This is only the second installment of Western Wednesday, and I believe I have already seen the messiest and strangest film that ever boasted a horse, a pistol, and a sunset: Mad Dog Morgan. It was a toss-up between Morgan and The Ox-Bow Incident, but I had a thirst for some Ozploitation, and Morgan is a pretty legendary piece of Australian filmmaking.
It also seemed like a good idea to expand the cinematic frontier early on in this feature, and visit a place that has a remarkably similar history. Americans tend to think that the myth of the Wild Wild West is theirs, and theirs alone – and it certainly is, but Australia enjoyed a settlement experience that was just as violent and lawless as our own. They just had kangaroos instead of buffalo, and convicts instead of hardy pioneers.
One thing America and Australia would appear to have in common is an idolization of outlaws. We’ve got Jesse James and Billy the Kid, whereas they have Ned Kelly and Daniel “Mad Dog” Morgan. Now, I think Americans view outlaws as romantic figures, living outside of the pale, and away from the man. We rewrite some of them into Robin Hood figures, but we’re usually content to let them represent nothing but robbery. Australian bush rangers like Kelly and Morgan represent a strike against English colonialism, and they become folk heroes, despite that they didn’t do anything particularly worthy of the people. When you’re a country of ex-convicts, there’s probably a greater tendency to worship anyone who shoots an official.
But I’m giving Mad Dog Morgan too much credit. To be fair to the film I haven’t yet looked into the real Dan Morgan, but I’m willing to bet he bears little resemblance to the unhinged character played by Dennis Hopper. I don’t think Hopper’s Morgan could truly survive one day in the bush, let alone successfully rob someone. He’d bake to death, waving his gun at a tree stump, and babbling in an Oirish accent. Then again, his nickname is Mad Dog. Maybe Hopper was onto something.
Now, that sounds like I had expectations of a serious and historical biopic. Not at all. I knew it was going to be pure pulp. I’ve seen Not Quite Hollywood, I’ve heard the horror stories of Hopper’s drunken behavior, and I’ve watched a few scenes. Nevertheless, I was still unprepared for how crazy Morgan is. I honestly thought the scenes I’d watched were rehearsal footage, and I suspect they were.
There’s a sense that they just left the camera running, let Hopper shout into it, and built the film out of whatever they had. It’s hilarious and terrifying, an incoherent journey that makes you feel as though you’ve been in the sun too long. Every scene feels like an exercise in “Did I hear that right? What did I just see? Why isn’t Hopper dead of alcohol poisoning?”
The scenery is beautiful though, and it’s amusing how much the story mirrors your average outlaw film, right down to the native companion. The only thing it’s missing is the obligatory love affair with a saloon girl, and “Morgan” makes a point of tempting the Irishman with just such an encounter. It’s actually a very embarrassing and awkward scene that Hopper could have really nailed if he had felt like it. Even his drunken effort is pretty good.
If you decide to watch Morgan, don’t do it alone. It’s begging to be watched with a lot of beer and friends who will laugh at Hopper’s fake beard and angry eyes. If you love bad movies and grind house cinema, you’ll enjoy every minute. If you don’t, steer clear (though I recommend you check out Not Quite Hollywood just to catch a glimpse), and wait for me to recommend something more traditional.