hollywood that would change the direction of filmmaking for the next decade. Accordingly, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda could now write their own tickets in the New Hollywood environment. The distributors of Easy Rider, Universal Studios, were happy to supply the—then unprecedented—one million dollars and cede complete creative control to each of these lucrative stars for their next film projects.
In 1971, Fonda chose to direct and star in The Hired Hand, a lyrical, slow-burning revisionist western. In it, he played a roaming cowboy, returned home after seven years away from his wife. Hopper took his million dollars to the high mountains of Peru to make The Last Movie (1971), a drug-infused tale of madness, paranoia, and the negative effect of moviemaking on indigenous peoples. As well as directing the picture, Hopper played the main role of Kansas, a movie stuntman who stays behind once his production company has left and goes native with the local Peruvian people. Seeing some sort of magic in the movies, the natives begin to re-enact the violent scenes they have witnessed, with tragic consequences. Both films, although brave, and in some quarters critically acclaimed, were commercial disasters. The Last Movie won the Critic Prize at that year’s Venice Film festival, but its original New York run lasted only two weeks. Hopper had longed to be a creative director of his own movies, one who would challenge the mainstream status quo and engage the audiences in social commentary. With the failure of The Last Movie, it seemed his dream was shattered. He exiled himself in his New Mexico compound and waited for Hollywood to come crawling back for his bankability, or to catch up with his artistic vision. Neither of these things happened for a very long time.
However, contrary to popular belief, Dennis Hopper did not spend the 1970s rotting away in Taos, New Mexico, licking his wounds after the disappointment of The Last Movie. Hopper’s supposed second round of exile from Hollywood (the first being his expulsion from the 1958 film From Hell to Texas by director Henry Hathaway over the delivery of a line of dialogue) was actually a potent time of creativity for Hopper, at least in terms of his acting work. Hopper spent the decade working in American independent movies such as the western comedy Kid Blue (1971), the Henry Jaglom directed Tracks (1975), and European art house films such as the German production The American Friend (1977 ), the French Flesh Color (1978), and the Australian film Mad Dog Morgan (1976). No actor at the time would dare to duplicate this kind of diversity.
However, in retrospect, it’s hard to be certain if this was Hopper’s intention or just a means to keep the food (and the booze and drugs) on the table. It is impossible not to admire the madness, exuberance and intense method acting ability that Hopper brought to these roles, at a time when he was supposedly creatively washed out. His work during the seventies actually turned out to be a creative zenith for Hopper, perhaps not the one he, or anyone else had envisioned for him, but certainly an example of quality over quantity. (In comparison, the 1990s and 2000s were an extreme example of quantity over quality.) Of Hopper’s dramatic performances during these years, the film Mad Dog Morgan sticks out like a sore thumb for its lunacy as well as for Hopper’s excessive method acting approach to the role of Australian outlaw Daniel Morgan.
The life of Daniel Morgan on film
Daniel Morgan, whose real name was John Fuller, was an outlaw of Irish descent during the Australian gold rush of the mid-1800s. Often described as a victim of circumstance, Morgan was arrested for armed robbery after a group of racist thugs, unhappy with the Chinese presence in their midst, raided the gold field where Morgan was working. He escaped the raid, but without the most basic supplies for survival, he held up a group of horsemen at gunpoint, in order to take their spare clothes and blankets. He was, however, apprehended. In this era, colonial judges in Australia often handed out extremely long sentences for even petty crimes in order to secure the manual labor required to build the roads and support the nation’s developing infrastructure. Morgan served six years of a twelve-year sentence.
As depicted in the film, his prison experience is severe; along with the hard labor, Morgan is brutally sodomized by his cellmates, and branded with a hot iron as a malefactor by his sadistic prison guards. After his release, he skips bail, steals a horse (which in those days carried a harsh sentence), and became a bushranger in the outback of New South Wales. Tracked and shot by two rangers, he manages to escape. Badly injured, Morgan is discovered and rescued by an Aboriginal man named Billy. Billy nurses Morgan back to health and teaches him how to survive in the wilds of the outback. They become good friends &mdash and accomplices in many stand-and-deliver robberies.
In the film, at first Morgan is only seen as a slight irritant—his pilfering rarely leaves anyone hurt, and he is determined not to become a killer. The police set out to track him, but Morgan always manages to remain one step ahead of the law. Unfortunately, after drinking an unwise amount of rum, he holds up Round Hill Station, demands, a fresh horse and whilst mounting the new steed his pistol accidentally discharges.
Convinced he is being fired upon, Morgan pulls out his pistol and began firing randomly, injuring one of his captives in the process. Fired up on rum, he orders the station master Sam Watson to stand still so he can execute him. Watson’s wife pleads with Morgan to spare her husband’s life, instead he orders Watson to raise his hand in the air, shattering it by firing into it a point blank range. Morgan, finally, begins to feel some remorse—or at least some concern—for the consequences of his brutal actions, and sends a young station hand, John McLean, to fetch a doctor from a nearby town. But shortly after McLean leaves on horseback, Morgan begins to fear that the man will return not with a medical doctor, but with the police. So Morgan gives chase, catching up and shooting McLean in the back. Though Morgan does bring him back to the station, McLean dies from his wounds.
After this incident, it becomes new priority for the police force to track down Daniel Morgan. He continues to evade the police on many occasions. On 24 July, Morgan approaches two police officers on horseback, who are tracking him in the bush. For seemingly no reason, he shoots and kills one of the sergeants; the other flees and is later dismissed for cowardice. After this incident the reward on Morgan’s head rose to 1000, a fortune in the day. Hounded by the police, and with the public now turning against him for the chance at the reward money, Morgan becomes desperate. When he crosses the border into Victoria, takes the affluent McPherson family hostage on their farm. Morgan, distracted by drunkenness, does not notice when a young nursemaid runs for help, leading the police and a group of civilians to surround the estate. Morgan is finally shot in the back by John Wendlan, an employee of the Macpherson’s. Once dead, Morgan is stretched out on the ground and photographed as proof of his demise.
Dennis Hopper’s performance
Dennis Hopper’s performance as Daniel Morgan ranges from hysterical to forlorn. It explores snippets of painful sadness, extreme wildness, and human tenderness. While the film remains a schizophrenic historical representation of Daniel Morgan, it is an authentic performance from Dennis Hopper, and a sincere take on Australian mythology by an American legend wrapped up in his own mythical persona.
There are some stand-out scenes in the film which contradict the fearsome and terrifying image of an out-of-control animal that the New South Wales Police tried to project on Morgan. In private, Morgan is represented as a gentle, thoughtful man, despite suffering years of abuse by the penal system. This is best depicted after Morgan is saved and nursed back to health by Billy (David Gulpilil), an indigenous man. As Billy talks about his ancestry and the acts of violence against his people, Morgan places his hand on Billy’s shoulder and sincerely whispers “I love you, and I’ll always be your friend.” The moment is not given any more credence then a simple gesture from one friend to another, but in contrast to the acts of violence of which Morgan is capable, it is a poignant moment in which Hopper projects a genuine-felt care and compassion for his savior and mentor. Later, as Morgan takes shelter at a family-owned restaurant, the daughter of the house reveals her breasts to him, claiming to know who he is. Morgan gazes at her exposed breasts and with a glistening tear in his eyes, shamefully confesses to never having seen a naked woman since his own mother, when he was just a small child. He exits the room, taking his shame and confusion with him. Again, while this is a mere moment of calm and vulnerability within the broader context of the plot, it serves to reiterate the true complexity of Morgan’s character in the face of image perceived by both the police and the public. Hopper remains subtle in these more peaceful moments, but when Morgan’s mood changes, which it does often, Hopper ups the extravagance and swings from two extremes.
It’s refreshing to witness Hopper pull out all the stops, and sink so effortlessly into a role of such intensity. The use of method acting in Mad Dog Morgan is extreme to say the least; the copious amount of rum Hopper consumed in order to portray Morgan helped to create a realistic, unsteady performance.
The film’s impact
Mad Dog Morgan came at a time when the Australian film industry was beginning to gain recognition. What followed in the subsequent years was an explosion of the so-called Oz-ploitation films, a genre of bloody, violent and dystopian Australian movies such as Mad Max (1979) starring Mel Gibson, and Turkey Shoot (1982). These gave way to more thoughtful films such as the Nick Cave penned The Proposition (2005), and to all-out horror like Wolf Creek (2005) and Rogue (2007). All of these films show the isolated landscape of the Australian outback, and revel in extreme violence. Just as Hopper was present at the beginning of the New Hollywood era, he was also a major supporter of the emerging Australian film market, a system that has stayed brazenly independent and controversial since its inception.
Mad Dog Morgan remains a vicious film, not dulled in any way by the thirty-five years since it was made. It remains brave and honest in its depiction not only of the men who built the modern Australia, but of the Aboriginal peoples and the harsh and often criminal abuse bestowed upon them by their colonist counterparts.