The Mad Max Trilogy (1979-1985)

Like so many franchises from the late-70s and early-80s that have been resurrected today, there has always been a question of whether Mad Max would ride again. Hints, rumours, and reports of various kinds circulated the internet for years, speculating whether Australian director George Miller would return to the characters and world which made Mel Gibson a star more than 30 years ago. The reputation of the franchise has waxed and waned over time, but its influence and legacy is certain through the particular post-apocalyptic aesthetic it ushered in. The dusty deserts and tattered characters driving make-shift vehicles in mind-blowing chase sequences these films are filled with have influenced everything from music videos to contemporary post-apocalyptic cinema like The Book of Eli (2010). Additionally, the film series’ thematic interests still resonate in an era when apocalyptic and dystopian tales are more popular than ever. Now, this weekend, the most recent iteration of the character’s adventure will hit theatres, as director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is being released to thunderous reviews with Tom Hardy replacing Mel Gibson as the titular road warrior.

I thought that it would be interesting to revisit the first three films in Miller’s series, as it had been years since I had seen them and then only on poor VHS copies in my friend’s basement during high school. Outside of the Mad Max series, Miller is a very idiosyncratic director and producer, having since the early 80s made such varied films as Babe (the Oscar nominated family film which he produced), Babe: Pig in the City (the outrageous sequel, which he directed), Lorenzo’s Oil, The Witches of Eastwick, the Happy Feet films, and—my personal favourite—the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Going back and watching the first three Mad Max films did a lot to affirm in my mind that Miller is definitely a talented director, with an eye for composition and action and an ability to bring a deeply humanist sensibility to some very bleak stories.

What is perhaps most surprising about revisiting the series is that the first film in the series, Mad Max, is far different from what someone coming to the series based only on its reputation in popular culture might expect. For one thing, it’s a low budget affair but still does quite a bit within its limitations. Miller, at the time an Australian doctor, conceived of the film based on various road injuries and fatalities he had treated. Teaming with producer Byron Kennedy, he decided to try to make a film script based on his experiences and personal interest in road action. The result is a film best remembered for its remarkable car chases and a revealing lead performance by Mel Gibson in his first major film role.

The second surprising thing about the first Mad Max is that its world hasn’t quite entered into the full-on apocalypse that would define the rest of the series. The Australia of this first film is one that is suffering a major energy crisis; a shortage of oil and other commodities has resulted in a dystopian world ravaged by biker gangs who prey on the weak, but society isn’t yet in complete collapse and communities and some semblance of law and order still hang on as best as they can. The most important remnant of civilization in the film is the Main Force Patrol, or MFP, a highway police force to which Max Rockatansky belongs and which tries to protect those people living on the highway routes outside the major centres.

The film begins with the MFP in pursuit of a dangerous gang member, named “Nightrider,”, but when he elludes his initial pursuers in the MFP they must call in Max. The film builds to a reveal of Max, avoiding showing his face in an effort to build up his mystique as a force to be reckoned with. When Max is finally called in he ends up engaging “Nightrider” in a game of “chicken,” leading to the gang member's death. These opening scenes through the first half hour of the film demonstrate smart and efficient filmmaking and some truly energizing car chases. Additionally, Mel Gibson was enough of a charismatic figure that it doesn’t fall flat. It might be hard for some folks today to remember, but Mel Gibson was once a justifiably lauded movie star and Mad Max is where it all started. It’s safe to say that the first film may not have been what it was without his performance.

After Max’s defeat of “Nightrider”, the rest of the gang lead by a heartless man named “Toecutter” (Hugh Keays-Byrne), engages in a variety of sensational crimes across the highway communities as the MFP attempt to combat them. After a series of heinous crimes, Max’s partner “Goose” ends up being killed by the gang. Max decides that he can’t take the risk of being the next victim of the gang, what with his wife and baby, and threatens to quit the MFP. His superior officer, faced with the prospect of losing his best man, asks him to just take a vacation before he makes his decision. Of course, it can’t go well. While on vacation, Max and his family encounter “Toecutter’s” gang, which, after first trying to escape them by seeking refuge on a friend’s farm, results in the death of Max’s wife and child. The final portion of the film features an inconsolate Max seeking revenge, methodically hunting down the gang members and then driving off into the outback, left as a haunted and broken man.

In many ways Mad Max seems to fit more into the genre of 70s car film and the revenge exploitation film genres with its twin focus on cars and revenge thrills. Also, like a lot of the exploitation films I’d compare it to, Mad Max doesn’t always deliver on its intriguing premise. Its 90 min run time is pretty slack at times, and Max himself isn’t the main driving force through the whole film. It is “Goose's" outrage at a rapist walking free that leads to his death at the hands of the gang, and Max is initially happy to walk away for his family’s sake rather than see the same thing happen to him.

But the film has a lot of strengths too. It’s imperative to keep in mind how much Miller and his crew do with so little. With a budget of under $400,000 the film managed to go on and gross more than $100 million worldwide, a cult phenomenon that not only paved the way for its sequels but remained the most profitable film of all time with the highest profit to cost ratio for many years. Miller packs a lot into the short film, giving Max a full character arc and setting up the broken, hardened man who would become a legend in the sequels. It’s also phenomenal how good the few chase scenes in the film are given how little they had to work with. The car chases are as good as any of the era, thrilling and edited with clarity and and an eye to creating a sense of propulsion.

Nonetheless, someone coming to Mad Max expecting an all out post-apocalyptic vision might be a little disappointed. The world of the film isn’t too different from the contemporaneous world the film was made in. There is still grass on the hills and people still go on beach vacations. But it’s about to get worse. You sense that this world, like the drivers and their cars in it, are just barely under control and could reel off the road at any moment. Sometime in the intervening five years between the first film and its sequel, the world does change.

While Mad Max is a fine effort, Mad Max 2 (a.k.a. The Road Warrior as it was dubbed by Warner Bros. for its U.S. release) is truly the film that changed it all. From the moment the black and white montage made up of shots from the first film flashes across the screen, with the narrator explaining how things have gotten so much worse, it's clear that this film is presenting something new and not just retreading the ground of the first film. As is explained in the opening narration, a global war has destroyed gasoline supplies, and with it has vanished the remaining remnants of law and order and society from the first film.

Mad Max 2 begins with Max travelling in his Pursuit Special with his dog, eking out a living escaping gangs in a desolate outback wasteland that is all that is left of Australia. After a run in with one of the violent gangs that control this world, Max checks out a fuel truck and comes across a nearby autogyro and its pilot played by Bruce Spence who tries to ambush Max. After outwitting the pilot, with whom he is in competition with for the world's scarce fuel resources, together they travel to a nearby former oil refinery, a compound holding out against a vicious gang dressed in S&M leathers and crazy Mohawks and led by a hulking man in a hockey mask called the “Humungous." Max agrees to help the members of the compound’s community get the fuel truck in exchange for a tank of gasoline for his interceptor. Of course, together they must defeat the “Humungous” who places the compound under seige.

If the first film was influenced by 70s car films and revenge thrillers, Mad Max 2 is very strongly a Western and holds to the conventions of the genre. Max is the Western hero who must come to the aid of the townspeople against the threat of enemies; he is the man on the fringes of society who is the only one strong enough and free enough to reestablish the law and order that he chooses to live outside of. Mel Gibson plays Max in this film as barely speaking. He's taciturn and gruff, with elements of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name. His interactions with the compound inhabitants are terse and take time to warm up. He must be convinced to help them. Only the Feral Kid (Emil Minty) truly befriends Max, and in the end Max does the right thing rather than abandoning the “townspeople” to the “Humungous” before wandering back into the desert.

The second film ups the ante on the car chases and action scenes. The action scenes are tightly edited and thrill with their brutal violence and clear framing. Miller’s widescreen cinematography is fantastic here, expanding far beyond the basic work in the first film and truly capturing the expansiveness of the post-apocalyptic desert setting. Mad Max 2 is a great looking film in set design as well. The costumes and props have influenced countless films by defining a world that is just barely surviving with its dirty and jury-rigged settings and vehicles. It takes the "used-universe" aesthetic of the original Star Wars to another level.

Many people will probably like Mad Max 2 the best, and it seems from the trailers and reviews that Fury Road is closest to the second film in spirit. The film’s short running time is much better paced than the first film, and its action scenes are more expansive in both their duration and in complexity of the staging. The film has an undeniable energy. It's a lot of fun for a film about people barely surviving in a brutal world.

Miller also manages to meld the mythology of Mad Max to a more universal story structure, of the hero who must overcome his loner nature to protect the innocent. The film works despite having such little dialogue because it’s such a deeply archetypal story. By the end of the film Max has become something more than just a man, he’s a legend.

Max meets the children in Beyond Thunderdome.
Max meets the children in Beyond Thunderdome.

Miller pushes this mythology building even further in the third film of the series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. From the first moments of the third film, it’s clear that Mad Max has "gone Hollywood" in terms of budget, which can be seen in the more polished sets and in Tina Turner’s great opening song. Some decried the third film, which toned down some of the violence and attempted to expand the mythology of the series in ways that go far beyond what could have been imagined in the first film. Here Mad Max goes beyond gritty thriller into full on fantasy mode.

Beyond Thunderdome opens 15 years after the last film with Max crossing the desert in a camel-drawn wagon. The helicopter shots and widescreen cinematography make the world seem so big here. Subsequently Max is ambushed by a pilot, Jedediah, (Bruce Spence in a different role, but still reminiscent of his Gyro Captain from the first second film) and his son. When they capture his supplies, Max follows them to Bartertown, the central trading post that has arisen. Here Max figures he will find Jedediah and his things. Bartertown, Max discovers, is run by Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), a powerful woman who reigns over the town in an uneasy truce with Master, a dwarf who rides around on the back of his massive bodyguard Blaster. Master is in charge of creating energy for the town with methane derived from pig poop. Between the two of them, Bartertown is a dangerous place.

Bartertown is a remarkable creation, expansive far beyond the simple outpost in Mad Max 2, like something from the wild and chaotic imagination of Terry Gilliam but married to the post-apocalyptic aesthetic established in the second film. Beyond Thunderdome has a remarkable visual richness to it in costume design and cinematography that other films clearly have tried to emulate (such as Costner’s Waterworld and even Spielberg’s Hook), but yet it remains unique even 30 years later.

After Max passes her test, Aunty strikes a deal to refuel him and return his equipment if he agrees to face Blaster in the Thunderdome, a gladiatorial arena with the famous rule, “Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves.” The Thunderdome battle is an ingenious and claustrophobic sequence with Max facing off against the giant Blaster as they hang from suspenders and spin around in a deadly ballet. But just when Max has almost defeated Blaster, he discovers that Blaster is actually developmentally challenged and has the mind of a child. Max in his heroism can’t bring himself to kill Blaster and Max is exiled from Bartertown.

In the desert and close to death, Max is rescued by a young woman named Savannah Nix, who takes him to her community of children who have been living in a desert oasis after surviving a plane crash many years ago. They’ve been waiting for the pilot to return and they believe Max is their long awaited saviour. Max tells them the truth, that he isn’t their saviour and that the world is in ruins, but Savannah and some of the other children attempt to go and seek civilization anyway and Max is forced to go after them to save them. After losing some of their supplies, they are forced to head to Bartertown where they plan to retrieve supplies. The film climaxes with Max, with the help of Jedediah, planning an escape from Aunty and Bartertown. Max remains and heads off into the desert as Jedediah and the children attempt to establish a society in the ruins of Sydney.

Beyond Thunderdome raises the stakes in many ways, while preserving the messianic role that Max played in the second film. It pushes the mythology into further complexity, introducing a prophecy that the children have and developing the post-apocalyptic society into something unique.

Some don’t like the way that Beyond Thunderdome introduces the children, finding them too sentimental and similar to Peter Pan’s Lost Boys (it’s clear that Spielberg must have been influenced by Miller’s children when making his own Peter Pan film Hook). Some have even compared the children’s oasis and role in the finale to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. But I find that the characters add a richness to the themes of community and hope in the face of a brutal world that Miller always had, and which tracks with his thematic interests in his other films.

Beyond Thunderdome is also just so visually wonderful that it’s hard not to wonder at the sheer spectacle of it. It’s truly an iconic film in so many ways, from Master-Blaster to the Thunderdome itself to the final desert showdown with Aunty’s henchman. Even if its action is not quite as visceral and thrilling as in the second film, it’s still a visual spectacular and thoroughly enjoyable piece of 80s blockbuster filmmaking.

The Mad Max series has now been resurrected and it sounds like Fury Road furthers the action of the first three films while bringing many of Miller’s thematic interests into the twenty-first century. It’s rare for films of this kind to have heart and thematic depth alongside gripping action sequences. All in all, even if you don’t need to have seen the first three films to enjoy the latest installment, the originals are all worth revisiting for how they have shaped cinema’s vision of a post-apocalyptic future and influenced the action genre.

6 out of 10

Mad Max (1979, Australia)

Directed by George Miller; written by George Miller & James McCausland based on a story by Miller and Byron Kennedy; starring Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley.

8 out of 10

Mad Max 2 (a.k.a. The Road Warrior) (1981, Australia)

Directed by George Miller; written by George Miller & Terry Hayes; starring Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston, Kjell Nilsson, Emil Minty.

8 out of 10

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985, Australia)

Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie; written by George Miller & Terry Hayes; starring Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Bruce Spence, Angelo Rossito, Helen Buday.