Though he may not be as internationally well-known as Ned Kelly, Dan “Mad Dog” Morgan was one of the most infamous bushrangers in 19th century Australia. Much as with the outlaws of American west, it is sometimes difficult to separate the fact from the legend when it comes to Mad Dog Morgan but it is agreed with Morgan has one of the most violent and bloodiest careers of the bushrangers. Whether Morgan was a folk hero or just a ruthless criminal depends on which source you choose to believe.
In Mad Dog Morgan, Dennis Hopper plays Morgan as being the ultimate outsider. Though the real Morgan was believed to have been born to Irish immigrants in New South Wales, the film presents Morgan as being the immigrant, an Irishman who ends up in Australia searching for gold and who is disgusted when he sees the way that the colonial authorities run the country. Addicted to opium and angered by the casual brutality and corruption that he sees all around him, Morgan fights back and soon ends up in prison where he spends years being abused and raped. It is all intended to break his spirit but, instead, Morgan comes out of prison even more determined to seek revenge on any and all figures of authority. Working with a fellow outsider, an Aborigine named Billy (David Gulpilil, from Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout), Morgan blazes a bloody and self-destructive trail across Australia.
Mad Dog Morgan was made long before Hopper cleaned up his act and became on of America’s favorite character actors. This is Hopper back when he was still one of the most unpredictable and dangerous actors around. By many accounts, Hopper was in the throes of drug-induced psychosis during the filming of Mad Dog Morgan, which makes it all the more remarkable that Hopper still gave one of his best performances as the legendary bushranger. (For proof of how authentic Hopper feels in the role, compare his performance to Mick Jagger’s in Ned Kelly.) Hopper was an outlaw playing an outlaw and his full commitment to the role is obvious from the start. Featuring brutal action and a cast of talented Australian character actors, (Jack Thompson, Bruce Spence, Bill Hunter, and Hugh Keays-Byrne all have roles) Mad Dog Morgan is an essential film for fans of both Australian cinema and Dennis Hopper.