I’m almost ashamed to admit I’ve never seen Mad Max. I’ve seen The Road Warrior many times and it’s a great flick rife with homoeroticism, filled with great car chases and a believable representation of humanity’s next Dark Age. Mad Max, which takes place during society’s fall, is different – the characters are still holding onto hope while living in an oppressive police state filled with hyper-criminality. Its obvious civilization is in a state of disarray but for the majority of Mad Max it’s uncertain what exactly is going on, almost like the culture depicted is confused. It runs the gamut between looking like a poverty stricken, depressed environment and a bucolic wasteland; I’m convinced the film is a little confusing.
Maybe it’s because I don’t speak Australian. Now, before you think I’m an idiot and don’t know they speak English in Australia let me confirm that I’m aware Aussie’s and Yankees both speak English. However, it’s the differences between vernacular and idioms that I’m talking about. Australian slang, especially from the 1970s, is much different than what I, a Yankee bastard, am accustomed to. It’s not that I didn’t get the gist of the film but there were moments where I was honestly confused about what the characters were saying and what exactly was going on. What exactly was Night Rider talking about during his high speed jaunt; why was he suddenly crying; what does Max mean when he calls them “Terminal Crazies?” Was Night Rider on drugs? I have so many questions along those lines but eventually Mad Max does come together. I can say with all honesty I enjoy The Road Warrior much more than its precursor.
It was nice watching a very young Mel Gibson prior to being a crazy racist who looks much older than he actually is. Here’s an example of how I envision Gibson in my head every time I think of him now:
Scary isn’t it? In addition, his newest film, The Beaver, which seems like nothing more than Gibson’s attempt at an apology for his racist, violent, and sexist remarks, doesn’t make things any better. It just makes Gibson look like a lunatic trapped in his own fantasy world of movie magic where regrets are given through a commercial product and aren’t at all sincere. Then again, what does Gibson have to apologize for? He’s an actor, who has done a bunch of great flicks (and a few terrible ones also) and it doesn’t really matter what he’s like in private – even though he seems like a psychotic madman.
However, I’m deviating from Mad Max, which I’ll move back into right now. Unlike The Road Warrior, Mad Max takes a while before it gets anywhere. In essence, it meanders around for a while, establishing the criminal gang and Max’s law enforcement contemporaries and finally gets interesting in the last 20 minutes or so. This is where the film really picks up, following the death of Max’s child and the hospitalization of his wife by the gang, originally led by Night Rider and now under the tutelage of Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). In a fit of grief stricken rage Max requisitions a supercharged Ford Falcon and hunts them down. The film’s most notorious scene, involving Max and a gang member named Johnny (Tim Burns), rounds out the film and demonstrates Max’s descent into the same mindset utilized by the criminal gang he was hunting.
I read Mad Max held the Guinness world record for accruing the highest profit with the smallest budget (approximately $400,000 in Australian dollars). It shows. Mad Max, like so many low-budget movies from the late ‘70s, carries a certain aesthetic – both visually and conceptually – which nowadays seems quaint and nostalgic. It also has a small cast and seems like a small movie, regardless of the large explosions and car chases. This is one of the problems I have with Mad Max, especially since it’s supposed to be a film depicting the decline of civilization as we know it. We live in a world of over six billion people and if society is really collapsing like Mad Max suggests it’s a marvel these people aren’t present. I know people say there’s plenty of room Down Under but not that much (there were over 14 million residents in 1979).
The heavily reduced population depicted in The Road Warrior makes plenty of sense – it takes place following the demise of natural resources and government. Yet the small cast in Mad Max just makes the film come across as small, lacking the attention to detail necessary for a film in this genre. Normally I’m a fan of low-budget films but there’s something deficient with Mad Max, aside from its bizarre depictions of society’s downward turn and taking well over an hour to go anywhere. It’s missing the details which make apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and science fiction films so great; it’s omitted the attention to social factors present in so many films from the same crop which stands out and become classics. In all honesty, I’m fairly certain Mad Max is still notorious because of its low-budget status, its violence, and The Road Warrior being an excellent film. Also, I’m still uncertain why there’s a disco scene where a woman is singing about a “Licorice ride.” What?
What really stands out in Mad Max are the representations of good and evil and how these lines can blur given the proper circumstances. Mad Max assumes there’s a standard by which to judge what is moral and ethical, showing how a degrading society can change what is regarded as proper. Although the conditions leading to civilization’s downfall, depicted in The Road Warrior, are uncertain in Mad Max it’s obvious there’s something wrong. The police are militaristic, showing very little regard for public safety (the film’s opening car chase scene attests to this) and a by any means necessary attitude prevails over public safety and the police motto “To protect and serve.” Maybe this is due to an upsurge in crime, portrayed by the vile attitudes of Night Rider and the other gang members but the factors leading to crime and the responding punishment isn’t elaborated upon. Because of this the law enforcement officers in the film aren’t really that different from the criminals they hunt; almost like it’s one gang versus another, except the gang using public funding is backed by a social institution.
In the early 20th century the American government, in conjunction with various corporations, would send the military (and private strike busters) in to kill workers fighting for unions. Essentially, these workers wanted equal treatment, a fair wage, and safe working conditions; they were met with violence and death. Who’s to say the conditions in Mad Max’s civilization aren’t the same, with people fed up with being trampled on and going without the basic staples of existence? Maybe these gang members are the result of a dwindling system where opportunity is absent and the police represent nothing more than goons putting down the little person. Mad Max is quite ambiguous on these points – a telltale sign of a film not well thought out. That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable at times but overall it doesn’t compare to its sequel.