MAD MAX (1979) – Balladeer’s Blog’s “Weirdness at the End of the World” takes a look at one of the best movies in the best franchise in the crowded Post-Apocalypse sub-genre.
I recently re-watched this 1979 gem in the full 93 minute Aussie “language” version. Using the sub-titles to make sure I missed nothing from the heavy accents, I was struck once again by how part of the post-apocalyptic atmosphere is filled in via the full text of what the Main Force Patrol radio operators are saying AND by the news reports. Outside of those brief touches Mad Max perfectly embodies the cinematic principle of “show don’t tell.”
In a dying world after a limited nuclear war over oil between world powers, Mad Max is set in a few Australian towns which escaped destruction presumably because they were safely away from strategic sites targeted by missiles. Supplies are tight and citizens are warned not to abuse their food rationing privileges.
Law and order have become very tenuous concepts amid this spreading societal collapse. There is no evidence of anyone except local authorities being in charge, including their law enforcement arm, the Main Force Patrol (MFP) which includes Max Rockatansky, brought to life by Mel Gibson.
Though in real life this sense of no larger government having control may have been a function of the film’s low budget, I find it adds nicely to the uncertain atmosphere. In just a few years the American telefilm The Day After would come close to presenting that same air of confusion about the new state of affairs following a catastrophic war.
Who’s in charge? And who – if anyone – won? Like the opening song One of the Living in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome would later remind us, a very old saying pointed out that following a nuclear war the living would envy the dead.
Getting back to the Main Force Patrol, their “uniform” is the all-black outfit with thigh holsters for their shotguns that became Mad Max’s signature look. Their bronze badges are why the lawless element derisively refers to them as “the bronze.”
(And as another bit of business we at one point hear a public announcement that citizens should not use that derogatory epithet when referring to the MFP officers. Again, we get a hint at the unsettled state of affairs without specifically being TOLD that the communities may be just a few steps away from martial law.)
The Main Force Patrol officers also wear limited body armor, including rugby/football shoulder pads. This look helps give them the feel of Post-Apocalypse Knights with their Interceptor vehicles as their faithful steeds. That appeal is just another nice layer to the MFP’s post-nuke gunslingers aesthetic.
Mad Max is often called a dark futuristic Western. However, not even the grimmest Spaghetti Westerns match this movie’s darkness. In a Western the unsettled state of affairs is headed toward improvement. Civilization is on the upswing as the territory will become more populous and more tamed.
Here civilization is dying. The population – like the supplies – will be decreasing, not increasing. Lawlessness will become more pronounced with the passage of time, not less pronounced. This sense of ultimate hopelessness suffuses every minute of Mad Max.
The start of the movie is masterful under George Miller’s directorial hand. A savage outlaw calling himself Nightrider and his girlfriend have escaped custody, killed an MFP officer and driven off in his official car.
Our post-apocalypse Bonnie and Clyde reach the open road, outmaneuvering the MFP officers converging on them from all directions, leaving some of them in crashed vehicles, dead or injured. All the while Nightrider has been using the stolen vehicle’s MFP radio to taunt the entire force like he’s on a P.A. system.
We now get our first glimpses of Max Rockatansky as he is informed that Nightrider and his woman are approaching his sector. George Miller gives the soon-to-be “Mad” Max a cinematic introduction as iconic as Indiana Jones’ would be in a few years. First we see just parts of Max’s body as he steels himself for the task ahead, no full-face shots.
Miller shows us Rockatansky’s superiority to his fellow officers rather than just have them say he is a badass. The viewer has seen Nightrider and his companion elude and humiliate many other MFP officers. Max, however, dominates their “automobile dogfight” as I call it, to the extent that Nightrider is reduced to a weeping mess right before he and his woman die violently.
In the aftermath we finally get our first full look at Max in the memorable scene where 21 year old Mel Gibson takes off his sunglasses and approaches the hunk of burning, twisted metal in which his quarries have perished. Gibson is like a special effect himself in this movie. He has the kind of screen presence that would have made him a star even in Silent Movies.
We soon see Max unwinding at home with his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and son Sprog (Brendan Heath). Gibson’s leading man qualities really shine here as he melts ladies’ hearts and wins over the entire audience with his obvious regard for his family. You forget how hard it is to seem loving without being schmaltzy until you see Mel’s effortless charm here.
Jessie notes that Max’s on-duty heroics have made the news AGAIN but our hero is more interested in losing himself in domestic bliss. Home life is clearly our protagonist’s means of holding off the nightmarish world closing in out there. The tenderness he finds here is the lone bright spot in the movie’s otherwise relentless despair.
Later we get a further indication of how highly his superiors think of Max when the hulking bald brute of an MFP commander – bizarrely nicknamed Fifi (Roger Ward) – is shown to have finagled his political bosses to spring for a beautiful new V-8 Interceptor for our hero. Fifi relaxes when he sees that this fuel-injected “candy” has caused Max to abandon his recent talk of quitting.
Nightrider’s fellow drugged-out biker gang members want revenge for the death of their comrade. Their leader is a charismatic but depraved and deranged slimeball called Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). This figure becomes our main villain and Hugh’s performance makes him one of the most loathed characters in film history.
The rabid savagery, slobbering madness and casual violence of the gang is a reminder of how prevalent fears of PCP gangs were in the real world around 1979. The dozen or so gang members sport colorful nicknames like Mudguts, Cundalini, Bubba Zanetti, Johnny Boy, etc.
Some of Max’s fellow Main Force Patrol officers are very memorable like Roop, Ziggy the Dark One, and especially Jim Goose. Goose is a cocky, devil-may-care fellow who repeatedly pushes his luck to the breaking point and beyond.
In contrast to the happily married Rockatansky, Goose is a womanizer who abuses his position to get sex from women looking to get out of criminal charges and who hangs out at a Post-Apocalyptic dive bar called the Sugartown Cabaret. (It is here that the song Licorice Road is sung by Robina Chaffey.)
I’m often puzzled when I read IMDb reviews of Mad Max that claim the movie is lacking in action. Do these people just fast-forward through every scene EXCEPT the ones with Mel Gibson front and center? This film is filled with action, it’s just that Max is not in every single action scene.
The many set pieces in Mad Max include his fellow MFP officers, especially Jim Goose, getting a piece of the action here and there. Plus there are high-speed chases and savage crimes committed by the vile gang.
And the swashbuckling scene where the thugs board a moving petroleum truck to drain its fuel for their own purposes has a certain pirate movie appeal. Gasoline Pirates instead of outlaws after other plunder. Each action scene also adds to the world-building.
Eventually Max and Goose see a chance to end the reign of terror of Toecutter’s gang when they find the drugged and dazed Johnny Boy at a crime scene which the other bikers fled after assaulting and raping both a man and a woman. Apparently the officers plan to get a conviction of the less than tough Johnny Boy and get him to testify against the other gang members to lessen his own sentence.
The Main Force Patrol even hold Johnny Boy in a virtual fortified bunker to prevent Toecutter and the others from busting him loose. It’s all futile in the end because the gang’s surviving victims are all too terrified to show up in court to testify.
Max and the others have to pull Goose off of the taunting Johnny Boy to prevent him from beating the punk unconscious. The criminal goes free, but we see that Toecutter keeps the baby-faced felon around as his prison bride since he has to go down on the gang leader after rejoining the bikers.
Ultimately, as the gang’s crime spree continues, Goose finally pushes his luck too far and gets burned alive in his overturned Interceptor by Toecutter and Johnny Boy. Max, as Goose’s closest friend, is especially hard hit by Jim’s fate and by the disgusting sight of his char-broiled corpse at the hospital.
This leads to another scene between Max and the Chief, Fifi. Max once again wants to quit the force, but unlike his earlier consideration of that move, this time he’s not worried about his family. This time he’s worried because of the ugly things he wants to do AND KNOWS HE COULD DO to the biker gang over what they did to Jim Goose. He fears that if he stays on the force “I’ll turn into another one of them.”
Fifi still doesn’t want to let Rockatansky go, though, and tells him to just take some time off with his family and think it over before quitting. Our hero does this but as we will see even a life away from the force would not be an escape from the encroaching savagery and lawlessness.
On this vacation, Max’s wife Jessie and his son fall prey to the biker gang, driving Max “mad.” This is effectively conveyed by that wild “Mel Gibson look” that our main character gets in his eyes.
He steals the souped-up V-8 Interceptor that served as the “candy” to keep him from quitting earlier in the movie. Then he goes on a revenge spree, killing each of the gang members and becoming a fugitive hunted by his fellow MFP officers.
This climactic spree culminates when Max tracks down the few remaining gang members – including Toecutter and Johnny Boy – on the road leading to the Prohibited Territory, the enigmatic wasteland beyond which lies who knows what.
We are now so far from civilization that as soon as bikers get gunned down by Mad Max they are immediately feasted upon by vultures. After a wild chase, Max maneuvers Toecutter into a head-on collision with an approaching waste truck. The repellant villain dies wide-eyed and screaming in a very cathartic scene.
This leaves the lone Johnny Boy, whom Rockatansky catches up to when the thug is scavenging a pair of boots off his latest victim.
We get the much-imitated (especially in Saw) scene where the now-pitiless Max cuffs Johnny Boy’s ankle to an overturned car leaking gasoline. He lights a match to the grass and leaves a hacksaw with the punk, giving him the choice to attempt cutting through his own ankle to try escaping before the wrecked vehicle explodes, killing him.
Johnny Boy dies in the explosion before he can complete this task, thus bringing Mad Max’s revenge spree to a close. There is no going back to his old life now, however, since he’s a hunted man.
He rides off into the Prohibited Territory, ready to die and prepared to engage in whatever savagery he needs to in order to survive until that inevitable death.
As Max drives on, the black clouds for as far ahead as the eye can see are an appropriate final image to this landmark film. This ending ensured that even without a sequel Mad Max would have been an enduring classic.
The movie did so many things right which its countless imitators did wrong in the decades ahead.
Byron Kennedy deserves at least as much credit as George Miller for this film and its sequel, The Road Warrior. After Byron’s death Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road lacked a certain something present in the first two installments. +++
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