‘See you on the road, scag!’
Society is collapsing, and biker gangs run rampant on the remote highways. One police officer finds his family targeted and sets out on a personal mission of revenge…
Low-budget cult film that eventually became a global phenomenon, spawning a franchise, dozen of imitators and making a star of a young Australian actor named Mel Gibson. George Miller directs as ‘Mad Max’ takes his big-screen bow.
In the near future, civilisation has begun to implode, and what remains of law enforcement battles the gangs out on the empty highways. Career criminal the Nightrider (Vince Gil) and his girlfriend Lulu Pinkus crash and burn after a high-speed pursuit by young cop Max Rockatansky (Gibson).
Gil was part of the dangerous gang led by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and Gibson soon gets the word from his boss, Fifi (Roger Ward), that they are plotting revenge. Along with his partner, Jim Goose (Steve Bisley), he arrests biker Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns), but they are forced to release him on a technicality. The gang takes revenge by torching Bisley in an overturned truck, and Gibson tries to quit while he’s still ahead. Instead, Ward suggests he take a short trip with his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and young son and think it over. Unfortunately, nowhere is safe with Keays-Byrne and his gang on the rampage.
Stories of the making of the first instalment of the ‘Mad Max’ saga have passed into low-budget movie legend. Extras paid in beer, the bikers being a real-life gang called the Vigilantes, Miller and his crew closing off remote roads and filming without permits. The entire budget was $350,000, and Miller and producer Byron Kennedy cut the results at home after the editor had to leave to go to his next job. They could never have imagined that they were assembling what would turn out to be the most financially successful independent film of all time until the arrival of ‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999).
Given the circumstances of its production, it’s inevitable that the film was a sleeper, gaining a reputation through word of mouth from audiences hyped on its heady mixture of car porn, stunts and violence. Considering the limited resources at Miller’s disposal, it’s a tribute to his instincts as a filmmaker that he’s able to deliver such a visceral, kinetic experience that still holds up well today if you make a few allowances.
The film opens with a wonderfully bold, intense sequence. Various officers attempt to bring in the Nightrider as he burns rubber down the highways of the outback. Shotguns fire, a car smashes into a truck, and a baby is snatched from the road in the nick of time. Occasionally in the middle of the mayhem, we cut to another cop waiting at the side of the road somewhere up ahead. First, we see his boots, later his back, then the lower half of his face in a wing mirror, and eventually his sunglasses. All the while, his colleagues are dropping out of the race one by one as more twisted wreckage lines the road. It’s a superb way to introduce Max. From the start, we know he’s special. The action and violence are coming to him as if drawn by a magnet. It’s a tour de force of conception, editing and execution.
Sadly, nothing quite matches that opening. There’s still plenty to enjoy, though, and Miller demonstrates a staggering maturity in his direction, considering it was his first dramatic assignment. Crucially, he shot with an anamorphic lens discarded in Australia by Sam Peckinpah after filming ‘The Getaway’ (1972). He used it for the entire shoot, and the widescreen landscapes it creates provide a perfect backdrop to the action; low desert hills bisected by a never-ending road with no apparent final destination. Placing the camera low down to the tarmac for many shots gives a furious, headlong sense of speed, which infuses the action with a kinetic energy and immediacy that’s hard to match.
The film’s main flaw is the predictable and formulaic plot, of course, familiar from hundreds of Western programmers. The small town where the bikers go to pick up the Nighrider’s coffin even looks like it belongs in the Old West, and station master Reg Evans could be running the telegraph office in Tombstone. As a result, the off-road moments need some work to keep the audience hooked, and Miller tries everything he can to make them count. So, supporting characters carry cheap but intriguing props; Gibson juggles apples while waiting for Bisley to arrive in the police station’s car park, and officer Charlie (John Ley) speaks with an electronic voice box pressed to his neck after having his throat injured in a crash at the start of the film. Fairly small bits of business, yes, but they demonstrate an attention to detail and a determination to give the audience something extra in every scene.
There are some rough spots with the acting, though, and Gibson is the main culprit. He was still in drama school at the time, and although he’s adequate, he does appear stiff on occasion, particularly in the intimate scenes with Samuel. Fortunately, her natural performance mitigates the problem, although the sequence when he talks about his father still appears somewhat awkward. He also fails to sell the character’s central emotional conflict, the worry that he’s becoming desensitised to the violence of the road. Fortunately, it’s not a film about character beats, but there’s little sign of the Hollywood A-Lister to come or the staggering improvement he would make by the time of the sequel ‘Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior’ (1981).
The action also gets a kick from a stirring score by composer Brian May, even if he occasionally tries too hard. The triumphant fanfare when an injured Gibson gets to his feet and the lush strings accompanying his talk about his father provide more emphasis than was necessary. Still, the epic clash of brass and percussion helps to infuse what is essentially a small movie with a real sense of scale and importance, and the film would not be nearly as effective without it. The film was released in the U.S. with the entire cast dubbed by American actors. For many years, it was believed that this was done because the distributors were worried that the audience would not understand the Australian accents. This may have been a reason, but recent home media releases have revealed that the original sound mix was very poor, with dialogue sometimes drowned out by background noise. Obviously, dubbing an unknown like Gibson was not an issue at the time, but the American version does play a little strangely now as his voice is so well known.
Of course, this film, and the sequel in particular, are credited with inspiring a sub-genre of post-apocalyptic action cinema in the following decade. Yet, this film is not really post-apocalyptic. Cleverly, there’s no discussion between characters about the global situation at any time. All we get is conveyed entirely through background radio chatter, and it’s not too specific. This is a world breaking down, but not one that has reached the end times yet. Ironically, Miller only included this background to explain the lack of cast members and the emptiness of the roads.
It’s hardly necessary to detail the subsequent careers of Gibson, Miller, or even Max himself, as all are very familiar to anyone interested in film. What is more interesting is to note how the sequel hit U.S. theatres a year after John Carpenter’s ‘Escape from New York’ (1981) and coincided with the explosion of the home video rental market. This winning combination inspired an entire rogues gallery of Road Warriors and Snake Plissken wannabes from all around the world, sometimes combining story and character elements. These ranged all the way from the sublime to the ridiculous. Although, to be honest, mostly the latter.
After all these years, it may not quite be the thrill ride you recall, but it’s still high-octane entertainment.