Note: This text, from early 1992, was part of my initial attempt at writing about the first three Mad Max films. I subsequently developed this work in my book The Mad Max Movies (Sydney: Currency Press, 2003).
A particular sequence of plot events in Mad Max leads to a moment when Goose (Steve Bisley) boards his motorbike, not knowing that it has been tampered with by members of the gang of Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). The audience, on the other hand, knows something terrible is about to happen to him, but cannot be sure exactly what.
So the film goes for a slow burn of cinematic suspense, a montage of Goose innocently riding down the highway before he reaches his fate. George Miller includes no less than 14 shots (in little over a minute) in this exquisitely tense passage. He plays (as Akira Kurosawa did) on virtually parameter of film form: the variable distance of camera to rider, and their consistently switching positions on the road; entries into and exits from the frame; the dialectic of static and moving shots; the use of point-of-view or semi-POV shots; the patterning of low angles and high angles; the mixing of the bike’s sonic roar up and down; the bringing in and out of Brian May’s music score.
This sequence is not usually cited among Mad Max’s bravura action set-pieces. But, like them, it shows why George Miller is Australia’s most completely cinematic filmmaker, and certainly the only one to have influenced movies on such an international scale (see subsequent work by the Coens, Sam Raimi, Tsui Hark, John Carpenter … ).
This first film in the Mad Max series is less dense in its pop culture references and less self-consciously mythic than its sequels. Its essential narrative and iconographic elements are cleanly abstracted from the mostly contemporaneous, international spread of Westerns, science fiction and action films that appealed to Miller and his principal collaborator of the period, Byron Kennedy (1949-1983).
To a retrospective viewer ot today, the film’s minimal style is surprising – in truth, the Mad Max phenomenon started as a low-budget, hit-and-run affair. The plot is similarly sparse. This lawless, broken-down world of the future (reminiscent of the pioneer, settler locale of many Westerns) is divided between leather-clad biker gangs (‘perversely’ homoerotic) and ruthless, somewhat mercenary trouble-shooters. Into this anarchy comes Max (Mel Gibson), a lone warrior-cop whose quest for righteous revenge (triggered by the murder of his wife and child) eventually makes him the mirror image of those he pursues.
The car chase set-pieces on vast, empty, outback highways are justly famous as masterful orchestrations of action, editing and sound. But Miller also spices events with some disquieting masochism (the dwelling on Max’s injuries, as in the star vehicles of Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris or Clint Eastwood) and moments of gory horror (flashes of severed or charred body parts). It is the latter element, clearly derived from horror movies such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978) – including the sadistic preying on women and children as targets of violent, male menace – that led certain, oversensitive commentators in 1979 to denounce the film as “evil”, “dangerous”, and even “pornographic”!
Seen today, Mad Max strikes one as a gloriously superficial, purely visceral movie. But, beyond its generic, intertextual play, it is also true that Mad Max, in a spontaneous, only semi-rational, almost dreamlike and often frenzied manner, powerfully taps into many aspects of the Australian “social imaginary”. In fact, it ends up being a quintessentially Australian movie on this level.
As commentators including Meaghan Morris, Ross Gibson and Lorraine Mortimer have argued in detail, the film captures many of the social and interpersonal phantasms that are embodied in what Miller himself referred to as the nation’s ubiquitous “car culture” (the tragic effects of which he had witnessed first hand as a doctor in in an emergency ward). This culture is comprised of complex, collective notions and emotions (fear and desire commingled) relating to freedom, space, community, speed, confinement, escape, risk, threat, and gender roles.
Mad Max is uniquely powerful in its meshing of this socio-cultural imaginary with the intricate, textual mechanics of modern action cinema. Too often reduced to its bare, supposedly mythic structure by its fans, the film is most fully realised on the smallest, material level of image/sound relations. As Alain Garel wisely argued in an issue of La Revue du cinéma in 1985, its nearly abstract, kinetic thrust is certainly more historically important, in retrospect, than its more conventional, dramaturgical side.
It is this tension with which Miller will grapple in all his subsequent projects, whether as director or producer, for film or television. But personally, I have no hesitation in celebrating the radical play with form that Mad Max helped foster, worldwide, in mainstream cinema of the 1980s and beyond.
© Adrian Martin January 1992