Friday, December 4, 2009


Few historical figures have received as much cinematic attention as the American Western Outlaw, exemplified by such figures as Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, and perhaps most famously by Jesse James and his gang. The fascination with these characters began during their lifetimes with pulp adventure books and serialized newspaper stories detailing their latest raids, glossing over their literal brutality in favor of the idealized romanticism of the folk hero. It was natural that the movies would take up their legends, and it could be argued that the popular fascination with these figures (and the do-gooding lawmen who pursued them) played a major role in the popularization of the fledgling movie industry. Just think of the number of silent serials and early talky features were Westerns, and you can easily see what I mean.

You might be aware that Australian history boasts an analogous folk hero figure, the Bushranger, whose popularity was similarly influential in the development of that country's cinema. Like their American cousins the bushrangers robbed banks, stage coaches, and unwary travelers, afterwards retreating to the bush where authorities were reticent or flatly unable to follow. The most famous bushranger was undoubtedly Ned Kelly, who has been the subject of dozens of films, including The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), which at 70 mins. long was in fact the first feature-length film ever made in any country.

Only slightly less famous than Kelly in bushranger lore was Dan "Mad Dog" Morgan, whose heavy drinking, violent temper, and brutal crimes did little to stem the spread of his reputation as a folk hero in 1860s Australia. In 1976 director Philippe Mora (whose subsequent work includes horror outings The Beast Within [1982] and The Howling II & III) directed a version of Morgan's life story with iconic American movie madman Dennis Hopper in the lead role. The resulting flick, Mad Dog Morgan, has been lauded as a classic of Ozsploitation cinema and has just been released in a 2-disc special edition by Troma Retro as part of their "Tromasterpiece" collection.

"Hotsy Totsy!"

The film starts with Morgan working in a gold camp during the Australian Gold Rush of the mid 1800s, already raising hell and picking fights with musclebound Germans in Prussian military helmets. This is of course a bad idea--when Morgan and a friend visit the Chinese side of camp to ride the dragon for a while, the German and his racist buddies invade and set the camp on fire, killing most of the Chinese workers and blowing a hole in Morgan's friend's head that you could toss a baby koala through. Morgan escapes the camp with his life, turning to a life of crime to support himself.

It's not long before his robbing ways lead him to a prison cell in New South Wales, where he is tortured, branded, and raped by a gang of Ozzie rugby players by way of initiation. Whether through fear or PTSD this makes Morgan mind his manners for the next six years, after which he's paroled. He immediately returns to his life of crime, only now he seems set on avenging the wrongs done to him on the local police, the upper crusts, and anyone else who's unfortunate enough to cross his path.

"Yer acid or yer life!"

Of course the Australian outback is an unforgiving place, and Morgan comes near perishing from exposure before he's rescued by Aborigine Billy (David Gulpilil), who teaches him to survive and becomes his sidekick and partner in crime, sort of the Tonto to Morgan's Lone Ranger. Together they rob ranchers, engage in gunfights with police, hole up with sympathizers and other outlaws, and generally wreak episodic havoc for the rest of the movie's running time.

Along the way Morgan grows a series of impressive beards (the first to emulate American President Abraham Lincoln--not because he admires his politics, but because he thinks, quite simply, "That's a fine lookin' man!"), matches wits with and thwarts a series of NSW police officers, and drinks amazing amounts of liquor. When the authorities in Victoria boast that should Morgan cross the border into their territory he will be "relentlessly and mercilessly cut down," he takes it as a challenge, leading to a tense and bloody conclusion to his rum-soaked and bloody career.

At the time of its release the film was considered incredibly shocking, mostly because of the depiction of prison rape and a couple of gore scenes. This might seem quaint to the modern viewer, since the gore is relatively understated (with the exception of the stand-out EXPLODING HEAD early on in the opium den), and the rape scene is hardly explicit (not that this is necessarily a bad thing). Also, the episodic nature of the film makes it feel repetitive after a while, with Morgan robbing/shooting someone, running from police, fighting/outsmarting them, and then starting the whole process again. There's some stuff thrown in here and there about Darwin's theories of evolution and whether Morgan is a man or an animal, whether nature or nurture has made him the beast he is, but I really didn't see it going anywhere.


Which is not to say the movie isn't worth watching--Mora gets some beautiful shots of the Australian scenery, and a periodically stylish composition will make many cineastes happy. A few of the supporting characters turn in good performances, most notably Gulpilil as Morgan's Aboriginal partner and bald baddie Frank Thring as Superintendent Cobham of the Victoria territory, who invests every line with a snakelike intensity and menace.

But of course the real reason to watch the movie is for Dennis Hopper's performance as Morgan. Hopper is clearly inebriated throughout his performance, which in an interview on the disc he shrugs off as part of his "method" acting, since Morgan was notoriously alcoholic. While I'm not sure this makes for a convincing performance, it certainly makes for an entertaining one, particularly with Hopper affecting a slurred Irish brogue that's only slightly more convincing than the amazing array of fake beards he's called upon to wear throughout the film. (The beards serve a storytelling purpose--their length and style denotes the passage of time.)

Not so beardy...

Abraham Beardy...

Ultimate Beardy

The film print is in pretty bad shape, with pops and scratches extremely noticeable (indeed, un-ignorable) in many scenes. However, Troma Team makes up for it with an impressive number of extras, including several interviews, all of which eventually drift away from the movie and into recollections of Hopper's legendary drunken misadventures. Best of all is a long interview/conversation with director Mora and Dennis Hopper himself, looking much cleaner and more in-control, who has a surprising amount of recall considering his altered state during the filming. (I'm honestly surprised Hopper remembers ANYTHING before 1980.) Tales of Hopper's antics include his visiting the real Dan Morgan's grave, chug-a-lugging a fifth of rum, and then trying to tear up the graveyard, only to be arrested and expelled from Victoria, ostensibly for life. Mora seems more interested in talking with Hopper about Easy Rider and the end of the Free Love era than about the movie at hand, but really, it's probably more informative and entertaining.

Overall this is a fine release from Troma Team, and if you have an interest in Ozsploitation cinema, bushrangers in history, or Dennis Hopper's career, you should definitely check it out.

Told you it was a bad idea.

Full disclosure: a copy of this DVD was provided to the Vicar for reviewing purposes. Apparently the FCC wants you to know.


Jenn said...

I don't have much experience with Ozploitation, but I am very interested in an astonishing array of fake beards, as well as the career of one Dennis Hopper. Sooooo, I might just have to watch this based on that. And if you recommend it.....

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Jenn--"Recommend" is perhaps a strong I say, it gets a bit repetitive and drags somewhat, even with Hopper's drunkiness. If you rent the 2-disc edition, disc 2 is really where the gold is, with all the interviews and reminiscences.

But if you like the incessant, spine-rattling drone of didgeridoo music, this is the movie for you. There's lots of it. I mean...LOTS. :P

Anonymous said...

I'm a steadfast believer that there's hardly a movie made that can't be improved with an exploding head shot.
Anyone aware of an online database of Exploding Head Movies?
Note to Messrs. D. and V.: This might be a worthy addition to your blog. Of course we'd need screen grabs from each of the Moment of Excitement (MoE).
Off the top of my... er, head, I can think of Videodrome, The Fly (Cronenberg's), Evil Dead 2, Mad Dog Morgan, obviously... Others?

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Geo--of course the Exploding Head to End All Others is in SCANNERS. Off the top of my presently-intact cranium, I know Tom Savini explodes his own head in MANIAC, Erin Moran (TV's Joanie Cunningham!) pops her top in GALAXY OF TERROR, and a topless teen goes Mt. Etna in Vicar Fave CHOPPING MALL.

I haven't started a database, but I do try to tag all movies in which such fireworks appear with the EXPLODING HEAD blog tag. Happy hunting!

Anonymous said...

Scanners -- of course; I mistakenly listed Videodrome. Cronenberg on the (about to blow) noggin', I guess.
Thanks for the tip on the Exploding Head tag. Been meaning to check out Chopping Mall since your review. One more reason now.

watch legion movie online said...

I like to read your post but i don't have much more experience with ozploitation...

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