In Australia during the 1850s, there was one so-called bushranger whose antics struck terror into the populace, and he was Daniel Morgan (Dennis Hopper), known colloquially as Mad Dog. Hailing from Ireland, he had a tough few years as a workman and his lack of racism towards the Chinese community got him into deep trouble when he was spending time at one of their opium dens and was caught up in a massacre which saw his new friend murdered by bigots. But worse was to come, for soon he would spend six years in prison...
All of which experience made him the man we saw in the rest of the movie, which was named after him. Morgan was an actual person, and if this was sounding like the better known film Ned Kelly, in which Mick Jagger made an unintentional mockery of an Aussie folk hero, then rest assured this was a far better film. Under Philippe Mora's direction - he wrote the script as well - the way it turned out may have been rather ramshackle, and indeed it plays artlessly on the screen as if verging on the amateur in places, but it captured a raw sense of place and of history better than many higher budgeted and slicker productions.
At the heart of this was what could be safely described as a committed performance by Hopper, although that did not mean he was much fun to be around during filming. He didn't go as far as shooting people with a clutch of revolvers as the real Morgan had done, but he did get heroically drunk on rum and high on cocaine, all to better interpret the role as he claimed at the time, but mainly because he was a wreck for the whole of this decade. The seventies were something of the wilderness years for Hopper, not well publicised but it's well worth tracking down the movies he made during this era - if you can find them.
Some of these films are better distributed than others, and a few can be considered well nigh essential, not just for Hopper aficionados but for those with an interest in off the wall cinema no matter how casual. Much of that was down to marvelling how the star could actually keep it together for the length of a take, even if the moment "Cut!" was called he was sprawling and staggering all over the place once again. In this case Hopper kept up his Irish accent even when not on camera, which at least displayed dedication, though everyone working with him doubtless wished he had done more in that direction by not getting hammered and occasionally arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour.
Yet here his spacey, out of it performing worked in the role's favour as his Morgan does come across as a genuine outsider, something Mora emphasised by placing the character in surroundings which allied him to groups like the Aborigines, as embodied by Australian cinema's most visible representative, David Gulpilil, playing the only friend Morgan really has after he's raped and abused in prison, shunned by society on his release, and eventually shot for no good reason whereupon the native nurses him back to health. There wasn't much of a plot here, more a ramble from one scene to the next, but this shaky grasp of narrative proved as distinctive for the lead character as any number of shots of the rolling scenery or exchanges between corrupt authorities who bully or cajole their way through the population depending on their class status. Yes, Mad Dog Morgan was rough and ready, but it contained a spirit which makes it plain to see why it gathered the cult following it did. Music by Patrick Flynn, with contributions by Gulpilil.