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Friday, 24 November, 2000, 13:49 GMT
Australia's most lethal export
Chopper graphic
At the height of his criminal career Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read was the most dangerous criminal in Australia. His life is told in a film opening in the UK this weekend. BBC News Online's Chris Summers reports.

Like Ned Kelly a century before him, Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read is an Australian folk hero.

He now says he has "retired" to Tasmania after a long and bloody career in the Melbourne underworld.

Ned Kelly
Ned Kelly...despite the beard, he was only 25 when he died
But his former life has been committed to celluloid perpetuity. Chopper stars Eric Bana - better known even in his homeland as a stand-up comedian.

Director Andrew Dominik based his screenplay on Read's own autobiographical books.

The books, based on letters Read wrote from jail to crime journalist John Silvester, have sold more than 400,000 copies, in a country where 10,000 makes a bestseller.

They are said to be the most popular books in the country among shoplifters.

It's a violent film and lots of people wanted to dislike it because of the subject matter.

John Silvester, crime journalist
The film has been controversial because its main character is a career criminal who, by his own admission, has killed several people.

In 1987 Read was acquitted - on the grounds of self-defence - of killing drug dealer Siam "Sammy the Turk" Ozerkam after shooting him through the eye outside a nightclub.

Razor blades

Read, whose nickname comes from a TV cartoon character, robbed massage parlours and took on contracts to maim and kill rivals throughout the 1970s.

He also cut out a career as a "stand over man", robbing drug dealers and other criminals who were unable to report him to the police.

He would sometimes force his victims to chew razor blades if they refused to hand over cash.

As he wrote to Mr Silvester: "Why rob a straight guy of $20 when you can rob a drug dealer of $10,000 and he can't go running to the police?"

Chopper Read
Chopper Read had a "phenomenal" ability to withstand pain

His reputation for being able to withstand unbearable pain was embellished when, in an attempt to get a transfer from Melbourne's tough Pentridge jail, he persuaded a cellmate to slice off both ears with razor blades.

He was freed from jail in 1986 and began demanding money from fellow criminals by strapping a stick of gelignite to his own chest and threatening to blow them both up.

He was jailed again in 1990 and first made contact with Mr Silvester after the latter wrote a derogatory article about him in Melbourne's Age newspaper.

Mr Silvester said when he met Read he was a revelation.

'It's all true'

He told BBC News Online: "A lot of criminals had written books, or spoken to the papers, but they had always said they were 'misunderstood' or had a difficult childhood.

"Read did none of that. He was saying 'Everything you say about me - multiply it by 10 and I've done it all'."

Mr Silvester said a lot of people in Australia had trouble with the film, especially as it involves a scene in which Read beats up his then girlfriend.

Eric Bana
Eric Bana had to have special make up to cover up his ears for the part
Rupert Murdoch's Fox corporation condemned the film and several cinema owners refused to show it.

They protested against government funding a film that glamourised the actions of "a moronic, low-life thug".

Mr Silvester says: "It's a violent film and lots of people wanted to dislike it because of the subject matter. But it does not show Read in a particularly good light.

Box office hit

"He was enormously uncomfortable when he watched it. He told me 'I must have been insane'."

Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, Chopper was a box office smash.

It was the first restricted 18-rated film to become an Australian box-office number one.

Bana as Read
Bana perfectly encapsulated Chopper's personality
Part of the success was no doubt due to Read's charisma and dark humour, which Bana managed to portray so well.

Read himself recalls one incident: "There was one case in court where the judge gave me two and a half years and I said: 'Two and a half years? How am I going to hold my head up with two and a half years?'

"I said: 'I blew that bloke's leg off. Two and a half years? I'm not leaving here until I get at least three.'

"And the judge said: 'You take your two and a half years and be happy with it.' The media were falling about the place."

Bana told BBC's Film 2000 website: "I never felt pressured to come up with some kind of definitive explanation, or judgement of him.

"It's like someone you might hate in the media, but then you hear they're a really nice person but you actually don't want to know about it. It's the same with Chopper."

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17 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
Ned Kelly's skull resurfaces
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