“People don’t believe in heroes anymore”
With all the coverage received by the new trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road I thought it was time to look back at the original 1979 movie. Many people associate Mad Max with the sequels Mad Max 2 (1981), subtitled The Road Warrior in America, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and have forgotten the original movie.
“A few years from now” in a unspecified place the MFP are the traffic police who maintain order on the streets. Cop, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) becomes the target of a biker gang after he is involved in the pursuit of an escaped killer calling himself The Nightrider (Vince Gil). When he loses everything, Max goes out to seek revenge.
As described in the opening title card, the film is set “A few years from now”, it isn’t the apocalyptic world where the desert has reclaimed the world. A lot of Mad Max is set in relatively lush green scrubland. It is the beginning of the “maelstrom of decay” described in Mad Max 2. The world isn’t going out with a bang, humanity is slowly giving up as the gangs take over and the world is tearing itself apart. Is the film set in a dystopia on fringes of society or in a future on the brink of collapse? This is never really made clear, but in many ways the film is all the better for it. In a vast landscape filled with nomadic motorists the traffic cops are the only thing keeping the world in check and hanging on to civilisation, they are the heroes that Fifi (Roger Ward) refers to.
So the film isn’t an apocalyptic nightmare, that’s the second and third films, but is it the violent revenge thriller that it is labelled? It does have its violent moments but most of those aren’t actually shown, they are surprisingly off camera, probably for budgetary reasons. I am not convinced if released now it would receive the 18 certificate it got on its original release. Is it then an observations on the effects of the 70’s oil crisis’ on Australian motorists? Is it an existentialist look at what people do to cling to their humanity and the idea of society? The film is less than ninety minutes long but still manages to devote more than ten minutes to the opening chase scene. Only the final twenty minutes makes up the revenge story that the film is known for. Any meaning we may be looking for is most clearly observed in the scene where Max wants to quit, he admits to Fifi that he is scared, not scared of what could happen to him, but scared that he may start to enjoy it, scared that he is going to become a “terminal crazy”, this is kind of what we see. As Max, the innocent and good man gives up on society in favour of revenge, society itself gives up and we see the results in Mad Max 2. So does that make it a cautionary tale against lawlessness? Am I reading too much into it, at it is merely a visceral tale loss and revenge designed just to entertain on the most base of levels?
Director, George Miller claimed the films budget was around $400,000. Made in a pre CGI time this resulted in a very inventive movie that makes the most of its money. This is what I love so much about the film, it’s a genre film like Roger Corman and early Walter Hill, it’s a film that is improved by its limitations not constrained by them, it is a film directors like Michael Bay, McG and James Cameron should revisit, they could learn something. The real draw for the film is Mel Gibson, at 23 he was an unknown, with one movie and a couple of TV credits behind him. Given the baggage he now carries with him, it is easy to forget what a charismatic and likeable star Gibson was back then. Demonstrating the lighter and comic part of the film with the same ease as the more hollow shell of a man set on a path of revenge. He manages to bring a sense of despair and melancholy to the part.
The legacy of Mad Max and the apocalyptic movies set in sand covered landscapes that have imitated and been inspired by it probably belongs to Mad Max 2 and not to this film. In the 35 years since its original release there hasn’t been another film quite like Mad Max, not even its sequels. With David Michôd’s The Rover just opening and Fury Road due out next may, now is a perfect time to remind yourself of the original Mad Max.