Restricted media is everywhereÂ in the 21st century and parents worry that their children will see something raunchy or violent on a computer but it was difficult for we pre-internet kids to see such material. In 1979 I was 15 years old, unable to get into an 18+ movie and envied schoolmates with older siblings whoâ€™d sneak them into the drive-in the boot of their car, to guzzle beer and watch the 1970s greats of Ozploitation; FANTASM, STONE, PATRICK, THE MAN FROM HONG KONG or the greatest drive-in movie of them all…
“You listen bronze! I am the Nightrider! I’m a fuel injected suicide machine! I am the rocker, I am the roller, I am the out-of-controller!”
I finally saw it in 1982 when I turned 18. Crudely made but with flashes of sheer brilliance, itÂ was essentiallyÂ George Miller‘s film school. His only formal film training was a brief film workshop (attended while in medical school in the early 1970s)Â whereÂ he met his creative collaborator and business partner,Â Byron Kennedy.Â Their first short film, VIOLENCE IN THE CINEMA: PART 1, was made in 1971Â and their next step was to make a feature film. Although the Australian government was funding films, Kennedy & Miller knew that MAD MAX would be a tough sell, Â so theyÂ sought private investors instead. Miller raisedÂ extra funds working as a mobile emergency doctor, with Kennedy as his driver,Â andÂ the vehicular trauma they witnessed undoubtedly foundÂ its way into their film. Like another former medical student turned storyteller, J.G. Ballard (author of the novel, CRASH) Miller explores the fetishistic relationship between humans and their cars in MAD MAX. Miller’s medical background (and sense of humour) are evident in ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky beingÂ named for 19th century pathologist Carl von Rokitansky, (inventor of the procedure for removing internal organs in an autopsy).
The setting is â€™a few years from nowâ€™ when society is in decline. MAX ROCKATANSKY is a lawman working for the MFP (the “Main Force Patrol”) operating out of a rundown “Hall Of Justice” (complete with its own BOM BOM BOM musical sting). Though representing the forces of Â law & order, MFP officers look like either young leatherboys or archetypal degenerates circa 1955, clad in Lenny & Squiggyâ€™s black leathers. Their boss is chief FIFI MACAFEE, though named like a burlesque dancer he looks like a circus strongman or a bouncer at a gay bar. Burly, bald, moustachioed, and constantly bare-chested in his black leather pants, Fifi tries to keep Max focussed on the MFP mission of controlling wild motorcycle gangs, while Max worries that he’s becoming brutishly like the goons he’s supposed to stop.
“They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!”
Growing up in rural 1940s/1950s Australia and not goingÂ to film school meant that Miller wasn’t exposed to many filmmaking traditionsÂ (heâ€™d never heard of Kurosawa until after makingÂ MAD MAX, for example) but he cites classicÂ silent filmsÂ andÂ watching drive-inÂ movies without sound as influences on his ownÂ cinematic grammar. MAD MAX was punk filmmaking, not just its gritty subject matter but its inventiveness. Full of raw energy, you can see the filmmakers learning their chords as they play. Need a stunt? Just head out somewhere remote and do it. When the director is a qualified ER doctor you deal with safety problems as they arise, and arise they did. Joanne SamuelÂ got the role ofÂ Max’s wife, JESSIE, when the original actress broke her leg in a motorcycle accident (on her way TO the shoot, ironically) a crash that also injured and briefly sidelinedÂ Grant Page, the stunt coordinator. Miller’s bold vision was matched by the crew’s daring, and it wasn’t only the stuntmen who outdid themselves. Cinematographer David Eggby strapped himself to the back of a speeding motorbike to get a visceral hand-held POV shot of the 120kph rushing road and speedometer. These days, computers can deliver a shot from any angle the director imagines, but in 1977 it required aÂ crew both inventive and bold enough to deliver.
A motorcycle gang wants to avenge one of their members, who died in a game of road â€™chickenâ€™ with Max. These Droogs on wheels are given to buffoonish-though-sinister antics, and led by the charismatic TOECUTTER (played with bug-eyed psychotic gusto by Hugh Keys-Byrne). Toecutter doesn’t actually have a villainous moustache to twirl, butÂ to compensate, his lone eyebrow appears to twirl itself instead. To escape the stresses of dealing with this band of twerps-cum-perps, Max takes a holidayÂ with his wife and infant son, but the vengeful gang, still mincing about like a wannabe Shakespeare troupe on peyote, finds Max’s family, as we knew they would.
“In the roar of an engine, he lost everything and became a shell of a man.”
Needing to cast and equip a bikie gang, legend has it that Kennedy & Miller simply got a real gang (The Vigilantes) and paid them in slabs of beer. I miss that 1970s-1980s era of cheap DIY cinematic invention, where the creativity of the director and resourcefulness of the producer were the best special effects in the budget. Miller has said that initially, setting the film “a few years from now” allowed for broader action that might be implausible in the real world, andÂ setting the story in a decaying future societyÂ explained the shabby buildings and remote locations of the shoot, but later this became central to the MAD MAX series.
Partly inspired by actualÂ riots during the 1970s Energy Crisis, Miller & Kennedy (and journalist turned screenwriter James McCausland) explored the idea of a society disrupted by global energy decline taken as far as it would go. Miller’s youthÂ growing up in theÂ 1940s/1950s car culture andÂ wide open spaces of rural Queensland, andÂ that several of his friends diedÂ in car accidents while young, were parts usedÂ in the assembly ofÂ MAD MAX’s distinctive chassis. The influence ofÂ A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, BULLIT and vigilante justice films of the 1970s, like DIRTY HARRY and DEATH WISH, became the narrativeÂ engine, andÂ Miller’s flair for visualÂ story-telling became the nitrous-oxide fuel for one of Australia’s first anamorphic wide-screen films, andÂ Miller excelled at composing for this format, especially when the camera was moving.
The turning point comes when Max’s family is killed, and he becomes just as twisted as the road rabble he clashes with, exactly as he’d feared. While DIRTY HARRY merely flirted with the idea of a lawman crossing that line, MAD MAX goes all the way. In a climactic sequence that shows Miller’s geniusÂ for kinetic cinema, Max becomes a killer himself, hunting down the baddies one by one in his Black-on-Black super-charged V8 INTERCEPTOR.
“I’m scared, Fif. You know why? It’s that rat circus out there. I’m beginning to enjoy it.”
Many critics deplored the vigilantism. Critic Phillip Adams made exploitation cinema himself (producing ‘THE ADVENTURES OF BARRY McKENZIE’) butÂ preferred raunch overÂ violence, and his review in The Bulletin entitled ‘The Dangerous Pornography of Death‘Â called for Mad Max to be banned, saying that itÂ had ‘all the emotional uplift of Mein Kampf‘. MAD MAX actually wasÂ banned in Sweden and New Zealand for fears of copycat violence by real life motorcycle gangs.Â For the American release, Australian voices were overdubbedÂ (notÂ restored till the 2002 DVD)Â andÂ Tom Buckley of The New York Times called the film ‘ugly and incoherent’ but TIME’s Richard Corliss praised it in his review entitled ‘Poetic Car-nage’. While the Critics debated its merits, MAD MAX became a drive-in hit around the world.Â 1970s Australian cinema was a two-step of art house (THE LAST WAVE) and grind house (ALVIN PURPLE) culminating in MAD MAX as its biggest success at decade’sÂ end.Â On a shoestring production budget of AU $350,000 it made US $100 million at the box officeÂ which till THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was the bestÂ budget to box office ratio in cinema history.
SomeÂ find MAD MAX too crudely made to enjoy (especially viewersÂ who saw ROAD WARRIOR first) but apart from getting to see a brilliant director’s raw and inventive feature film debut, I appreciate seeing the last sad gasp of society before the gangs took over completely, and witnessing the last remnants of Max’s own normalcy before he becameÂ a ‘man with no name’ type. This chapter of the MAD MAX story can certainlyÂ be skipped, but there’s resonance in seeing the beginnings, before Max lost everything and he, and the world around him, went MAD.
In any vigilante justice flick the escalation of violence inevitably gets personal- after all, we bought a movie ticketÂ to see MAX get MAD- but the price of vengeance is that Max himself becomes a hollow man. His decency andÂ role in society gone, the only place left for him is with theÂ wild marauders. A wandering lost soul, he heads off in his iconic black-on-black Interceptor.
“..A burnt-out desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland.”
Much of the editing of MAD MAX was done by George Miller himself and working around his own shooting mistakes during aÂ one year editing process was a painful lesson, but one that would serve him well when the success of MAD MAX allowed himÂ to make a sequel and try again. AfterÂ MAD MAX broke internationally and was compared to otherÂ stories, Miller reflected that each culture has tales of wandering antiheroes and began to see Max as another version of that. With a copy of THE HERO’S JOURNEY under his arm, Miller and co-screenwriters Brian Hannant and Terry Hayes set about crafting a taught scriptÂ of a post-apocalyptic wanderer, a ‘western on wheels’. After MAD MAX finished shooting in 1977, the car used as Max’s Interceptor (a 1973 Ford Falcon GT Coupe with a V8 engineÂ andÂ the front of a Ford Fairmont) became the property of the production mechanic, and Miller boughtÂ itÂ backÂ for theÂ sequel. With a wily bunch of stuntmen, the great Dean Semler as his cinematographer and the red desert ofÂ Broken Hill as his canvas, Miller made a film firmly in the â€™Outback Gothicâ€™ tradition (of films like WAKE IN FRIGHT, WALKABOUT, and PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK) but withÂ a post-apocalyptic angle all its own.
A montage about a global energy crisis leading to war is shown in black-and-white and mono sound, shifting to widescreen colour with a Dolby Stereo mix (the first ever in Australia) focused on the ROARINGÂ bonnet-mounted Supercharger on Max’s black Interceptor. The car is now weatherbeaten, as is Max himself, and he’s acquired a Blue Heeler copilot named DOG. An even more outlandish gang than the previous film confronts Max,Â but they get the worst of the vehicular altercation. Max slams on his brakes to sponge precious petrol from the wreckage with his hankie, and isÂ hissed at by WEZ, an angry bloke withÂ eyeliner, Mohawk, arseless chaps andÂ twink boyfriend. TheyÂ fang off on their Kwakka, popping a wheelie as they go. This opening sequence isÂ Millerâ€™s way of telling us that we are further down the descent to total societal ruin.
“YOU! You can RUN, but you can’t HIDE!”
MAD MAX 2 (as it is known in Australia) came out in December 1981, but I saw it in 1982 when I was 18 years old and working at Hanna-Barbera in Sydney. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by artists and wouldÂ sneak around the studio after hours, fascinated by their work. I loved seeingÂ Brendan McCarthy‘sÂ animation-layout sketches andÂ personal doodles pinned on a wall andÂ I’ve followed his comics work ever since. (I had no idea he’d eventually help shapeÂ the 4th film in the MAD MAX series over 30 years later but I’m sure a lot of the demented brilliance of FURY ROAD is his influence). He’s said in interviews that, like most people in Australia that year, he was thunderstruck by ROAD WARRIOR and it wasÂ for him the imaginative cinema moment that STAR WARS wasÂ for most people.
Seeing ROAD WARRIOR was a rush, andÂ full-page advertisments in the Sydney Morning Herald proclaimed “It’s OUR Star Wars!” Nowadays, WOLVERINE, THOR and other characters in Hollywood productions are acted by Australians, but there was barely anyÂ Australian fantasy or Sci-Fi growing up in the 1970s. A cheesy TV show from around 1970 called PHOENIX FIVEÂ and The Australian ‘Eagle pilot’ in SPACE 1999 were about it, and when the MAD MAX films burst ontoÂ screensÂ in the late 1970s and early 1980s theyÂ had the OZ Sci-fi sceneÂ all to themselves. ROAD WARRIOR seemed uniquely Australian and established Mel Gibson as an international star (with only 16 lines of dialog) and George Miller as The Kurosawa of the carburettor, the David Lean of machines, and the John Ford of the chopped Ford; a visionary cinematic communicator.
In ROAD WARRIOR, towns are long-gone but there’s a vestigial community in a fortified oil refinery. This would’ve been a village of Japanese peasants in a Kurosawa film, a town of dusty frontier folk in a Leone western, or a cavalry fort encircled by Apaches in the John Ford version, but in Miller’s film it’s a community wearing white cheesecloth despite pumping oil all day. Their adversaries are post-apocalyptic banditos; musclemen driving souped-up V8s, and angry bondage bikies, (including Wez, he of baboon-arsed trousers and Kaja-Goo-Goo boyfriend thatÂ we met earlier). These MTV dudes are led by LORD HUMUNGUS, a body builder in a hockey mask,Â who vows to nick all the Goodies’ oil, but though they try repeatedly, his wasteland vermin can’t get at it. Likewise, the goodies led by PAPPAGALLO plan to take the fuel to the coast and start a new society, but are thwarted by the surroundingÂ bondage-clothing convention and hotrod show. Stalemate. There’sÂ much posturing and breast-beating, especially when Wez’s boyfriend is nailed in the noggin by a deadly razor-boomerang hurled by FERAL KID, a bloodthirsty urchin in rabbit fursÂ and chainmail glove. Max is introduced to this inter-community standoff by the GYRO CAPTAIN, a gangly pilot with bad teeth.
“Look, we had a deal. I show you the gas, and you let me go!” “The arrangement was I wouldn’t kill you.”
Though outrageously broad, ROAD WARRIOR is a fantastic caricature of the way our society actually is;Â driving full-throttle to our ownÂ brink. For all the ingenious hot-rodding on display as the leather hordes encircle the cheesecloth compound, none of the mechanical invention has been applied to fuel efficiency and Wasteland barbarians have not yet figured out that driving souped-up gas-guzzlers to get the gas is a self defeating strategy. “Excuse me, Mr Barbarian guy, but why are you all blasting around in V8s?” “To get the guzzoline!” “Why do you need so much gasoline? “For our thirsty V8s!” “But why-” HeAdBuTtÂ “No more talk!” Perhaps the meltdown of society somehow destroyed all the minivans, Honda Civics and sensible clothing? Or maybeÂ just one sand dune over from Miller’s camera there actually isÂ a posse of equally rabid wasteland dwellers who’ve fetishised sensible mall-wear and drive solar-powered cars and electric-hybrids?
Kennedy & Miller were able to raise ten times the budget for the sequel, though paltry by Hollywood standards thisÂ wasÂ the biggest Australian budget ever at the time. The added scope that this gave Miller, plus what he’d learned on MAD MAX and a great crew to support him, allowedÂ his imagination to run free, in much the same way that WezÂ is let off the choke-chain by his boss, to somersault and headbutt goodies, hiss and run around with no pants. The clever production design of Graham â€™Graceâ€™ Walker and costumes of Norma Moriceau made for one of the most visually distinctive (and copied) films of the 1980sÂ inÂ aÂ perfect marriage of concept and budget. In a desolate desert setting, second hand clothing is cleverly repurposed-Â punk rock wearÂ and S&M gear mix with Cricket and Rugby padding- saving on sets and costumes while the Cargo Cult aesthetic isÂ extraordinarily visually striking and true to the story of a society in decline.
Max’s attempts to go it alone leave him with a dead dog and a wrecked ride.Â The very definition of a reluctant hero but with no options left, MaxÂ helpsÂ the oil-pumping community withÂ their escape (Mel Gibson saw Max as a “closet human being” trying NOT to do the right thing, remembering where heroics got him). Cue one of the most spectacular action climaxes ever put to film, that not only defined a post-apocalyptic aesthetic and genre, but established a template for ALL action films that would be strip-mined for years. While the townsfolk escape and their compound explodes (ROAD WARRIOR’s only set and the most expensive set ever for an Australian film) Max, Pappagallo, the gangly Gyro Captain and the delightful young brute with the killer boomerang distract the marauding loons as Max drives the tanker of gasoline out into the desert.
“YAHHH!” Â “Get the shell!”
The 1980s was a golden era of movie stunt work when extraordinary martial arts prowess in Hong Kong films left me slack-jawed with amazement, butÂ the Australian speciality was spectacular vehicular mayhem as seen in the MAD MAX films, and especially ROAD WARRIOR. Stunt supervisor Max Aspin and his team of stunt-grunts deserve much of the credit for making this movie as viscerally exciting as it is. Amazingly, nobody was killed, but there were some serious accidents. In one of the most memorable stunts, 21 year old stuntman Guy Norris, on his first movie gig playing one of the marauding bikies, hits a wrecked car and flies off his bike and launches through the air aiming for an off-screen pile of cardboard boxes. Instead, he on-screen smashes his legs against the car, and cartwheels towards the camera,Â causingÂ a painful injury (a smashed femur) but the shot was left in the movie because it wasÂ so spectacular. Norris was on set doing work a few days later (with his broken leg just off-screen) and 34 years later heâ€™d be the stunt supervisor on FURY ROAD.
Unlike the critical controversy over MAD MAX, reviews for ROAD WARRIOR hailed itÂ as one of the best films of 1981. Richard Corliss, the first major critic to champion MAD MAX, was even more effusive in his review ‘Apocalypse POW‘ and others such as Vincent CanbyÂ and Roger EbertÂ followed suit.Â By 1982, I thought that #2 was the magic number, as STAR WARS, STAR TREK, JAMES BONDÂ and MAD MAX had all turned in second films that were far better than the originals. ROAD WARRIOR’s influence rippled throughout the 1980s and beyond,Â in knock-off moviesÂ (such as EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000, THE NEW BARBARIANS, 1990 BRONX WARRIORS and EQUALIZER 2000),Â musicÂ videos, and comics.Â OverÂ 30 years later itÂ still holds a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (as of May 13, 2015)Â and filmmakers such as James Cameron, David FincherÂ and Guillermo Del ToroÂ have listedÂ itÂ as a filmÂ favourite.
At the very end of ROAD WARRIOR, Max finally smiles when he realises that he was part of a bait and switch- the tanker he drove was full of sand and NOT the gasoline, which was safe with the fleeing oil-pumping folk. We realise that the story is a reflection on long-ago events narrated by an old man;Â the brutish Feral Kid grown to be leader of his ‘tribe’.Â Clearly Max made huge impression on him long ago; a post-apocalyptic SHANE.
“In the fullness of time, I became the leader, the Chief of the Great Northern Tribe. And the Road Warrior? That was the last we ever saw of him. He lives now only in my memories.”
ROAD WARRIOR was intended to be the final chapter in Max’s story and George Miller turned to other things, including directing a segment for Steven Spielberg’s TWIGHLIGHT ZONE. Kennedy & Miller had planned to make a post-apocalyptic LORD OF THE FLIES film, when it was suggested that Max should be the adult who finds the children and it became the third MAD MAX instalment instead. In 1983, Byron Kennedy died in a helicopter crash while scouting locations and, understandably, Miller lost interest in directing it after the death of the friend who’d helped him create the franchise. So Miller’s friend George Ogilvie stepped in to help direct.
High above the outback we see a car pulled by a team of camels in the desert far below, and the driver atop this strange wagon is suddenlyÂ knocked out of his saddle by two flying con artists, one of whom looks like The Gyro Captain but is called JEBEDIAH and the other who’s obviously his child. The unseated wagon driver picks himself up, and we realise it’s Max, in Bon Jovi’s mullet. He runsÂ off in pursuit of his stolen wagon, following a breadcrumb trail of junk tossed out the back by the monkey he’d nicked from Indiana Jones.
The trail leads to BARTERTOWN, where a bloke gets fancy with some Benihana knives and Max says, ‘Oi, the monkey isn’t the only thing I nicked from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK’ and BLAM, blasts the knife-wielding dude right in his busby with a sawn-off pumpy.
AÂ mateÂ of mine did storyboards on BEYOND THUNDERDOME andÂ said that Warner Brothers were all over it from the very start, unlike the previous film where they’d merely handled distribution. Chasing a bigger audience for a return on their investment, Warner Brothers wantedÂ a PG 13 rating and softened the humour, tone and action. In exchange for this compromise, thereÂ areÂ more production values onscreen but not always to good effect. Maurice JarreÂ seems an idealÂ composer- after all, his score for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is theÂ classic soundtrack of theÂ classic desert epic. However, his score for MAX OF AUSTRALIA, with full orchestra, vocal chorus, four grand pianos and a pipe organ, sounded like a romantic broadway show in parts, and the copious didgeridoo sounded like a 1980s QANTAS TV commercial in others, and had me pining for Brian May‘s melodramatic score for ROAD WARRIOR.
Max’s snazzy gunplay draws the attention of AUNTY ENTITY, the mayor of Bartertown whose job is providing plot exposition to an accompaniment ofÂ tootlingÂ 80s sax riffs provided by a blind dude in a nappy. Aunty ‘splains that Bartertown has moved beyond guzzoline to a fuel provided by pigs. METHANE production is monopolised by a symbiotic duoÂ namedÂ MASTER/BLASTER; the hulking body is called ‘Blaster’ and ‘Master’, the brains of the duo, is a dwarf even more manipulative than Tyrion Lannister. Aunty wants to topple Master/Blaster and needs Max to challenge Blaster in the THUNDERDOME; a sort of post apocalyptic gladiatorial arena cum law-court, with a Vampire Gameshow Dude as referee.
“He’s the ball cracker, Death on foot. You know him, you love him; He’s BLASTER! The challenger, direct from out of the Wasteland. He’s bad. He’s beautiful, He’s crazy! It’s the MAN WITH NO NAME!”
Despite the added agility from bungee cords, Max has the bone marrow pounded out of him. Then, in the nick of time he defeats Blaster. The huge helmeted and previously terrifying baddie is unmasked and; ‘AW.. he’s a total sweetie under there!’ SignifyingÂ that the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK swipes (act 1) are over and that the RETURN OF THE JEDI swipes (act 2) have begun. THUNK! Blaster’s dead. Aunty & Gameshow Vampire Dude banish Mad Mullet from BarterTown, wearing a clown head and seated backwards on a mule..
Re-watching the opening sequences from BEYOND THUNDERDOME recently, I remembered my 1985 excitement that Max wasÂ set free from vehicular chases to be an action hero that could deal with various conflicts in a potentially unlimited number of different ways. BEYOND THUNDERDOME’s many great ideas that entered the cultural vernacular are all from this first part, such as the word ‘Thunderdome’ itself, meaningÂ an intense throwdown (“Bro, myÂ employee review was a total Thunderdome.” or “My girlfriend went Thunderdome on me at her sister’s wedding” etc). There’s been an actual Â BEYOND THUNDERDOME inspired fight venue at BURNING MAN, and speaking of that, it’s hard to imagine Burning ManÂ lookingÂ as it does today-Â or even existing at allÂ -without this movie (Burning Man 2015 looks like a snapshot of Bartertown 1985). BEYOND THUNDERDOME has phrases that I still hear quoted today; “Two men enter, one man leaves” or “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, DYIN’ time is here!” and so on. Despite some patchiness here and there, theÂ recent re-watching of the film was very entertaining until Max gets banished from Bartertown. Then I suddenly remembered.. “Oh noâ€¦”
“We’s heartful to you, Captain Walker. We’s ready now. Take us home!”
Max is foundÂ by anÂ oasis of wholesome kids in blonde dreadlocks. The traditionally spare dialog of MAX movies is replaced with the constant jabber ofÂ Blonde Ewoks in a RIDDLEY WALKER pidgin, as theÂ cute primitivesÂ mistake Max for their messianic saviour (IE: RETURN OF THE JEDI swipe #2). The leader of the Lost Children, SAVANNAH NIX, pouts when Max denies that he’s their saviour, and in frustration, she andÂ fellow believers headÂ into the desert looking for the promised land,Â obliging Max to follow, and they all end up back at Bartertown..
TheÂ ideaÂ of Max encountering a LORD OF THE FLIES Tribe ofÂ LostÂ Children might have worked if theÂ kids hadÂ resembled the Feral Kid;Â wild yetÂ appealing in a brutish wayÂ thatÂ never played for any sentimentality whatsoever. Unfortunately, the Tribe of Lost Children is straight out of PETER PAN- very wholesome very blonde and very boring. BEYOND THUNDERDOME lacks anyÂ charismatic villain like Toecutter or fantastic henchmen like Wez.Â Perhaps the film may haveÂ worked betterÂ starting with a classic MAD MAX vehicular chase that introduces Max to (a less annoying) band of kids and climaxes with the THUNDERDOME fight? With some editing, even the version we have could be made a lot better (I wonder if there’s a fan edit of this film?) As it stands, itÂ is full of good bits but lacks the cohesion to be truly greatÂ andÂ 1985’s BEYOND THUNDERDOME was a replay of the 1983 end-of-franchise souringÂ of RETURN OF THE JEDI. Both trilogies started tasty, got even tastier, then endedÂ with an undercooked third course.
WhetherÂ this was due to two overseeing-companies (Kennedy/Miller & Warner Brothers) or the merging of two storylines (MAD MAX & sci-fi LORD OF THE FLIES) or the merging of two Georges (Miller & Ogilvie) something was awry. It’s tempting to think that if Miller had directed the entireÂ thing it would have worked, butÂ George Miller himself credits Ogilvie as a mentor (they’d collaborated on several mini series BODYLINE, THE COWRA BREAKOUT, and THE DISMISSAL) and Miller claims that BEYOND THUNDERDOME is his favourite of the three 1980s Max films. Though it’sÂ definitely the most ambitious and there’sÂ a great movie in there struggling to get out, it is (for me) the least satisfying. However,Â I credit the 1980s MAD MAX filmsÂ for trying something very different with each movie.
The MAD MAX franchise swipes from itself (Act 3) when in the last 15 minutes of BEYOND THUNDERDOME a ROAD WARRIOR-style truck chase is tacked-on for the climax. Having helped another group trying to build a viable community, Max is left behind yet again, as theÂ annoying kids fly away with Jebediah toÂ establish a colonyÂ in the nuked-out shell of Sydney.Â
“Most of all we ‘members the man who finded us, him that came the salvage, and we lights the city, not just for him but for all of them that are still out there.”
It seemed that the MAD MAX film series was complete, but after about 15 years, inÂ the late 1990s/early 2000s a fourth film was rumoured, and I followed the on-again-off-againÂ MAD MAX reboot saga; Mel is not interested, so a grown-up Feral Kid movie is planned, possiblyÂ starringÂ Russell Crowe, but thenÂ Gladiator happens, Russell getsÂ huge, and Russell is out.Â Mel isÂ back in, but September 11thÂ 2001 happens, which kills the US dollar and Max’s budget, and Mel is out. Heath Ledger is in, Heath is dead. Mel is back, Mel melts down, and Mel is out. Tom Hardy is in. The desert at Broken Hill is covered in wildflowers delaying production, for a year. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong and then some. Meanwhile, in that same 15 year period, many of the fantastic cinematic worlds of my youth were mauled by their original filmmakers; STAR WARS, ALIEN, INDIANA JONES. Although Max had owned the post-apocalyptic film genre back in the 1980s, now that we’ve had THE ROAD, the PLANET OF THE APES reboots, TERMINATOR reboots, the I AM LEGEND reboot, INTERSTELLAR, HUNGER GAMES and a hordeÂ of ZOMBIE movies, wouldÂ heÂ have anything fresh to offer? Consequently, I was both interested in, and afraid of being let down by FURY ROAD and tempered my enthusiasm right up until the theatre lights dimmed on opening weekend..
Film franchises are rebooted every few years, restating the ‘origin story’ each time, but not so with the first MAD MAX movie in three decades. George Miller allows us to briefly absorb a scene of Max and his iconic Interceptor; a two-headed lizard scurrying in a barren desert shows the effects of nuclear war, and Max stomping and EATING that same lizard shows how far he’s fallen since DiNKi-DiÂ dog chow was his favourite food. Then the movie starts: anaemic marauders chase after Max, capture and take him to be enslaved in THE CITADEL; the crib of IMMORTAN JOE. He’s the meanest desert warlord since Jabba the Hutt, demonstrated vividly when JoeÂ applies Trickle Down Economics on the desert-dwelling saps below. These are the random citizens we saw in the first MAD MAX movie, who now pick through the dust for scraps left by the muscle men in hotrods. There’s evidence of nuclear fallout in the the chronically sickÂ WARBOYS, and the infertility/breedingÂ obsessions of the villain. While tooting on an asthma inhaler (that he nicked from Darth Vader) Immortan Joe discovers that his 5 WIVES have been set free by one of his hench-lieutenants named FURIOSA, and they’ve escaped in her truck, called a WAR RIG.
“I want them back, they are my property!”
FURY ROAD was utterly bonkers in the best possible way. Fever dream imagery strung on an action-narrative thread, where each action and shot were intricately choreographed like an insane diesel ballet. Emotions and themes were expressed in a dance of human bodies and auto bodies done with real vehicles and flesh-and-blood stunt crew, elevating it to another level of beauty and wonder. I’m often mystified by realÂ dance, actual poetry, true opera and genuine ballet, but respond to poetic balletic and operatic qualities used elsewhere, such as this nutty masterpiece. George Miller once said that he wants to make pure-cinema films; understandable to foreign audiences even without subtitles, and that’s exactly what he’s done. MAD MAX’s post-apocalyptic world, where civilisation and humanity have been stripped bare and the protagonist is reduced to his monosyllabic basics, is a laboratory for Miller to explore the limits of non-verbal cinematic communication. Zach Snyder’s SUCKERPUNCH, or the Wachowskis’ SPEED RACER were praised by some as pure kinetic cinema, but left me utterly cold, and I suspect that Michael Bay has always strived to make a film like FURY ROAD, but all he canÂ manage is a Michael Bay movie. What FURY ROAD has, that so many similar similar movies lack, is clear visual staging, superlative action choreography and inspired editing, resulting in a transcendent cinematic experience. Filmic visual language, and the boldest world-building since 1977’s STAR WARS, tell us all we need to know, and with hardly a word spoken.
In the 1970s-1980s MAD MAX movies, Max had witnessed the end of society and thus would’ve been of the same generation as Immortan Joe. Although Mel Gibson has fallen from grace in recent years, an older weatherbeaten Mad Mel would’ve been interesting to me and Mel’s recent rocky history might’ve added interesting shadings to this story of a broken manÂ who redeems himself, but Tom Hardy was incredible and I quickly got used to his younger Max. In this reimagining, Max is the same age as Furiosa and thus couldn’t remember the time before the fall of society 30-40 years prior, so he may not be the same Max that I once knew. That MaxÂ was aÂ Â copÂ withÂ a wife and toddler son butÂ thisÂ Max’s flashbacks were ofÂ a 10 year old girl and a variety of other as-yet unknown characters. VariousÂ fan theoriesÂ attempt to explain this, and other fan theories about those fan theories aside, the MAD MAX movies were never a ‘saga’ with a beginning middle and an end. To me, they seemedÂ to beÂ yarnsÂ about a wandering antihero, told by other characters touched by him. ROAD WARRIOR was narrated by the Feral Kid, and THUNDERDOME was narrated by Savannah, both havingÂ become community leaders viaÂ the long-ago assistance of Max. There was no narration in MAD MAX,Â but itÂ may have beenÂ told from the point of view of Max’s boss, Fifi, remembering a gifted young man who fell to savagery, becoming a symbol of the lost potential of humanity. In FURY ROAD the narration is by Max himself, effectivelyÂ denting myÂ pet nerd-theory but the broader point still holds; looking for timeline continuity in the MAD MAX series is not what these films are all about. Miller may intend to change Max’s back story in this ‘reimagining’ and in typical Miller style, screen time isn’t wasted on jibber-jabber. We just need to trust MillerÂ and hold on because his War Rig is already moving.
A cock-blocked Immortan Joe calls his Warboys to back him up as he chases his 5Â Wives, who are high-tailing it to a promised land called THE GREEN PLACE. The most anaemic Warboy of all is NUX, who uses Max as a mobile blood-bag strapped to his ride. Although Immortan Joe has the management style of Joe Stalin, any warlord who has a blind guitarist and albino taiko drum crew on retainer as part of his war party has a lot of post apocalyptic panache. Meanwhile, the chase enters a cyclone and Max gets free, only to have a savage brawl with FURIOSA.
“Each of us in our own way was broken. It was hard to know who was more crazy… me, or everyone else.”
From the very beginning, Miller set his MAD MAX films at an unspecified point in the future so he was not bound by mere realism. They are broad, operatic and even cartoonish but within that neo-mythological framework, Miller explores real-world issues. Many viewers respond to feminist themes (clearly Max has come a long way since Phillip Adams accused him of being ‘a special favourite of rapists, sadists, child murderers and incipient Mansons‘ in 1979) while some male fans groan that their macho-male-movie-icon has been reduced to a supporting character in his own movieÂ (and to women, no less). These angry boys in their “No Gurlz Allowed” treehouse forget that Max was alwaysÂ a passenger in stories driven by other characters’ goals; Max’s boss Fifi in the first film, Papagallo in the second, and Aunty Entity and Savannah (yes, women) in the third. I admit to an internal groan when Charlize Theron was cast, but in my case it was fear of Hollywood meddling, THUNDERDOME-style, and because I’d been soured by her role in PROMETHEUS, another franchise restart by a 1970s director-hero that was (for me anyway) a total clunker.Â I need not have worried because Charlize Theron was utterly fantastic in this movie. Using her dancer training sheÂ expressed so much in movement, and nuanced acting evokedÂ the complex inner life of the marvellous character Furiosa, all with little dialog.
Some dismiss FURY ROAD as merely a ‘two hour chase sequence’, but watching two hours of complex action staging and never losing sight of what is actually happening is extraordinarily rare. In most action movies today, the objects moving through frame and the cameras themselves both flailÂ in an attempt at dynamism, but create an incoherent mess. Batman enters, there’s a flurry of shaky-cam shots, and 10Â baddies areÂ suddenly on the floor. In FURY ROAD, Miller trusted us to figure out the details as we watched, and we couldÂ follow because he gave us the information to do so, visually. This craftsmanship alone would have left me in awe of FURY ROAD but it also had astonishing thematic and emotional weight embedded in its beautifully kinetic Busby Berkeley routine. In a standard action movie, the action is sandwichedÂ between moments of character and plot development, but FURY ROADÂ attempts to advanceÂ character and plot throughÂ the action itself. This clearly doesn’t work for everyone,Â but for me this ‘two hour chase’ is brimming full withÂ stories of human desperation and redemption, the healing power of empathy, and that to truly overcomeÂ oppression the answer is notÂ escape but to change the status quo.
Max grudgingly becomes Furiosa’s ally and helps her and the 5 Wives fight off the BMX Bandits and the Spiky-Car Club. Cirque du Soleil collides withÂ a mobile Monster Truck show, as every colourful kook in the outback is after them. Max, Furiosa and the 5 Wives finally escape from this rolling Burning Man and Survival Research Laboratory parade with some boy-howdy fancy shootin’ and Smokey and the Bandit style purty drivin’. They arrive at the fabled Green Place, but Furiosa is bummed to discover that it’s dry and shitty-looking as everywhere else. The consolation prize is meeting some really cool old bikie grannies called the VUVALINI. Max finds a lightbulb in the desert and holds it over his head; ‘Hey, Let’s turn around and storm Joe’s Citadel!’Â
“If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the Fury Road!”
Internet articlesÂ cite ‘secrets’ that make FURY ROAD work (‘It’s the editing!’ or ‘It’s the framing!’) which isÂ like saying that the secret to Gene Kelly’s tap dancing is his right foot. As with any complicated process it’s the coordination ofÂ many steps that creates cinema magic (a much less catchy title for a Vimeo video). FURY ROAD rises aboveÂ other action movies due toÂ clarity; itsÂ various pieces fit seamlessly together asÂ a unified whole. The ‘secret’ to the flabbergasting Hong Kong films of Jackie Chan, versus his flatter Hollywood films, is thatÂ ChanÂ wasÂ empowered to approach his Hong Kong filmsÂ holistically; involved in direction,Â and stunt-coordination, and performing,Â and editing. Whereas in Hollywood he was simply an actor/stunt performer. The career of Buster Keaton too shows a contrast between amazing films where heÂ wasÂ involved in the entire process, and his later MGM films where Keaton only had limited input.Â FURY ROAD works because George Miller’sÂ vision wasÂ applied throughout allÂ phases of production:
STORY: George Miller wroteÂ FURY ROAD without a scriptÂ but storyboards were the equivalent, allowing all elements to be plannedÂ visuallyÂ long before photography began.Â Comics/storyboard artist Brendan McCarthy was credited asÂ co-screenwriterÂ because Miller appreciates visually-scripting for a visual medium, an approach dear to my heart. (ManyÂ animated projects I’ve worked on were largely written with visuals and,Â whatever the credits say, the script sometimes transcribed the storyboards, rather than the other way around). DESIGN: Production designer Colin GibsonÂ and costume designer Jenny BeavanÂ did amazing work that facilitatesÂ the fast cutting. The Warboys’Â distinctively anaemic pallor not only works for the post-nuclear story but allows them to ‘read’ clearly as they leap about.Â Vehicles too each had a distinctive silhouetteÂ andÂ thisÂ wasn’t simply about looking ‘cool’, but looking cool in service of clarity. Because cinema is images in time,Â design is important.Â The audience could visually processÂ the fast-cutting action because of design choices as much as anything else.Â STUNTS: The long production delays allowed stunt coordinatorÂ Guy NorrisÂ to run computer simulationsÂ to test safety and coordinate the weights of stunt performers and vehicles. ThenÂ those stunts were practised over and over again, before theÂ beautifulÂ butoh dance of human bodies was eventually caught on camera.Â CINEMATOGRAPHY: Miller knew that certain sequences would beÂ edited incredibly rapidly, soÂ traditional composition rules were broken to centre the action, because the human eye takes timeÂ to adjust to the composition of eachÂ new shot, andÂ Cinematographer John SealeÂ talkedÂ Miller into multiple secondary cameras to capture the action. Miller didn’t want yet another drab monochrome post-apocalyptic movie, so the only other place to go was supersaturatedÂ and the distinctive teal and orange colour palette of the movie is the work of Colorist Eric Whipp.Â EFFECTS: Having madeÂ action movies in the analog 1980s, and then worked in computer animation in the 2000s, Miller was supremely qualified to know howÂ to use both digital and practical effects each to their best advantage. Digital effects wereÂ used to enhance the landscape, combine shots, remove stunt rigging and for greenscreening Charlize Theron’s prostheticÂ arm. Even the sequence which is obviously heavily CGI,Â the dust storm, was shot practically first. EDITING: Margaret Sixel‘s backgroundÂ is as aÂ documentary editor, andÂ her skill at sifting through loads of footage to find the ideal cut was used to great effect, when 480 hours of footage supplied by Seale and Miller wereÂ whittledÂ down to 2 hours and 2700 shots.
Furiosa finally confiscatesÂ Immortan Joe’s asthma inhaler but she’s fading fast due to her accumulation of wounds. Then, in the most touching post-apocalyptic moment since WALL-E, Max healsÂ her with his own blood. Furiosa returns to the Citadel a conquering hero, and waves goodbye to Max as he rides off into the sunset, like a YOJIMBO of the Wasteland.Â
“I am the one that runs both from the living and the dead. Hunted by scavengers, haunted by those I could not protect. So I exist in this wasteland, reduced to one instinct: survive.”
Max, Nux,Â Furiosa and the 5 Wives were tools of the system but inverted the roles they were exploitedÂ for. Nux wasÂ taught to sacrifice himself for Immortan Joe but used this Kamikaze roleÂ to thwart him instead. Furiosa wasÂ a lieutenant of the Citadel but used her trustedÂ position to liberate its victims. Max was as a mere blood bag for the WarboysÂ but used this role to nurture his former adversaryÂ FuriosaÂ back to life. The implicationsÂ for broad societal change are clear, but FURY ROAD can also be seen as a rebukeÂ to Miller’s filmmaker colleagues. As if to say; â€œYou may be working on a mere franchise movie, nevertheless you shouldÂ imbue it with ingenuity and excitement, andÂ some challenging themesÂ as well.â€ Innovative films of the 1970s and 1980s becameÂ theÂ template thatÂ Hollywood stillÂ regurgitates decades later but this sad trend could be exciting if even half those ‘blockbusters’Â were made in the spirit ofÂ FURY ROAD.
When so many of my filmmaker heroesÂ haveÂ made un-engaging films in recent years I’d wondered ifÂ directors inevitably lose their edge with age,Â but feared that the problem was actuallyÂ my ownÂ jaded soul. However, in a gift fromÂ George Miller, I wasÂ immersed in wonder by a film at the age of 51, and learned thatÂ aÂ 70 year old director can still giveÂ a masterclass in action filmmaking. Seeing this directorÂ who dazzled me in my teens do itÂ againÂ in my middle age is one of the many pleasures of FURY ROAD. Even though Phillip Adams stillÂ hates Max, mostÂ other critics are enthralled by George Miller’s film. After redefining action cinema in the 1980s, Miller went intoÂ animation and has not directed a live-action filmÂ since 1998. Now he provesÂ that he’s still one of the great directors of his own generation and serves notice to the current generation too.Â It’s sad thatÂ George Miller says he only has two more movies left in him at his age but I eagerly wait to see what they’ll be, whether about pigs, penguins or â€™pocalypse.