“They say people don't believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we're gonna give them back their heroes!”
“Ah, Feef. Do you really expect me to go for that crap?”
“You gotta admit … I sounded good there for a minute, huh?”
Director George Miller and producer Byron Kennedy grabbed the old AIP biker flicks of the sixties and seventies – things like Rebel Rousers, The Hellcats, The Young Animals and Hell’s Belles that followed on the wake of Brando’s 1953 establishment-shaker The Wild Ones – by the throat and dragged them, full-throttle, into a new age of muscular mayhem when they let Mad Max rampage across cinema screens back in 1979. But they didn’t just re-write the anti-authoritarian road-movie, they fused it with the post-apocalyptic vogue that had run through the genre since Panic In Year Zero from 1962. They took elements of No Blade Of Grass, Godard’s wildly allegorical Weekend and Oz's own The Cars That Ate Paris and sprinkled in the contemporary thrills of primal retribution that had been the province of Dirty Harry and Death Wish and created what amounted to the evolution of the quintessential Western. That the film would spawn two successful sequels that rolled ever-more emphatically in the realm of the fantastic as they went along is well known, but the cherished trilogy (which will soon become a quadrilogy if Fury Road ever gets its motor running) had to start somewhere … and it is important to note that Miller and Kennedy, and their breakout star, Mel Gibson, never initially intended for this envelope-pushing ode to death-on-the-roads to, well, keep on rolling down that endless Outback blacktop. But in a time before Mel genuinely went mad, his Main Force Patrol officer Max Rockatansky was one of the first of the modern heroic screen-icons, pre-dating Snake Plissken, John Rambo, the Terminator, his own Martin Riggs (who was a definite descendant, losing his nearest and dearest and all) and John McClane … and one of the best. Channelling Clint's Man With No Name (well, the character actually had three, but you know what I mean) into a New Age Warrior of the Wasteland, Gibbo's leather-clad avenger was, famously, “the last law in a world gone mad”.
And now, finally, he arrives on Blu-ray in a welter of tumbling bodies and screeching metal.
It may be set sometime tomorrow after some undisclosed societal collapse has blighted law and order and, seemingly, lessened the population by a fair chunk, but the first Mad Max really doesn’t pander to the template of what would become the clichéd post apocalyptic future. The subsequent films in the series would assume that mantle with style. Miller’s first revving of the cult engine was a different beast again. It was a Western. Pure and simple. They’d replaced the horses with cars and motorbikes, the sheriff and his deputies with the semi-delinquent Main Force Patrol (the MFP, or Main Farce Patrol as the graffiti on one of those skull-and-crossbones road-signs so mockingly declares), identified by their bronze badge – probably the only thing that separates them from the “skags”, the “hoons” and the full menagerie of road-trash that are terrorising the remnants of civilisation, who have become the veritable outlaws and renegades that Miller and his co-screenwriter James McCausland have relocated from the Old West. This is the new frontier, savage and practically lawless but at least the “Bronze” attempt to maintain some semblance of order amidst the chaos, and their methods are as extreme as the tactics of the gangs out prowling the roads. When the notorious leader of one such barbarian clan, the Nightrider (played with memorable hysteria by Vince Gil) jumps court, kills a cop and escapes, with his ragamuffin moll, in a stolen police vehicle, the full vengeance of the MFP hurtles after him, with only death and destruction lying at the end of the road. The results of this frantic opening set-piece are a bereaved gang, now led by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Bryne), who vow revenge on the MFP and especially their superstar poster-boy, Max.
“You’re blaspheming again. I don’t have to work with a blasphemer!”
It is worth looking at this spectacular introductory sequence in some detail as, quite honestly, nothing like it had ever been seen on the screen before.
“Born with a steering wheel in his hands!”
The lunatic ravings of the Nightrider – always much more insane when heard in Vince Gil’s native Aussie tongue and not in the thick American brogue of the notorious re-dubbed version that played for so many years – are the most memorable lines of the entire trilogy, literally a mantra of mayhem. “Do you see me, Toecutter? Do you see me, mannnn???!!!” Gil is having a ball. Fingernails painted black, that curious blue-dot tattoo on his face. Licking his lips when he spies a toddler straying out into the road and merrily divulging details of the “damage” he has caused over the radio to Max. “Metal damage. Brain damage.” Unquestionably, this is one of the best and most exhilarating openings ever put on celluloid. But then this breathtaking introduction doesn’t merely open the film, it unleashes it.
“What’s he driving?”
“That’s what hurts. It’s one of our own V8’s. A Pursuit Special … on methane. Superhot!”
The ease with which the Nightrider eludes each successive MFP pursuer, the fact that he is driving one of their own Pursuit specials, his crazed taunting of them as rips “right down the rubber road … right to freedom” is counterpointed with enigmatic shots of the mysterious Max as he casually and methodically gets himself and his Interceptor ready for the hunt. DOP David Eggby’s fabulous low-level camera swoons along the side of the car – something that he will have it do with superlative majesty throughout the film, no matter what the speed the vehicles are travelling at – and Brian May’s anarchic circus-like score rumbles into high gear, brass and percussion emulating the gunning of a powerful engine.
Miller is actually telling a story with this sequence that can stand alone as a mini-masterpiece. It is wonderful how we well get to know all the characters, some of whom just aren’t gonna make it through to the next scene. Big Bopper’s two-man crew of Roop (Steve Millichamp) and Charlie (John Ley) smash their way down the highway, totally obliterating anything that gets in their path, steadily wrecking their own car in the process, yet they still carry on the chase. “Big Bopper to March Hare … we’re still in the game. Know this, this skag and his floozy … they’re gonna die!” The dialogue is awesome, the macho aggression electrifying, the automotive violence addictive. Despite the carnage, you just wish that you were involved in the pursuit as well. I know I do … and I don’t even drive! “Stay off the road!” the March Hare crew yell at bystanders as they scream down the road. Miller and his stunt team go way, way over the top with the big smash ‘n’ crash. Cars pirouette above the road for eighty feet of jaw-dropping air-travel. One ploughs right through the side of a caravan. Max’s best mate, the MFP’s irrepressible and almost indestructible two-wheel speed-jockey Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) and his motorbike limbo to a halt against the side of the visibly trembling vehicle that was hauling it. And only then does Max get involved, trundling slowly onto the road to await the black lightning bolt of the exultant Nightrider streaming over the horizon towards him with a customised Aussie Naval rocket welded on to the back of his car.
“You’d better send a meat-wagon. Charlie’s copped a saucepan in the throat.”
To be honest, you could just switch the film off after the final image of the prologue, a tumultuous shot of roiling fireballs as Max runs up to inspect the righteous chaos he has caused, and still feel totally satisfied. In adrenal terms, nothing in the rest of the film really comes close to this rip-roaring scene-setter and, to be fair, it would take the entirety of Mad Max II to fully do it justice. Those gorgeous blue and yellow Ford Falcons thunder down the roads, seething with mechanical muscle like exotic predatory machines, just eating up the asphalt as they bear down on their prey. The customised black V8 that Max inherits is a stunner, too, but those official vehicles are the real deal, aren’t they? Don’t you just love the way that the MFP actually bother to paint the designation of the car on the boot – Pursuit or Interceptor – when it doesn’t really matter what their speciality is once they are blasting after a suspect down that white-line nightmare.
“The Night-rider. That is his name. Remember him when you look at the night sky.”
The gang who arrive in the dust-storm of the Nightrider’s wake are vicious, barbaric, amoral and wrathful … yet they are also intensely charismatic and redoubtably interesting. McCausland and Miller have resisted any generic temptation to paint their villains as simply evil or black-hearted just for the sake of it. Hugh Keays-Byrne plays the Toecutter as a multi-faceted character. He is very possibly well-educated, irredeemably arrogant and aloof, yet not above some archly pantomimic line delivery and mischief. His playful intimidation of Jessie, Max's wife (played with an earthy cuteness by Joanna Samuels), that comical little Scottish accent he puts on - “Have ye no gorra sense o' humour?” - his deliciously enacted threat about removing her face, and then his daftly amusing reaction to being confronted by an OAP with a shotgun - “Oh!” he shrieks with mock panic, “I hate guns!” And his demand for his crippled comrade that “Cundalini wants his hand back!” is an absolute gem of macabre understatement. But there is a truly sinister aura about him too. Our first encounter with him, as he gestures for his veritable army to gun their engines for a parade outside the train station at which the Nightrider's coffin has been deposited, and his horribly focussed superiority over the clearly rattled station master reveal him to be a far worse aggressor than his already intimidating appearance would suggest – he is a maniac who knows he is a maniac … and likes it. Later scenes of him calmly pushing the barrel of a shotgun into his loose-cannon subordinate's mouth to ensure he has his attention for a little lesson in gang etiquette, and his effortless transition from bedevilled charmer to pure brute whenever he has a victim at his mercy mark Keays-Byrne as one of the genre's greatest unsung bogeymen. And going hand-in-hand with this fascinating dictator, we have his blonde-rinsed lieutenant, Bubba Zanetti, played with snake-like theatricality by Geoff Parry. Zanetti, too, is much more than a mere thug in a motorcycle helmet. Here is a guy who respects his master but is not above snarling some reluctant barbs in his face when he feels that things aren't being run as well or as efficiently as they should be. Parry moves with slow spite, curling dark innuendo from a face that would be cherubic if it didn't harbour such notions of depravity.
“Quit toying, Bubba.”
“Easy … I know what I'm doing.”
Homosexuality and fetishism are rife throughout the trilogy. Here in the first and less far-fetched story, the Nightrider's gang, now led by the Toecutter of course, are a weirdly diverse bunch of nomad berserkers. Although clearly modelled on Hell's Angels and their ilk, the influence of the British Punk scene is apparent in the clothing, the hair and the whole salvaged rebel style that the tribe adopts. The bikes and the callous, thuggish attitude are one thing, but the gang is also weirdly tolerant of sexual deviance amongst their number. Whilst it can be argued that a couple of them are happy to act gay for a laugh (Mudguts and the hairy ginger one, for instance), it becomes quite apparent that several in their clan almost certainly are. When the gleaming and prized Chevy that they have chased out of town is trashed, we are in no doubt that the girl passenger has been raped, but then so has her boyfriend, the driver whose accidental buffeting of Toecutter has sparked the outrage. We see him dragged from the vehicle and set upon, but as Max and Goose come upon the scene of devastation later, he is up and running, nude from the waist down and his rear smeared with axle grease. Make no mistake about it, he has been violated.
“They didn't show. The girl didn't show. The townspeople didn't show. Nobody showed!”
The leathers of the cops are just as fetishistic. Gibson may be the only one of the cast who actually gets to wear a full suit of leather (they couldn't afford more than one, so the others are all wearing vinyl!) but the theme of uniforms for these warriors of the road has been taken to another degree. These guys aren't CHiPs, that's for sure. Vinyl or not, Goose looks the coolest, in that pure Kenicki (from Grease) kind of way – you want to be Max, but you know, deep down, that Goose is actually a lot more fun … and just as tough. Steve Bisley is tremendous as the maverick rozzer. Whether gleefully detailing the gruesome delights of a car-crash over a fry-up, or suddenly realising that the alien-faced club-singer is actually crooning about him, he makes Goose a more empathetic character than Max. No matter how much Gibson mugs and soothes, buying obviously doomed puppies and singing operatically behind the wheel of the family jalopy in the company of Jessie and their toddler, or waxes lyrical about his old man and his love for the quiet life, I don't think we buy into it half as much as Goose's simple adrenaline-junkie's lifestyle of easy-riding, easy loving and wind-rush embracing. Where Max's family-man side is the closest the film comes to contrivance and corn (though this is necessary, given the motivation he will be needing later on), Goose is the breath of bird-flipping fresh air. But the rest of the MFP, their numbers whittled down, one would assume, on an almost daily basis, are just as compelling, despite being effectively shunted out of the way come the film's half-way mark. Presided over by the imposing, yet wonderfully fatherly Fifi (played by the barrel-chested, walrus-'tached Roger Ward, one of the sadistic guards in the gloriously violent Turkey Shoot, aka Blood Camp Thatcher, with Steve Railsback and Olivia Hussey), you get the impression that these guys are almost as much of a gang as the Toecutter and his tribe … and possibly just as dangerous.
Cleverly, the cast are defined by the machines they drive or ride. Roop and Charlie’s Big Bopper is a Pursuit Special whilst March Hare, driven by Sarse (Stephen Clark) and Scuttle (George Novack) is another Interceptor, although not one that is as souped-up or as masterfully controlled as Max's. Clark and Novack were also fully-fledged stunt-drivers … which obviously helped when it came time to spin that sucker over. But the fact that we see Charlie, throat gouged during the initial chase, alive and well, but with a robotic vocal synthesiser jammed into his neck proves that the Big Bopper duo may pick up just as many injuries as their car does but, just like it does, they keep on coming back. It is just a shame that we don't get to see more them. Johnny The Boy is a clumsy, unfocussed fool (he even drops the crow-bar he uses to break the chain on the emergency phone!) … thus, we see him come off his bike on a couple of occasions, his character not as in-tune with the smooth-running of his ride, and a definite outsider even from his own gang.
“Hey … what the molly-frock do you think you're doing?”
Remember how you think you are seeing far more violence and atrocity being committed in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than you really are? Well Mad Max is the same. People are burned alive and savagely run down, hands are severed and dogs are gutted (no toes are cut, though) yet Miller ensures that we are spared the grisly details and, if anything, this has the effect of making the deaths all the more horrible. The screenplay even blurs the line between life and death as we see that Goose is still breathing in the hospital – albeit on a ventilator and his cremated body covered by the shroud of a cooling incubator – and the doctors even inform us of Jessie’s horrific injuries (“Jesus, it reads like a shopping list!”) and we can see that she still lives, although she is clearly no longer in one piece. Yet we don't need to be told that Max loses all of these people – hanging on to the vestiges of life or not, his family and his best friend become symbolically extinct … a vital component in the evolution, or devolution of his soul. Mel Gibson would make something of a habit of losing wives to violence – just ask Martin Riggs or William Wallace or the Rev. Graham Hess from Signs – and this would become something of a trademark. And, quite simply, there's only Russell Crowe who can convey the turbulent rage at such a loss with any more embittered resolve. After having his leg shot from under him and his right arm ridden over, only this inner determination for merciless revenge enables Max to drag his battered carcass onwards in one of the film's finest moments of gut-punching audience galvanising. David Emge made limping an art-form as a zombie in Dawn Of The Dead, but Mel Gibson almost beats him at his own game here with such convincingly shattered and useless limbs as he staggers and lurches towards the very car that will become that time-honoured extension of himself.
An ex-emergency room doctor, George Miller likes to play with injuries. Cripples and amputees abound in the Mad Max films. But the most subtle device that he comes up with is here, in the first outing. Injured legs are dragged unceremoniously across Johnny The Boy's face twice in the movie in a sort of spiritual symmetry between Goose and Max. Having broken his leg during the initial chase, Goose callously does it to Johnny, who is spivved-up in that comically ill-fitting suit from his court hearing, as they sit in the Halls of Justice awaiting those slimy lawyers. Max, who never saw this earlier act of taunting disrespect, does it to Johnny after cuffing him to the upturned vehicle at the end. He beautifully drags that crippled leg over him, the boot obnoxiously wafting across his face, and then follows it with the other leg, almost as though saying “and this one's for the Goose.” It's a great little piece of anti-social, limb-locked poetry.
“The chain in those handcuffs is high-tensile steel. It'd take you ten minutes to hack through it with this. Now, if you're lucky, you could hack through your ankle in five minutes. Go.”
Gibson's performance is pure breakout material, no question. But it isn't quite the work of raw genius that many love to claim. Partly this is down to the way that character is written – because, horror of horrors, Max Rockatansky is a messily drawn individual. Only twenty-one at the time of filming and looking it too, Gibson is far too young to be this peerless knight of the roads as well as a devoted family man. His early scenes of hunting and destroying the Nightrider work gloriously, of course. But the majority of his police scenes until the final act of vengeance are simply not convincing. He is just too damn fresh-faced to be seen as this mighty V8 warrior. And yet, the doting father and loving husband angle works perfectly for another film. In a scene alongside Joanna Samuels he is suddenly a fully rounded and three-dimensional entity, his ability to play intimate and sentimental something that would become set in stone for the developing actor and certainly the seeds of it were sown right here. But the film's narrative means that Max is all over the place, emotionally and figuratively. One moment he is tough, pragmatic and resilient, a man of few words but ferocious ability. The next he is a gurning, jibber-jabbering sap who bugs his puppy-eyes and simpers like Fifi's pet. The two sides do not add up. However, it is only because the film and its leading man went on to become a cult phenomenon and a global superstar actor/director/idiot, respectively, that have the benefit of being able to sit back and analyse this foundation so deeply. In fact, we should remember that Mad Max was never intended to blow the socks off the industry and the audience on a worldwide scale. It had not been devised with mythology in mind. This said, I’ve always wished that Max’s surname wasn’t the inordinately daft and over-elaborate Rockatansky, but then, when you think about it, the entire cast have wild and unusual names such as Fifi, Bubba Zanetti, Cundalini, Mud-Guts, Labatouche and Diabando, so Max actually gets off quite lightly. Even Max’s little kid is referred to in the film and in the credits as “The Sprog”.
“That there is Cundalini... and Cundalini wants his hand back!”
With superlative economy, the film sets up our two warring faction right from the get-go. The Nightrider hails the Toecutter in his deranged on-air zeal so when we get to meet the rest of the gang, led with quasi-military, quasi-religious mastery by the multi-accented Toecutter, we already know what their outlook and modus operandi might be. But beyond the weirdly likeable and charismatic performances of Hugh Keays-Byrne and Geoff Parry, and the clownish antics of Cundalini (Paul Johnson) and Mud-guts (David Bracks), it is Tim Burns whose delinquent hot-head, Johnny The Boy who steals the show from under their wheels. Looking and acting a lot like Horst Bucholz’s renegade Chico in The Magnificent Seven (with more than a passing resemblance to Adam Ant, as well!), Burns doesn’t fit in with society or with the gang, it seems, who despair of his undisciplined behaviour more and more as the film goes on. It is Johnny’s dynamic with Jim Goose that instigates Max’s vendetta, the rebellious youth egging-on hostilities and becoming a major liability in the process. Yet, when it comes down to it, he is believably sympathetic and reluctant to go the full distance when it comes to the deadlier aspects of the gang’s crusade. Tim Burns is as terrific as a whining coward as he is at baiting the Bronze. Miller likes to play with this dichotomy of personality – with Johnny’s whimpering indecision at cooking the stricken Goose, his quite pathetic macho posturing with the lighter as he painfully burns the hairs on his own arm, his genuine fear of Goose’s rage in the Halls Of Justice and his subsequent mock bravado once he is out of harm’s way … and, most memorably of all, his near-hysterical beseeching of Max, now fully earning the epithet of Mad, as he lies cuffed to a wreck that is about to explode, with only a corpse and a hacksaw for company.
“Jimmy the Goose! Large as life … and twice as ugly!”
That's a couple of stand-out scenes that Burns is in. I love the one centred around The Goose’s fury at the legal system letting Johnny The Boy walk. Steve Bisley and Tim Burns own it with their intense animosity towards one another. “We’ll see you on the roads, Skag!” yells the volcanic Goose after getting only one frustrating blow with his riot-stick to his freed prisoner, to which Johnny ominously replies, “We remember the Nightrider. And we know who you are!” There is a genuine sense of barely restrained anger and unpredictable venom running through the sequence. The point is made that a society that is clinging to only the corrupted remains of a government and a beleaguered justice system is a far more frightening prospect than a society that has none of either left at all. The MFP, as ill-funded and as glory-seeking as they are, form the last irresistible line of defence in the face of all-out anarchy. Goose despises the system and his wrath is completely understandable in retaliation for the blatant judicial cowardice that he sees running rampant. It is unusual that Miller has Max take a bit of a backseat during this. “Sit on the Goose,” Fifi advises the fledgling Road Warrior, knowing that, of all his crusaders, it is Goose who is probably the most emphatically black-and-white when it comes to dealing with crims – which is a nice irony considering the bike-cop’s exceptionally cavalier spirit. Burns is just like a spoilt brat in the sequence – cowering, taunting, running, threatening, giggling and playing on sympathy all in one fluid transition. Remarkably, he does exactly the same sort of thing during the notorious final scene … and even more remarkable is the fact that we, ourselves, are the ones who actually come to sympathise with him. “You can't kill me, man! Not for stealing a man's boots!!!” As much as Mel Gibson was the breakout star of the movie, I feel Tim Burns should have been given a similar ride to fame with this performance.
And fans of Australian television will also have a field day spotting other antipodean personalities amid the mayhem, such as Reg Evans as the station master and Sheila Florence as May Swaisie, who were both well-established faces from the goggle-box with the likes of The Sullivans and Prisoner Cell Block H (Florence became a cult actress after her long-standing portrayal of Lizzie Birdsworth in the latter) to their credit. Evans would star opposite a more assured and well-known Gibson in Peter Weir's Gallipoli, alongside Geoff Parry, as well.
“The Toecutter - he knows who I am. I am the Nightrider! I am the chosen one. The mighty hand of vengeance, sent down to strike the unroadworthy! I'm hotter than a rollin' dice. Step right up, germ, and watch the kid lay down the rubber road, ride to freedom!”
The blurb on the back of the old Warner’s videotape release used to always annoy the hell out of me because it cited Mad Max as being a “Gothic Horror Film”!!! But whilst this is moronic marketing at its most ill-informed and illogical, Miller does craft a scene that is wrapped up in pure horror movie trappings. After they have made it to Aunt May’s place, Jessie heads down to the beach, alone, and has to travel through an idyllic wooded glen to get there. We know that the Toecutter is out looking for trouble, and we know that he and his gang specifically want to target the Rockantanskys. We know that she is in peril. But Miller strings the tension out, stretching the sequence into a marathon of suspense as we await the attack that has to come. It is worth mentioning that Joe Dante mimicked this scene in The Howling (1981), utilising the same set-up and bravura photography that Miller and David Eggby so brilliantly achieved here with Jessie’s terrifying flight back through the trees. Vicious cross-cutting left to right and vice-versa from Eggby skilfully evokes the isolation and confusion of being stalked in the forest, as barely glimpsed figures skitter through the shadows all around her. Brian May hammers home the vulnerability and terror of the lone woman as well with great string work and raucous brass stabbings to heighten the anxiety.
May's score is not just composed of aggressive action and gut-ripping swagger. He manages to create some unexpectedly sweet and tender passages for the more intimate scenes of Max and Jessie that are quite remarkable for a composer who was just starting to make a name for himself and was thriving on the more dynamic and strenuous side of things. He would go on to score the following film, the ultra-streamlined and far more kinetic Mad Max II, his quite unique style becoming the musical signature for Miller’s barren fantastical milieu until Maurice Jarre and Tina Turner would exploit it with a riotous pageant of blood ‘n’ thunder, percussive apocalyptic bravado and dense tribal colour for the third instalment that took Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It is marvellous that the more renowned and revered Jarre would actually pay homage to May's themes with saxophone and brass interludes in the wall-to-wall score that he lavished upon the third adventure.
On a little side-note, there’s been a lot of complaints about the cover-art for MGM’s release. Why they didn’t use any of the original and more exciting poster-art is beyond me … but, you know something, I kind of like this mean and moody image too. Gibbo looks ultra-surly and antagonistic, and that big fat title banner behind him is suitably epic. Incidentally, most of the original artwork is erroneous, anyway – often featuring Max in Goose’s get-up of shin-pads and motorcycle helmet.
Mad Max is certainly rough around the edges, the final act is possibly a touch too swift, given the protracted build-up that we've had, and some of the under-cranked camera shots look jarringly comical even though we should actually admire the film for being the first from Oz to boast anamorphic lenses, but the seeds of myth are sown with stunningly wrought ferocity and an inspired scenario of primal heroism and skin-bristling rage. I caught both films, way under-age, on a cinema double-bill when Mad Max II was first released and I have never properly recovered. No matter ravings Mel Gibson delivers in this latter-day period of apparent and unforgivable vitriol, he will always be Mad Max to me … and for that I am enormously grateful.
With this in mind, I have no hesitation in recommending this terrific 1979 culture-shocker, wholeheartedly.
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