Mad Max trilogy - Beyond Thunderdome: an in-depth look
“You! You can run … but you can’t hide!”
Movies ArticleI have already reviewed Mad Max and Mad Max 2 very comprehensively on Blu-ray already, and I have been really itching to cover the third entry in Mad Mel’s apocalyptic white-line nightmare for some considerable time. So, what I will do here is provide an overview of the first two films, a collective chronicle for the trilogy as a whole … and, a pretty full-on review of Beyond Thunderdome, an adventure that is the biggest, broadest and most ambitious of the three, and something of a flawed masterpiece of fantastic cinema that has been all-too-often and rather cruelly overlooked.
“I’m a fuel-injected suicide machine!”
For more in-depth coverage of the first two outstanding movies, please take a trip down the Anarchy Road with Max Rockatansky in Mad Max and then reach for that final shotgun shell in Mad Max II: The Road Warrior.
When looked at from the other side of the road, it is clear that Miller and Kennedy were really aping the style and epic grandeur of Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. They had their rugged antihero, bereft of all but the most basic sense of self-reliance and survival slogging it through a wasteland absolutely brimming with outlaws, killers, rapists, rivals and the odd kindred spirit. Although Max remained essentially the same character throughout the three movies, albeit losing his humanity and then regaining it again, with some reluctance on his part, his three adventures were vastly different in tone, look and attitude. Just like Clint’s for Leone. Eastwood was never actually the same person in any of the three Dollar Spaghettis, although this didn’t really matter. He looked, spoke and acted the same every time. (And just as with Leone’s magnum opus, other actors would reoccur, although they would not be playing the same characters either.) Gibson’s former life as a husband, a father and a cop is pretty much eclipsed by the cataclysmic events of the unspecified world war, and he becomes the battle-scarred warrior drifting forever towards a distant and dangerous horizon.
Whoever he meets along the way is surely to be jettisoned, and whatever attachments he forms will certainly come at a cost that, at the end of the day, will prove too much for him to pay, ultimately leaving him as he started … alone and broken and wandering a blighted landscape. And just like Clint’s usual heroes, he continually has to be driven down to the point of almost death – shot and ridden-over in the first film, crashed and shattered in the second, almost swallowed by the desert in the third. He never gets a break … unless it’s a bone.
This is a strange slant on the classical hero. The ancient titans – Achilles, Hercules, Jason etc – thrived on challenge and adventure. The hero of the Western World, actually epitomized by Hollywood’s concept of the literal Western hero is much closer to how Max makes it through this harsh environment. Shane is the usual association made – the outsider who fights for the persecuted community. He’d like to think that he makes all the choices that matter, yet, in truth, these decisions are invariably made for him. He regularly crashes and burns and gets battered and bruised and left for dead. His existence is one of constant tit-for-tat. He arrives.
He causes trouble. He gets hurt. Somebody sees the worth in him and, let’s be honest about this, tends to understand that they can actually “use” him for their own ends, and subsequently brings him back from the dead to help enable them in their crusade. Max is like a zombie for hire.
The search for the Promised Land is a big concept in the overall story. In the first film, this was borne out by the notion that society could yet be hauled back from the brink of disaster. There is still a semblance of law and order, although this is on its last legs. Max and family take off to the coast, the last stretch of the country in which they believe they will be safe. The idea is that calamity can still be avoided.
In Mad Max 2, the Gucci Arabs and the peaceniks in their little outpost refinery have a very definite desire to flee, once again, to the coast. The joke being that Surfer’s Paradise, the very location they believe will be their Garden of Eden, is a real-life sleaze-pit. But this doesn’t matter. The Biblical connotation is, again, that salvation can only be found once a passage has been made through the wasteland, a journey designed to test both spiritually and physically.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome takes this to an entirely more overt and literal level. Max becomes another reluctant savior, a Mad Messiah, if you like, who cannot avoid getting more innocent folks to safety via a long and dangerous exodus through a barbaric sea of violence. The connection here, and in the second film, is very akin to the redemptive quest of The Outlaw Josie Wales, which sees another hero lose his own family and, in his fierce desire for vengeance, contrive to pick up other lost souls along the way, and become a surrogate father figure and leader to them, forming a tribe of his own, whether he likes it or not.And, like Wales, Max is never exactly happy about such potential outcomes.But what I love most of all about this concept is that Max never actually wins via these turns of events. He saves others all the time, but he is always left alone and broken even more than he was before by the end of each saga. He is Odysseus on that long, long voyage home, but for Max there will never be a happy reunion. For him, home is a long time ago and too far away to ever reach. Home, as he knew it, is gone. Home, as it is for him now, is the wasteland – and this is as much a state of mind for him as it is a geographical location. And the point of these tales, which brilliantly goes against the grain and swerves popular convention, is to prove that he is, inevitably, happier alone and wandering the hellish landscape, with, as Mike Preston’s Papagallo in Part 2 says to him, “One day blurring into the next.” Max, the warrior, is more content with this condition. He is a nomad in mind, body and spirit. I would doubt very much that, even in his quieter moments, camped-out beneath the stars, with maybe only a dingo and can of Dinky-Di dog-food for company, that he would dwell upon the people and the places that he has encountered on his travels. His vague and slightly haunted and perplexed reaction to hearing the music box playing Happy Birthday and his comically blithe scorn-pouring of the lost tribe’s version of history - that hilarious “poxy-clipse” and “vuh-vuh-vuh-videohhhh” they go on about - completely indicate that he is continually losing his connections to whatever former life he recalls.
If Mad Max number one was pure exploitation, an Oz retaliation to the violent revengers from the States – the Dirty Harrys, The Warriors, The Night of the Juggler and Death Wish – then Mad Max 2 was both its Western and its dirge for and celebration of death on the roads. The world was smitten with gas-guzzling and the energy crisis was biting. It was only a logical, if extreme tangent that Miller was taking us on with a tribal war for gasoline when civilization bit the big one. And Mad Max 3 was something else entirely. It was a celebration of outdated heroism and the need for rebirth and re-evaluation. It was a renaissance picture that scoured the open sewers of a poisoned world to locate the reason for carrying on. Where the first two films were actioners, first and foremost, Beyond Thunderdome was a neo-classical spin on global hypocrisy rewritten as epochal optimism. The Black Sea of flooded gasoline parted by Max’s fallen angel. The neat little use of fuel embargos by those who held the real power was a crucial snipe at the oil barons and the vast, nation-ransoming conglomerates. It wasn’t even metaphor that the refugees were now powering their existence on pig crap, it was a literal statement that we were being kept in the dark and force-fed nonstop excrement.
Time and circumstance are weird commodities in this world, and continuity is just as rare as all this vital gasoline. But Miller, writer Terry Hayes, producer Byron Kennedy and George Ogilvie (who co-directed Thunderdome with Miller) made three terrific road movies, each with their own distinctive personalities and each a barnstorming rollercoaster ride that, pedal-to-the-metal delivers full-throttle excitement and profound escapism. Every time I watch any of Max’s adventures I feel the urge to get behind the wheel and roar the family car straight through the side of bus, and then on through a house, and then maybe right the way through an office-block and then off the side of the edge of the docks and onto the Mersey Ferry …and I can’t even drive!!!!!
Good thing, really. You’d have to agree.Fashions of the Apocalypse.The world might be a nuclear ashtray, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t express yourself. The first film saw things pretty much in a realistic way. It followed Chuck Norris’ idiom that the good guys wear black, with the Main Force Patrol (MFP) proudly bedecked in black leather, and the Scoot-Jockey bikers became an altogether more cavalier brigade of furs, scarves and whatnot. Even a mannequin made for a nice accessory in the case of the hand-sliced Cundalini. Oh, and he wants that hand back!
But the second instalment was when fashion statements were really made.
The white-clad Gucci Arabs even made highlights in their hair a major part of the desert uniform. But the marauders were the fellers with some real attitude. There were the Gay Boy Berserkers, the Smegma Crazies, the rogue motorcycle coppers with their chromed helmets, the S&M clan, headed-up by bodybuilding, studded-jockstrap-wearing Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson, “The Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla!”), and the Mohawk battalion, epitomized by Wez (Vernon Wells, who never really capitalized upon this fearsome role, and camped-it-up something silly in Commando), in his native war-paint, Mohican haircut and leather jeans bereft of any derriere – all the better to accommodate his bleached chum sitting behind him. Plus, there were the likes of Toady (Max Phipps), with his pioneer furs and spectacles, and the dreaded Bear-Claw (stuntman Guy Norrris) with his Viking-style trappings and vicious steel-hook finger-blades. Special mention goes to the pink-haired, pink-bearded, pink caddy-driving Ronnie Barker lookalike, though. If you were ever going to get away with this look … then the end of the world would surely be the best time to attempt it.
And then there was Max, himself. His battered MFP uniform now added-to with a creaky leg-brace and all manner of survival accoutrements, including a shoulder-shield welded on for that cool asymmetrical look – something that Mad Maximus adopted in Gladiator. But for me it was the hair that did it. I know that we could already see that the mighty Mel was losing some follicles here and there (he always blamed a fall during a stunt-fight that tore away a clump on the side of his head, which is very visible in Lethal Weapon), and the unkempt and dusty style was that of a scarecrow whose noggin had been partially scalped by crows … but there was that glorious little hawk-streak of blonde that wisped away over by his left temple. Now what was that supposed to be? Had Max lapsed into a touch of New Romantic chic? Or was this a result of the shock of losing his family in the first film leaving a residue of physical grief upon him? I’m inclined to think the latter as this sort of trauma is actually quite well-known. I know somebody whose entire body-hair turned shock-white overnight due to intense stress. But, hey, be all this as it may – it looks bloody cool. When I was around sixteen, I had the same blonde streak slicked into my hair to Maximise myself. And, you know what, I’ve just gone and had it done again!
There’s a girl with a palm tree on her hair. There’s Virginia Hey’s Warrior Woman dressed like space cricketer. And there’s the Gyro Captain with his ridiculous flying cap and little propeller-like sun-visor. Oh, and there’s Max’s dog, called … well … Dog, with his fetching red neckerchief.Once the big one explodes … it would seem anything goes.And this would be taken to its most extreme dimensions once Max went to Thunderdome … and Beyond.
Chainmail and epic strap-on Mohican war-bonnets. Sack-cloth and Pith helmets. Immense shoulder-pads that made everyone look like a Joan Collins linebacker. You could stick a colander on your head and match it with a Tupperware codpiece and nobody would bat an eyelid. You could sheath yourself in armour and carry a midget around in a backpack. You could stick hubcaps on your elbows and knees if you wanted to. Or you could attach a Japanese kabuki doll to yourself and never feel lonely. In this entry, Max starts off as possibly the most overdressed character. Mind you he needs all those robes and coverings to conceal that vast arsenal of weaponry he has secreted about his person. Quite where he shoved that crossbow is anybody’s guess, though.
He loses his Dog in part 2 in a sequence of such scintillating split-second, clock-ticking timing, further establishing that close associates are frankly doomed by their proximity to him, and his little monkey get passed from pillar to post in Part 3. Now this element is surely a holdover of the journey that the revolver of Peter O’ Toole’s refined and eccentric English officer, T.E. Lawrence, undergoes from person to person in Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, or even the dead man’s boots in All Quiet on the Western Front. Look for them, and all three films reveal a heritage of cinematic homage.
There really isn’t any question which of Max’s adventures is the best. Road Warrior is one of the most supremely executed and economically momentous action movies of all time. Stripped down to the core and fuelled with nitro from blistering start to earth-shuddering finale, it is jam-packed with stunts that have never been bettered and bolstered by a momentum that would leave Speedy Gonzales breathless and the Flash clutching his chest and throwing in the towel. Its very simplicity is its hook. Its all-out brutality is its ageless drug. With only a handful of lines and a couple of half-smiles, Gibson defined rugged dependability and a devout belief in never giving in, no matter what tumbles you take. After barely surviving another bone-jarring crash, he hobbles out in agony to accept the final challenge of driving the tanker through the badlands. When scoffed at his ability to even pilot a wheelchair, he replies without a trace of heroic martyrdom, “Believe me, I haven’t got a choice.”
He hasn’t. Without the thrill of the chase and the omnipresence of the angel of death on his shoulder … he has nothing.We don’t need another hero …Oh, I wouldn't bet on that if I were you.
But it is now time to provide some love for the film that most purists tend to ignore, or reluctantly accept as little other than a bold misstep.
By 1985, Mel Gibson was very nearly a global superstar. He had a string of diverse but compelling dramas to his name beyond the crowd-wallopage of Mad Max. The Year of Living Dangerously, The River, Mrs. Soffell and, of course, The Bounty, had proved that he was very much more than just an intense and charismatic action hero carved from the Steve McQueen mould. But the brand of Mad Max had indeed become meteoric with an outstandingly successful double-bill of the first two and ever-growing popularity on home video, and expectations were running exceedingly high for another hi-octane yarn of human roller-derby. To this end, the commerciality of the production was to reach unbelievable levels. Which is why suddenly a low-budget, threadbare exploitational chase thriller was about to be catapulted into the pop-culture mainstream with the addition of rock and pop sensation Tina Turner in her first acting role. Cynics were already out in force. The Queen of Motown and R & B could surmount rivers deep and mountains high, but could she cut it as a vengeful futuristic bitch with an army at her disposal? Well, her hyper-sexed-up performance in Tommy proved that she could blow minds with sheer force of persona, and her decibel velocity and astonishingly voluptuous body could serve as a mighty enough distraction at the very least.
With two pop ballads earmarked for promoting the film, front and back end – One of the Living, which would open the film, is a real belter, whilst the far more successful We Don’t Need Another Hero closes it with a softer, more fantastical rhapsody – and an iconic stature that had to have the plot melded around it, it is fair to say that the hard edged Mad Max saga may just have sold itself out in favour of the MTV crowd.
But this isn’t being fair.
I actually love the third movie for all of its eccentricities and excesses. For all of its odd choices and wayward strides.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the oddest film of the bunch, certainly. You know this because George Miller has barely ever said a word about it. There are no commentaries, no documentaries, no makings-of. Why? We know that poor Byron Kennedy, friend of Miller’s and the producer of the trilogy died when he crashed his Bell Jet Ranger into Lake Burragurang just before the scheduled shooting began, tainting the project with a sad air. But the film was certainly not what audiences expected anyway, especially after the insanely violent and death-filled first two instalments. If anything, he wanted to go all Middle-earth with this one – creating new races, new creeds, new mythologies. Max blunders into a large-scale saga and finds himself elevated from out of his own personal vendetta – he simply wants his stolen vehicle back and to be on his way – and hurled into several different scenarios that all demand his unique set of skills. This is Tolkien in a head-on collision with Leone, but also swamped deeply in the heroic waters of the Iliad. This is nothing if not colossally ambitious, with the widest net yet flung out at expectant audiences. Miller and Terry Hayes had created a huge new world and they could either simply race mad buggies all over it until audiences finally got tired of careering bodies and crunched metal, or he could endeavour, like Tina’s Aunty Entity, to build upon the ruins that he had roared all over in the two previous movies.
It was certainly a gamble … and one that, to my mind, paid off with results that still haven’t been fully recognized or acknowledged.
Even the title of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a wonderful conceit. Instead of just plain old Mad Max 3, this unusual moniker conjures up something else entirely. It already gives it a mythic quality. The dust of old Australia is poignantly reflected in Max’s whistling against the blood-red sunset, echoing the Aboriginal past of eerie desolation; and in the image of a shattered Sydney, cloaked in satanic dust, an edifice to Man’s grand folly. The very position and structure of Bartertown, the hellhole that becomes the epicenter of Max’s travails after his vehicle is stolen during a daring airborne raid, is like a cheeky comic-book reflection of English colonialism gone horrendously awry. Like many mining towns that sprang up in the Outback and were then forever lost to society, either swallowed-up by dust-storms or self-devoured due to a dearth of law and order, and a dogged lack of anybody bothering to ever venture near them. The witty construction of this market-mecca is that a form of decorum has, indeed, been established in the irradiated shadow of the lapsed former state. It now probably runs far more efficiently than it ever would have in the pre-nuked days. The sign at the entrance promises a better tomorrow … and, with the spirit of free enterprise regaining a foothold, this is entirely feasible.“I was a nobody. Except on the Day After. I was alive. This nobody had a chance to be somebody.”
Well, this was the 80’s. And right there Aunty Entity’s survival ethic is the perfect Thatcherite doctrine. She saw a chance for commercial expansion and exploitation, and she took it by the balls. Aunty does the same. And her cabinet of bullyboys knows that they must undermine the working class, led by the altogether more cunning Master Blaster combo of brains ‘n’ brawn who control the minions and the slave labour that fuel her power. Miller’s fable never manages to provide a timescale for the events that happened after the war. We can guess from the ages of the kids who sit waiting the return of the semi-religious icon of Captain Walker about the duration of the years of fallout, but things have definitely moved on from our previous visit to Down Under. Aunty’s admission of her humble past is one of the most telling lines in the entire trilogy. She even asks who or what Max was before it all went mushroom-shaped. “I was a cop. A driver.”
Both know that these things are meaningless now … and that the past should be wiped away. Yet, in the background, Aunty's oriental saxophonist, Ton-Ton, plays "something tragic," reminding us of Max's wife from a long time and whole life ago, playing a bluesy lament on the instrument for when a cool future seemed to beckon. It is almost as though she knew, even then, that nothing would last. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you'll spot the poetry that Thunderdome softly peddles.
But then, all this talk inevitably makes you wonder just at what point people, attitudes and society all changed. Was it overnight? Did order only gradually unravel? The first film gives only fleeting hints that the world is teetering upon a precipice of anarchy. In fact, barring a hopeless and dwindling belief in the judicial system, society isn’t showing any signs of being imminently wiped-out. The eerie intro to Mad Max 2 attempts to give vague and deliberately unspecified appreciation of what transpired during the intervening years by using weirdly outdated footage of World War II to make its point about two tribes going to war. This dislocates us even further from the truth … allowing Miller’s story to become an abstract account of economic collapse.
This, too, is clever. At the end of the polluted day, what does it matter? This is a tale of those who made it through to the other side. And, very perversely, most of them seem to be doing fairly well. We aren’t encountering mutants and cannibals. At least … not yet. But who knows what lurks down at the other end of Fury Road?“Come on. Tell us your story, Max. What burned you out? Killed one man too many?”There is that Hollywood trend of lessening initially hard films that became very popular and making them far less violent so that kids could come and see them and put more money over the counter. There’s The Evil Dead, there’s Die Hard and there’s Lethal Weapon, and Terminator – films that cut the brutality down to give the ratings some slack and boost the profits. Mad Max did this is in a bit of strange way. It started off nasty – with a woman and toddler being run down and a man being turned into an inferno – and it only got nastier in Road Warrior. And then, just when you thought that it might go really hell-for-leather and become the biggest bloodbath of all, it opted to reveal a more caring, sharing Max who could gather-up a gaggle of lost children and take them under his battered wing and lead them to that ever-elusive promised land.
The drop in certificate was the big giveaway.
But Miller was adamant that his story was the main thing and that this one would be the most imaginative and thought-provoking. He intended to take over the action scenes whilst acclaimed stage director George Ogilvie would field the character-play and narrative. It didn’t quite work out this way with Miller, whose stock in Max was the greater, assuming much more command over the ever-growing story.
The film was bigger in almost every way. The locations were much more varied and the story massively episodic with huge swathes shifted in tone, each one vastly different from the other. It managed new world mystery and alien artistry with the bizarre world of Bartertown, a place run fabulously on methane (“Methane cometh from pigsh*t.”) and where the dregs of humanity could come and trade, party in the Atomic Café (a brilliantly spiked satire in American 50’s diners) and just get good and loaded. It had the gladiatorial arena of Thunderdome, a circular hell of spikes, axes, maces, chainsaws, hammers and spears – a place in which disputes are settled with as much mocked-up justice as the new society can muster. It is a throwback to the stockade in which Charlton Heston’s duped spaceman, Taylor, found himself locked inside in Planet of the Apes.“Two men enter! One man leaves!” is the powerbase mantra that the masses, under Aunty’s command, are brainwashed with. And then there is the desert, itself. Now much more of a central figure in the story and a distinct threat to the survival of the race. If you can survive the marauders who are still out there, and the occasionally vile clutches of Bartertown, then the desert sands could still suck you down and snuff you out of existence. Very much like the parched sojourns in Lawrence of Arabia, the various treks across this melting mire are spine-tingling and omnipresent with death. But Miller and Ogilvie also allow us an oasis in the middle of all this. An idyll of sparkling river, waterfalls and lush vegetation – almost the very Eden that Max and all of those disparate characters he has met on his travels have been longing to discover.
And yet even this is not enough for those who have been dwelling there. Even they, the children of Eden, crave more.
This grander post-nuke pageant demands a freakish assembly of human flotsam and jetsam.
Look at the fabulous characters.
Aunty Entity – what an awesome title – a chainmail-clad, cyclone-haired MILF with legs to die for, and the power to turn crap into a fighting chance for survival. Neither heroine nor femme fatale, this pneumatic nuclear vixen is a vigorously underwritten character. She snarls and pouts, she shouts and barks. She suggests depth, but we are never really any closer to deciphering her personality at the end of it all than we were at the start. Look at Max’s bloodied face as he regards her sultry farewell at the finale. Of all the oddballs, killers and maniacs that he has encountered, Aunty Entity is the one greatest enigma of them all. She even looks sexy with a nugget of pig-crap in her hair! You can tell that he is as fascinated by her as she is by him. Although it could never work out, theirs would be a tantalising partnership.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. Boys and Girls. Dyin’ time’s here.”
Dr. Dealgood (Edwin Hodgeman), the sage-like proprietor of the arena, the Thunderdome, and the ruling adjudicator of confrontations and quarrels. He is the gameshow-host of the apocalypse. His mantras are bloody teases of fate-filled promise and mob-appeasing dread. I only wish that we could have spent more time in his company. Visually, he is like the bastard love-child of Richard III and Grima Wormtongue, an eloquent wretch from the outer reaches of the plague-pit, with a hunchback, a black cassock and an occult-headed cane. He even has two super-babes on either arm, confirming his celebrity status. Frank Thring was once a compelling face in many a lavish historical romp. As The Collector he brings deadpan to high art, and takes a hellish clang to the spark-plugs that he won’t forget in a hurry.
Rose Tattoo’s lead singer Angry Anderson couldn’t wait to leap into the vehicular fray as the freakish Ironbar Bassey, and he delivers a superb villain, though, once again, he is not a hate-filled monster like Wez or even as inherently venomous as Hugh Keays-Byrnes’ Toecutter. Although seemingly indestructible, you know that Max could kick his little ass even with both legs locked in a rusty brace.
George Spartels’ mechanic Blackfinger looks just like the crippled spanner-jack from Mad Max 2, both of whom get to play with Max’s booby-trapped V8, although this guy has the use of his legs. And speaking of familiar faces, the great, googly-eyed Bruce Spence, who played the jittery heroic Gyro-captain from the second film, and went on to become the ghastly Mouth of Sauron in The Return of the King, returns to play Jedidiah, another man-of-the-sky. It is no wonder that some people found all this a little bit confusing. But this is the complex, quirky world that Max inhabits after the bomb has dropped. Spence is on fine comic form too, and Adam Cockburn, who plays his dependable little son – “This is a stickup! Anybody moves and they’re dead men!” – is a wonderful sidekick who should probably annoy the hell out of us … but, miraculously, doesn’t in the least.
Robert Grubb’s “Pig Killer” and loyal confident to Max is one of the most likeable characters in the entire series, barring the awesome Steve Bisley as Max’s best mate, the fried Jim Goose, in the first film. Grubb had acted with Gibson earlier in Peter Weir’s brilliant Gallipoli, and you can definitely see a little spark between them. With a little more consideration awarded his crap-shoveling lifer by the script, Pig Killer could have been even more memorable. He is given a smattering of happily contrived, almost Spike Milligan-esque epithets that add a delicious quality of gibberish. But we could have done with more of them.
“With Blaster, twenty men enter … only him leave!”
I love the entire concept surrounding Master-Blaster. Two separate people acting as one integral unit. One part, veteran actor Angelo Rossito’s midget, the brains of the operation. The other, Paul Larsson’s towering hulk, the sheer muscle of the two-knit form. Miller excellently has us hate Master and fear Blaster, and yet he will switch these emotions around so smoothly and completely that your own morals will be in a tailspin. Never judge a book, eh … even when that book you are trying to judge could break your neck like a twig. I have to admit that Rossito’s character does change rather too radically as the film progresses. He goes from opportunist little dictator to scuttling heartbreaking McGuffin and the object in everybody’s sights. It is quite a swingshift to go from petty tyrant to heartfelt sophisticate.
“Remember where you are - this is Thunderdome, and death is listening, and will take the first man that screams.”
Pssst, Max …. but whistling is okay.
Although we all think of Road Warrior as being the action-heavy entry in the series, Max is at his most strenuously tested in the third film. Foreshadowing his pugilistic credentials as Mad Martin Riggs and Braveheart’s William Wallace, Beyond Thunderdome only has him sitting behind the wheel a couple of brief times, whilst for the rest of the story he is running, fighting, scrambling and fighting some more. He barely gets a second to catch his breath, and even then he is hanging upside-down by one leg.
Miller and Ogilvie direct the Thunderdome sequence superbly. It is Spartacus versus Draba, and Kirk versus the Gorn. It is Rocky taking on Ivan Drago. It is genuinely breathtaking and quite frightening to see Blaster going after Max and wielding all manner of ghastly weaponry. There is real suspense built up as Max struggles to reach his whistle, and then have to scrabble about in the dirt to try and retrieve it. Yet Miller pulls the rug from under us with the big reveal. I remember when I first saw the film and it became clear just who was beneath the mask, and how he had been used. I was literally heartbroken. (I actually thought that it was the retarded helper on Aunt May Swaisie’s farm from the first film in a bizarre Mad Maxian twist – and I still think that would have been a cool device.) For a filmmaker to put you through such a kaleidoscope of emotions during one sequence in so sure-handed a manner is a quite miraculous. And I love the daftness of Blaster’s beatific smile … and Max’s abject refusal to comply with the rules with this change in the plan. We’ve always known that Max has a heart even after all he’s been through, no matter how safe and walled-up he keeps it. He may come to admire the lost tribe of children, and even, in his own way, come to love them, but this is the moment when his real dignity comes burning through that tough guy exterior. “This wasn’t part of the deal,” he growls with utter revulsion at the manipulative Entity and her henchmen.
The cinch here – the thing that fans couldn’t really fathom – is that there are no bad guys in this film. Not really. People are acting for ulterior motives, of course. But then who isn’t? Bartertown, for some reason, actually works. In fact, without it, there is sure to be a whole lot more lawlessness and trouble. Aunty kept a lid on things. And Max – bloody Max again – has gone and messed it all up. This is another reason why he is such an incredibly rich and Machiavellian character. On the one hand, he just wants to get by. On the other, he cannot help but intervene and screw things up. The fact that it is always he who comes off worst is the most perpetually amusing angle.
Oh no … there’s a whole bunch of kids in this one!
Well, if anything was going to stick in the audiences’ collective throat, it was going to be this Lord of the Flies addition to the story. Max is saved from Gulag in the sweltering Devil’s Anvil by scouts and foragers from a tribe of kids and teens who are the offspring of the doomed passengers of a plane that crashed out in the desert. Their lingo is a mixed-up patois of half-remembered dialect and their grasp on the global situation a mishmash of garbled myth, unintelligible gibberish and hauntingly poignant wishful thinking. They see Max as the long-lost Captain Walker, the idolized hero they believe has returned to take them to the air once more and fly them … “HOME.”
Here we go again. Home. It is the linchpin of the series. The carrot dangled before these heroes, villains and hangers-on. It is all anybody wants. Except Max, of course. He is home.
Well, this kid-infested third act is the element that drove many fans away from Miller’s unique third vision. I will admit that I, too, upon my first viewing at the flicks – my hair streaked with the blonde wisps that I was convinced my hero would still be sporting, until those bloody kids sheared off his long locks to reveal that Max was actually now going grey (how my mates and my girlfriend, who had put those streaks in my hair, laughed) – was initially disappointed at this turn of events and somewhat shunted out of the adventure. Once they tuned up, you just knew that uber-carnage was gone from the equation. But I was wrong about them being a detriment. I understood that almost immediately when I sat through the film again, straight-afterwards, and grasped the significance of the whole fake Messiah strategy that Miller and Hayes were taking with the screenplay.
This is a courageous move on their part. It expands the mythology magnificently. In part Planet of the Apes, in part Peter Pan, and in part, The People That Time Forgot, with even shades of The Wizard of Oz (literally Oz, in this case) this reminds us of Emil Minty’s Feral Kid, and yet describes the simple essence of hope for the future of mankind. Sure, we want to see cars getting smashed up and people getting crushed under big meaty wheels, but this is a bigger saga than that. We could just drive around the bloody roads endlessly, but it would get tiresome eventually … and too many stuntmen would be getting invalided out of the trade. For Max, who was in danger of becoming little more than a cipher for macho intervention, this was the golden opportunity to portray him as a person. With feelings. With dimensionality. With a sense of humour. With, get this, the same bloody frustration at being surrounded by all these kids who never shut up with their hand-me-down Pidgin English and pilot-speak patois, as us, the audience!
The entire chapter is full of ripe irony. He is not their hero. He doesn’t want to leave for Tomorrow-Morrow Land. Slake M’ Thirst (proto-musclehead Tom Jennings) certainly sees him as some sort of rival in the leadership stakes, although this element is not really developed, I like their mutually wary sizing-up of one another. Savannah Nix (the thigh-tastic, eye-twitching Helen Buday) does not fall for him, as we would all have probably expected her to. They’ve been living in paradise all this time, but are obsessed with something intangible – a nuclear Bible, if you will – that will take them somewhere better. Max knows that there is nowhere better out there … yet even he cannot fully adjust to this new haven. They have the best that the irradiated world can offer, yet none of them are satisfied with it. On a more literal note, and quite an amusing one, Max ends up having to be the big guy giving little guys a piggyback, just as he’d noted about Master Blaster – from his monkey, to various stray kids in the desert, to Master, himself. There is a lot going on here beyond the more superficial, though touching misunderstandings of technology, lingo and situational context.
Given more time, I’m sure Max’s chapter as kindergarten cop would have been much more effective. If anything, Miller wimped-out when it came to the threat that Aunty and her cronies pose to them. Like the gorilla army marching out to destroy the mutant human survivors in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, this could have been a metaphor for the cultural paradox that set the world afire to begin with.
I love the way that destiny really seems to be coming true for this motley tribe. Max does, indeed, look just like Captain Walker. He has arrived out of the desert and not been completely jumped by Mister Dead, and he definitely knows how to educate them with regards to their warped concept of history. He shrewdly takes the staff and the bullet and shows them exactly what this little object is actually used for. And then when the winds of change begin to blow, signifying to the tribe that Walker will be able to make the crashed bird fly again, and they lead him out to the downed aircraft with nothing but hope in their hearts and Maurice Jarre’s swelling score fostering dream anew of freedom, Max just shakes his head in bewildered exasperation and then turns around and walks away. It is a beautiful character moment that totally sums up Max’s attitude and dog-tired pragmatism.
That Max will, ultimately, become a Pied Piper and lead the children out of the Wasteland is a delicious new facet. All the more acute because he never actually realises that he has succeeded in saving anybody. When Master gives him that final salute, Max merely sneers and shrugs it off as he revs the engine on the bloated dune-buggy and speeds away to play chicken with Ironbar. Much more so than Clint’s maverick individuals, Gibson enforces Max’s solitary idealism.
The film is ultimately too small to fully embrace all the ideas that are rocketing around within it. And yet, by the same token, it is also a very fitting, if enigmatic conclusion to Max’s saga. The home-fires are lit, and we can anticipate that civilization will begin anew, revitalized and far more culturally purged than before. I doubt very much that there would be a place for Max within this new world, though. He can only go out the same way as William Holden’s outdated outlaw Pike in The Wild Bunch – all guns blazing and all engines roaring.
Survivor by instinct, savior by begrudged happenstance. He is the flagrant impossibility of reason in a world gone irredeemably mad.The Big Chase.The first film was bookended by amazing chase sequences. The Nightrider’s skilful evading of each successive pursuer is the stuff of legend … right up until he meets Max in his Interceptor, whose calm and confident dominance of the roads proves too much for him to handle, merely bumping him with consummate yet indifferent ice-cool control. Then the final tracking down of each member of the Toecutter’s gang and their grinding metal annihilation contained a good couple of wince-worthy impacts, and one of the greatest and most justifiably ruthless paybacks in genre history.
By contrast, the second film felt like it was virtually just one long chase sequence. Bodies are catapulted sixty feet through the air, cars barrel roll and flip end over end, bikes fly over high barricades and get sucked under the wheels of a tanker truck, and people clambour all over cars, buggies, bikes and trucks all travelling at incredibly high speeds. It always will be the benchmark for vehicular action and there isn’t a pixel of CG embellishment amidst any of this delirious chaos.
Thus, the third film had a lot riding on it when it came to the propulsion of a good old grand finale. And although it delivered a spectacular, and somewhat unusual chase sequence – the baddies in their armada of jalopies are going after a train this time around – it lacked the power, the aggression and the raw stuntage that us Maxies so craved. Well, as we have already discussed, the film was aiming for a wider demographic, so bodies quilled with darts and getting squished under wheels, or heads exploding under shotgun-fire or the sharp impact with the unyielding steel girth of the back-end of a tanker were not images we were really likely to witness. But Miller and his action-technicians and stunties were still going to have a lot of fun with this breakneck set-piece of motorized junkage.
There’s Max punching out a driver and commandeering his cowhide dragster. There’s Ironbar Bassey doing his best Wez impersonation and leaping from vehicle to vehicle like a squat acrobat. There’s the panda-faced lost boy driving a huge muscle-rig by standing on its bonnet with his ass in the air and steering it with his back in the very direction in which he is travelling. Vehicles bomb right over the train tracks only millimeters in front of the locomotive itself, as it barrels along with all manner of miscreants – heroes and villains – scrambling about all over its rickety hide. A crazy motorcycle and sidecar hits a wall and sends its rider somersaulting to his rocky death far below. Ironbar goes through the last four or five of his nine lives during the chase, with the ultimate one possibly not even ending his spiteful existence even then. Max makes a wholly implausible disembarking from the dragster, but redeems himself with a purely heroic leap from carriage rooftop to train-cab with Angelito Rossito in his arms.
Where the chase in Mad Max 2 was visceral, dangerous and painful to watch, this one is far more comedic and seems to owe a lot more to the likes of Wile E Coyote and the Wacky Races. It is still all very exciting, and the culmination of it when Max makes yet another sacrifice for the greater good of the happy people is a real ripper. I can’t quite understand how his one collision, albeit a bloody big one, could cause so many collateral crashes, but it certainly makes for an enthralling aerial shot of a swirling man-made twister of dust and metal. Plus, if you actually stop and think about, just how did this maneuver actually allow Jedidiah more of a runway in the first place?
“Well, ain’t we a pair … Raggedy Man? Goodbye, soldier!”
And there is the music of Maurice Jarre. I’ve discussed Brian May’s musical mayhem for the first two outings in their own reviews, and his material was excellent. Scary, heroic and thrilling and even romantic for the first, and plain pulverizing for the second. But Jarre composed something that encompasses all this, and does a whole lot more as well. He didn’t just score Max’s adventures, he scored an entire new mythology.
Man, this score is not just the best of the three films … but it is one of the best scores I have ever heard. It blew me away back in 1985 – I loved the two Tina Turner tracks (One of the Living being my favourite of the pair) – but this outlandish, eerie, captivating, brutal, beautiful and elegiac score transported me to another world – another set of worlds, actually – so hypnotically, so beguilingly and so utterly completely that I’m convinced I left a good part of myself out there, wandering as lost as Max ever since. Jarre knew a thing or two about composing for deserts. He had accomplished Oscar-winning miracles for David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia and thenThe Lion of The Desert for Mustapha Akkad. He also understood the nature of blind heroism and the thirst for adventure with The Man Who Would Be King. And even the bizarre and the alien and the off-kilter and primal, with Wolfgang Petersen’s SF Robinson Crusoe riff, Enemy Mine and the swelling romance of the otherworldly with Dreamscape. His score here was thrilling, dynamic and exciting for the fight and chase sequences. Mysterious for the machinations of the underworld and the ominous threat of desert punishments. Yet he also reveled in the sheer cathartic bliss of innocence for the lost tribe and the endless yearning and hope that they exhibited for a dream of somewhere even more beatific. Four differently pitched anvils, a didgeridoo, three Ondes Martinot, saxophone and a rock ensemble, and all manner of indigenous instruments evoked both the culture of the new land of Oz, and the quasi-birth of a world ripped entirely from the guts of the old one. Guttural belches of tribal industry bash and crash like early Depeche Mode sans synth and morbid lyrics. Yet strings and horns and choir enunciate the hopes and prayers of Savannah, Slake, Anna-Goanna, Skyfish and Scrooloose, and the other new kids on the nuclear windblown block.
It is a work of phenomenal ingenuity, almost as percussive as Basil Poledouris’ Conan The Barbarian and just as infinitely versatile and distinctive.
I know that some people just don’t bother with Beyond Thunderdome – or to put it another way, they just don’t bother with it once Max has gone Beyond Thunderdome, itself – and the film definitely does push itself too far and in too many different directions. The chase should have been longer and more violent. The rebirth of Max and the development of the lost tribe possibly even longer, again, to give the final denouement even more clout. But this is a large-scale, brash and colourful adventure that owes as much to The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur and Spartacus as it does to, well, Mad Max 2, and I think that is a great thing. Why not expand?
The film is terrific value and hugely, almost impossibly imaginative. Miller was either having his final word on the subject, or simply establishing an entirely new canvas from which to work from. Of course, we now know that the fourth entry in Max’s own odyssey is going to be a different kettle of atomic fish, coming as it will, almost a full thirty years after his last sojourn to the scorched rubber hinterlands of Hell’s highways, with Broken Hill now replaced by Namibia, and with Tom Hardy donning the raggedy-man remnants of the MFP uniform and, if anything, it promises to combine the rich variety of this new and frightening society with all the rip-roaring violence that made the first two films such classics of vehicular mayhem.
Hardy has big, sand-filled boots to fill, but with Mad Mel on hand to watch over him, as well as the Toecutter’s Keyes-Bryne too, and George Miller in the driving seat once more, we have every right to expect to great things.
The original Mad Max Trilogy is a glorious pageant of grinding metal, sand-scrubbed carnage and high-speed heroism … yet you owe it to George Miller, Mel Gibson and a whole host of intrepid and death-defying stuntmen to look a little deeper into this maelstrom of madness than just the pile-ups. There is far more here than just cool cars, battered leathers and jaw-dropping air-ramp thrills and spills.
It spawned a legion of copycats and created its own subgenre. It ominously foreshadowed Mel Gibson’s own descent into madness, but it remains a stark, hammer-in-the-face testament to just how bloody good this guy was with even the scantiest of material.
Mad Max was, is, and always shall be the king of the road.
And his journey is far from over.
For those who care about such things - Mad Max gets a raw and thrilling 9 out of 10. Mad Max 2 an unreserved, unequivocal 10. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, flawed and unappreciated as it is, gets a well-earned 8 out of 10. I love it, but it does falter over a few overly ambitious ingredients.
So, collectively, we are talking a trilogy that racks up a very strong 9 out of 10, folks.
“I’ve got skills. Maybe I could trade those.”
“Sorry … the brothel’s full.”
Movie score : 9
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