1910s & 20s * 30s * 40s * Pre-50s * Frankenstein * Atomic Angst * 1950 * 1951 * 1952 * 1953 * 1954 * 1955 * 1956 * 1957 * 1958 * 1959 *
1960 * 1961 * 1962 * 1963 * 1964 * 1965 * 1966 * 1967 * 1968 * 1969 * 1970 * 1971 * 1972 * 1973 * 1974 * 1975 * 1976 * 1977 * 1978 * 1979

Friday, July 25, 2014

Mad Max

This Australian indie film is the ancestor to a sub-genre of a post-apocalyptic narrative that lives on today, some 35 years later. It is also the first “sci-fi” of 1979. The story, as told, is more of an automotive recast of a Western, and not particularly sci-fi. But the post-apocalyptic-world genre is, by tradition, a sci-fi realm. George Miller wrote and directed Mad Max (MM). A very young Mel Gibson stars as Max Rockatansky — an anti-hero type that would prove popular. In fact, popular enough that there were two direct sequels and scores of knock-off copies over several decades. Miller was on to something.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The film opens to a pursuit by MFP (Main Force Patrol) police cars, of a criminal fugitive who calls himself The Nightrider. Through some car chase action footage, the comic relief team is put out of action. The straight-man pair are also disabled. Only Max remains, and begins his masterful pursuit. Nightrider becomes un-nevered and eventually dies in a fiery crash. Max returns to his cozy private life of pretty wife, Jesse and their baby boy. Max wants to quit the MFP, but his boss, Fifi tries to bribe him to stay with a black suped-up V8 interceptor. Max still wants out. Meanwhile a motorcycle gang, led by Toecutter, roar into a country town to collect the body of Nightrider, which arrived via train. The gang terrorize the town awhile. A young couple flee (in a highly customized red 1959 Bel Air), nearly running over Toecutter in the process. He summons his gang to pursue them. The gang catches up, disables the car, demolishes the car and terrorizes the pretty young woman. Later, Max’s co-worker friend, “Goose” is called to the scene. He comforts the girl, and apprehends one of the gang — Johnny the Boy — because he was stuck there with a malfunctioning bike. Goose vents his outrage on Johnny, but lawyers get him off because no one would press charges. Toecutter’s gang decide to get even with Goose. They stage an ambush, causing him to crash the little truck he was driving. He is trapped inside. Toecutter insists that Johnny kill Goose to prove he is worthy to be in the gang. Johnny reluctantly complies. Goose lives, but only a disfigured vegetable. Max is upset and tries to quit. Fifi tells him to take a two-week vacation instead and think about it. Max, Jesse and son take a vacation grandma’s farm, near the coast. This inadvertently puts them in close proximity to where the gang was camping. Toecutter tries to score on Jesse, but she knees him in tender regions. The gang pursue, eventually finding her and running her (and her son) down. Both die. Max goes ‘mad’ at the loss. He dons his black leather MLF attire and fires up the black interceptor. He kills a couple of the gang, but they stage an ambush. Max is shot in the knee, but shoots one attacking biker. He hobbles back to his car to pursue Toecutter, who dies in a head-on with a semi. Max later finds the only gang member remaining, Johnny, looting a dead pickup driver. Max handcuffs Johnny to the wreck with a lit lighter, a container filling with dripping gasoline, and a hacksaw so Johnny can escape by saw off his own ankle. Max drives off, the pickup explodes. Max drives off into the forbidden out-lands. Fade to black. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There is a lot of fast road-based action in MM. Fans of things automotive will see that George Miller is a kindred spirit. The driving stunts are fairly impressive for a modest-budgeted film. The scenery of the vast Australian countryside has stark beauty to it too.

Cultural Connection
Fearing Societal Collapse — MM touched a cultural chord in its portrayal of a society in mid-collapse. The usual authorities — courts, law enforcement — cannot cope with the rise of lawlessness. Cruel and sadistic gangs of criminals terrorize the helpless civilians. This comes to the screen just as President Carter is describing a “crisis in confidence” in his famous Malaise Speech. Gone are the 50s when the government and army would rush in to save the populace from the monsters. Also gone are the late-60s-early-70s days when the government was seen as an all-powerful all-controlling tyrant. The new era of the 80s would see government as fundamentally powerless and society itself as crumbling into anarchy. Note the decay in the “Hall of Justice” sets. Disrepair, decay, clutter. “Justice” was crumbling away. Later MM movies, and many of its clones, would weave in punk culture as symbolic of the anarchy of the collapse.

Missing Backstory — Miller chose to start telling his story in the middle, instead of from the beginning. This disconcerts some people. Without the backstory, the characters, scenes and events can appear disjointed and random. The more attentive viewer is given hints throughout the film as to that backstory, but it is never stated overtly. Miller must have felt the criticism for this, as he starts his second Mad Max film, The Road Warrior (’81) with a preamble that both recaps MM, the first film, and provides the overt backstory that he left subtle (too subtle?) in MM.
Before MM opens, there was WWIII. Nuclear exchanges wiped out much of the “old” civilization. Australia misses the brunt of it (ala On The Beach), but the remaining “authorities” were too few to control the vast expanse of the world. As such, outlaws ruled the hinterlands. The MFP is what little is left of a highway patrol, in a losing-game battle against the lawless forces of evil. In MM, society has not completely collapsed (as in RW). Instead, there is the shell of old-world normalcy as people try to carry on as they always had, despite the shortages, privations and growing lawlessness. THIS is the world MM opens to.

People Need Heroes — At one point, Max’s boss tries to talk him into staying on the MFP with a pep talk about people needing heroes. Max scoffs, and Fifi wasn’t too sincere, but his comment resonated, nonetheless. Movie audiences in 1979 did want a hero — an individual hero. The old days of the government saving people, or the army, were past. The mid 70s were a dour period of gloom about oppressive, corrupt government (think Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green, Z.P.G. in which there were no happy endings. Amid the Malaise, the notion of a single hero (not a government agency) seemed like a good idea. This new hero could be a bit rough (think Dirty Harry), but would deal harshly with a cruel (new) world. That is one of Max’s appeals.

Car Nuts — The three multi-colored MFP cars in the opening chase scene, as well as Max’s suped-up black interceptor, were all Ford Falcons — Australian. When Ford/Australia introduced their Falcon in 1960, it was made on identical tooling as the American version. Viewers can spot a few of those old-style Falcons in the film too. But, in 1972, Ford/Australia introduced an all new design (and unique to Australia), but kept the traditional nameplate. Max’s interceptor was a modified 1973 XB coupe. Miller doted on scenes to show of the coupe’s supercharger in action — a real car-nut sort of thing to dote on. Max’s black coupe captivated audiences almost as much as Max did himself, so it returned with Max to start the sequel. The team might have also been an inspiration for American television’s “Knight Rider.”

Bottom line? MM has its strong points and weak points. It’s a low-budget production, and Miller’s first feature film, so some “roughness” should be expected. MM has its fans and detractors. The more outlandish sequel proved more to audiences’ liking, making the first film feel a bit dowdy in comparison. There is little sci-fi to MM. This linkage comes from the post-apocalyptic future angle. For people new to the MM franchise, watch the intro to the first few minutes of the second film (The Road Warrior) to get the backstory, then watch MM. Mad Max has become a cultural icon, so his first film is worth seeing, if only to understand that icon better.


Rip Jagger said...

Thanks for the review of one of my fave movies. I first saw Mad Max many moons ago on the heels of the success of Road Warrior, when it played a local art house. I preferred the sequel for a long time until I got them both on VHS and really began to appreciate the more subtle MM. The notorious voice over hurts, but the story has more real tension and frankly more heart than the bombastic sequel which has not aged well in my opinion. The third one is for all intents and purposes a parody. Mad Max, the original has real tooth.

Rip Off

Anonymous said...

Couldn't disagree more with this review's casual dismissal. MAD MAX is a classic. The 'rough around the edges' aspect is what makes it so vital. The sequels have their merits, but, they seem to conscious of trying to create its own myth. MAD MAX simply does.