Mad Max roars back to the cinema this week, with the kind of high-budget epic that’s far removed from its budget-constrained, gritty beginnings. Although if anything, Max madder than he ever. Simultaneously complex, mysterious and furiously simple – a look back at the franchise built around a man’s mental collapse. First Up, a (spoiler-filled) look at the 1979 original and those essential Mad Max Factors.
“You don’t want to make Max mad,
Because when Max gets mad,
He gets even”
WHAT IS IT ABOUT GEORGES AND THEIR FRANCHISES? George Romero has his brilliant Dead trilogy, now of two parts after expand it in the last decade with a looser follow-up trilogy. Then of course, main beard George Lucas saw the turn of the century as the perfect time to expand his original Star Wars trilogy. Being very kind, neither of those extensions matched the heights of the originals. So it’s left to one other George to right the record. And as Australian visionary George Miller heads back to his Mad Max franchise 30 years on, he’s certainly not running on empty.
All those original ‘George Trilogies’ ended between 1983 and 1985, and while Max’s return comes later, having escaped a great deal of production, it stands a good chance of writing a wrong. To fulfil the franchise’s potential as one of Hollywood’s major properties. Miller always had higher blockbuster ambitions for his main work, last seen limping slightly from Hollywood in 1985. Amassing awards for other films, from drama to animation, he’s certainly not lost the passion for his first cinematic son.
Every film has a different flavour
So what of that original trilogy? It’s an incredibly varied work, released over six years but crossing 20 years of narrative chronology. It hardly sits unique in the genre of Australian road movie, but it’s surprisingly un-repetitive. Maybe it’s tracking the disintegration of humanity, maybe through time passed or distance made from an apocalypse. But really it’s about the destruction of one man. The first film took its time defining and then breaking a legend in waiting who would haunt the next two films like a ghost as the world found new ways to fall around him. If there’s redemption on offer he falls on it by mistake and never sees it to fruition. It’s astonishing that the first film is dedicated to Max’s origin, but more so that once he’s created and voyages further into the dark heart of dystopia he’s resolutely fixed. It’s a study of a man who has everything taken away, and becomes a single stable point in a new world that’s often bustling either for hope, anarchy or a new capitalism. But it’s open to interpretation. He’s an anti-hero, but no longer either the good man he professes to be in the first part nor a villain, despite his clear homicidal criminality at the end of that same film. Perhaps not so much a good man than a broken man in waiting; a fragile personality that simply can’t accept change or loss.
Riding to the defence of a Western outpost like a distilled Magnificent Seven
Whether he drives onward into anarchy or whether the world degrades completely around him after part one is ambiguous. But five years later, the second part bled in more mythology into a more evident dystopian future as Max rides to the defence of a Western outpost like a distilled Magnificent Seven. the second film may stand as one of the most influential action films ever made, but not so much that the third, and possibly most flawed experimental, feels free to leave roads and cars out of the picture for over an hour as it favours exploring post-apocalyptic society in full writhing melt-down. More often than not, Max’s presence and key skills serve to destroy proto-returns to structure and hierarchy, no more than in the third film. And by the time of Thunderdome, 15 years on from the events of Mad Max 2, and countless miles on in desert sands, we took to a new kind of metropolis where myths had fully formed and punk has fallen into the ridiculous. As befits a man so hollowed out by tragedy few things can take him by surprise, least of all that. Every film has a different flavour, and early indications are that Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth instalment that bursts from cinema screens this week, will borrow in heaps from all three. Those first films took time to bleed a mythology into the legend of Max, but now Fury Road is free to run with it into madder and darker places yet.
For Max, it all started “A few years from now…”
Mad Max (1979)
“When the Gangs take over the highway…”
Mad Max starts with the Herrmann-esque strings requested of composer Brian May (no, not that one). Broad white text titles set a template for the franchise, only broken by a distinctive metallic logo before it breaks into that all too brief glimpse of the Halls of Justice. The brief caption sets the tone for a film of few words and very little explanation.
“This is a routine pursuit”
It kicks off on a dilapidated motorway, the sound of a pursuit radio. And amid all the distinctive shots of shins against sideboards, another franchise staple, we see Max Rockatansky suit up and join the pursuit of ‘terminal psychotic” the Nightrider. It was three years before he’d almost lend his name to one of the all-time great TV road series. From the start Max is a superhero in the making, coolly waiting for his moment and his prey… But we learn he’s also a family man, with sax playing wife Jessie and infant child in what looks like a rooftop idyll overlooking dense forestation. We’re given little to judge a world just slightly off-centre to our own. Odd notes are sounded, like interceptor Charlie quite seriously chiding his partner when he tells him that he doesn’t “have to work with a blasphemer”. We see a working diner cleared as the pursuit roars past, but there’s little indication that they’re after a few drops of sparse fuel. It’s a long sequence carrying tension and comedy (the family with a caravan in tow, a child in peril), the lunatic criminal (“I am a fuel injected suicide machine”) epic crashes and misses (Nightrider reduced to fear after losing the game of chicken to max) and surreal body horror (that flare of Nightrider’s ‘eyes’)
“Stop. Prohibited area”
And then it’s all about revenge. We soon hear that Nightrider’s gang are out to get Max. A classic build-up from the opening chase that gives the film a tightly coiled plot. George Miller’s direction in this slow and dialogue sparse film is fresh. Throughout, sped up film adds a certain oddity to the footage that would continue across the trilogy and it seems Fury Road. We’re in the early stages of society breaking down here, but the surreal is creeping in.
Capturing stunning shots of the long Australian roadways as well as great inner-urban shots of main Force Patrol (MFP) interceptors in parking lots. The low rent headquarters of the MFP, what the trailer describes as a “renegade squad of suicide cops (in a world gone mad)” that Max belongs to are run down and full of cunning. In the background, memorandums are read out regarding civilian conduct. It’s a future world gone wrong – and one the constantly trying to resign Max is just too good to be let go from. And if you’re going to trap him back in, the supercharged V-8 is one way – as calculating big cheese of the MFP Fifi ruefully declares “People don’t believe in heroes anymore”.
It’s Max’s friend Goose who’s not only integral in creating Max, but breaks himself first. When Toecutter’s gang pursue and quite presumably rape a young couple fleeing the town they’ve occupied Miller cuts to a shot of a crow before Max and Goose come across the wreck. The sense of doom is growing, and this film has plenty of time for signs and portents. Goose is shaken by the condition of the girl they find and when gang member Jonny (too “whacked out of his skull” to have left the scene) is later released it’s all too much.
“We remember Nightrider and we know who you are”
We see hospitals and particularly strangely we see ice cream, but it’s a surprise when the run down squalor of the Halls of Justice reveal that there is still a court system to corrupt. Law wouldn’t be touched again until Max stumbles near the Thunderdome 20 years later, but here it’s Goose who snaps first.
While his trauma is foreshadowed and played for suspense – the sabotaged bike Goose survives, the pick-up truck and incredible throw that he doesn’t – his fate is gruesome. Miller’s medical background and the sight of many burns and motor vehicle victims were a significant influence on the film. When Max walks to the hospital – the horror of what he sees Goose has become, the “thing” as he calls him is where the madness sets in. It may be tragic, but this is clearly not a man who can take him or anything he has in his life being touched or altered. Crucially though, as with much of the body horror in this film the audience doesn’t see it.
“Got a bronze badge to say I’m one of the good guys”*
With nothing to prove and everything to save, Goose’s injuries – the proof that the untouchable can be touched – lead Max to quit, or takes leave as Fifi frames it. That frees him up for a customary 80s montage of his family heading of for peace, tranquillity and buying a dog. There are wheat fields, there’s stream swinging. They are back to the idyll and a chance to talk about how Max feels.
But it had to be a tyre that separates them, that and huge coincidence that would make max paranoid if he knew they weren’t out to get him. As Max stays with the mechanic, his wife and child’s trip to the coast puts them in the sights of Toothcutter and kicks the third act into gear.
“The world’s full of crazy people”
Toothcutter and his “Gloryriders” are a crazy bunch, but tame and relatively civilised by later standards. The leader himself, a mascara adorned Cats auditionee leads them with fear and menace. And he’s quite crazy, below the generally calm psychopathic stare. Halfway through we see him walk out to sea with Jonny the kid and a shotgun. Just, because. Around him the gang dances, pursuing men and women alike (Max and his family are necessarily distinct as what might be called a nuclear family in the whole franchise), and generally rip up a town until he gives the word for action.
Later, Toecutter has the advantage as Max again stays behind with his car (this time fixing the fan belt) while bikes arrive above a bay where Jessie is sunbathing. After a taut chase through woods, the unfortunate fate of the dog (they don’t doo wwell in these films) and the set the tension capped by Benny, the child-like farmhand. During the barn stand-off where old fiend Crazy Mae helps Jessie recover her baby, the fact Toothcutter knows Max’s wife’s name is disturbing – surely overheard and not gleaned from the mechanic. But it’s not as not as disturbing as the gang’s iconic, final attack: Simply running down the defenceless mother and child. The suggestion is horrific, while Mae brings Christianity back: “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy…” and Max turns up on his long run just too late. Again we never see the victims, but by the time he gets to the hospital Mad Max is fully formed. While their child dies, astonishingly Max’s wife survives, massively injured and disfigured. Clouds darken and props from earlier get mangled as the broken man dons his old uniform, But this time not to join the MFU. It’s all action, no exposition. But tellingly, he severs his ties to his old life and the law. It’s the fate of Goose that pushed him away from the MFU, his wife that exiled him from life. But tellingly, while his child did die, both Goose and Jessie remain. Just both touched and ruined by the growing disorder.
The Road Warrior
“You and Me. Are going to talk about the Toecutter”
We’ve seen medicine and law operate in this world, and Max is now far removed from both. He rather unambiguously tortures the earlier mechanic to glean information as the camera pan to the ceiling and then, when we find the gang stealing gas, 15 minutes of car-nage begins. In his souped up, iconic interceptor he creeps up, playing his customary game of chicken as he dispatches them.
None of the leaders that Max face are disorganised or his strategic equal. In fact, there’s much evidence that the only thing Max can outstrip them in is prowess behind the wheel Max is savaged when he’s tricked into leaving his car, though still a force as he shoots down the arrogant Bubba who is promptly shot from his bike. While Toothcutter hisses, the odds tipping way from him, another bird appears onscreen, this time an eagle sitting atop a bike as Max limps to his car and the final showdown. Here’s where the franchise kicks in, with that iconic money shot showing the hood and intense driver behind it. When a truck takes cate of Toecutter, first of our Road Lords, we’re treated to a slightly longer eye-popping that Nightrider suffered.
It’s an iconic conclusion as Max drives on to once again find Jonny last, cuffing him to an improvised car bomb and leaving him a saw to chance his escape against a savage time-limit. It’s the scene that inspired Saw and as Max drives off to an ambiguous explosion the only thing we are sure of in that impassive face is that he’s been driven to another place. He sets out on the road stretching ahead, leaving all he knew behind, his still living wife and friend, as he slips further away from civilisation and into the outback. To cap off that extraordinary ending, marginally romantic music has to play over the credits.
“The Maximum force of the future” as the tagline went? Well, if the box office is anything to go by – Mad Max held the record as the most profitable film relative to budget for 20 years. Just where could Max go next/
15 Essential Mad Max Factors
Somethings are unavoidable in a Mad Max film. The key elements to look out for in Fury Road…
The interceptor, the door open, the leather-clad boots. As iconic as it gets.
The leaders and their mighty names
Every gang needs a leader, and each is unsettling in their own way. Thunderdome’s Aunty Entity may be the only one to escape a head on collision, but she’s an iconic part of the mix. While The Humungus is the enigmatic centre, the shadow of Toecutter is set to fall across the Fury Roadin the familiar form of Hugh Keays-Byrne. The future is all about imagination and twisting language.
Every gang or tribe needs a leaders, and every leader needs a spokesman. In the first film Toecutter had the rather arrogant and stroppy Bubba, the second brought the far more rambunctious Toadie, the snivelling gang crier so desperate to impress he loses his fingers to Feral Kid’s Ow-merang. By three, Aunty Entity has a loyal core of supporters, but still relies on The Collector to not only control her exchange but also take care of exposition.
The manic laughter
It may get madder, but the franchise kicks off with the Nightrider’s hysterical howls, setting the bar for most gang lackeys that follow. The leaders themselves are generally the modicum of quiet, sinister control
The speeding up
It’s not just that speeding up a camera makes everything move much faster, it’s tall about the disorientating sense of unreality it adds.
The roar of engines, the fast cars
Well that’s a given. From the first films mix of Ford Falcon pursuit cars to Chevrolets (the Falcon wins of course, and became iconic. Though they couldn’t sell the darn thing after either part one or two. Max is the best interceptor in the force, the finest rider in the new world. That’s where his reputation was built and even when he’s mostly carless in Beyond Thunderdome he still makes the final sacrifice on a trusty four wheels.
The car smashes
Nitro or not…
The madness and the futility
It’s not what it appears. With all hope destroyed, Max is almost waiting for the increasingly collapsing world to catch up with him. Obsessed with his own self-survival, balanced with having nothing left to live for – the real madness of the title is all his, and anything but the collapsing civilisation around the Road Warrior. For every tribe or group that makes it, we see swathes of humanity for whom there is no escape. And at the end of every self-contained ‘adventure’ Max drifts away, back into this background madness, into memory and legend.
The savage deaths, the physical horror
The blood and guts may vary, but horrific road kills and tragic demise are the very fabric of Mad Max. It was Miller’s previous life as a medical doctor had showed him the horrors of the road and burns. It’s a very real horror in these films, and the random flashes of popping eye prosthetics and digital larynxes draw it out. And along with surprise, there are constant shocks to be found in the films, particularly the first. Max’s descent starts on seeing what’s become of his friend Goose… And it’s pure horror film.
The leaking gas
We learn more about the oil crisis, war and radiation as the series progresses. Throughout, a car smash will soon be followed by an empty oil canister.
Australian through and through. Even the third part couldn’t keep it down.
We may not recapture the portentous shots of crows and eagles in the first film, but it’s not the last we see of them in the franchise. They always mean something.
The equality and inequality
Master Blaster, Benno – compassion sits alongside exploitation in this universe. When Max discovers the truth about Blaster in the third film, the ripples of emotion, the recall to a previous world and his previous life is gut-wrenching.
Max’s world starts in semi-civilisation, with hospitals and courts, as useless as both appear. As he drives into the future he meets many searching for The Green Place, the Tomorrow Morrow land, the place where the Great Northern Tribe can be founded.