Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
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).
One of the most striking features of the Mad Max cycle is the manner in which its instalments take place in starkly different, even incommensurable, fictional universes. From each film to the next, there is a quantum leap; effectively, only the character of Max binds them – and even he is scarcely the same kind of hero in the third film as in the first.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome has a much more elaborately conceived, fictional world than its two predecessors; this fact constitutes its most engaging aspect. This is so because, instead of the largely mobile battles between individuals or social groups, Thunderdome is largely an essay on the nature of civilisation – with Max still the archetypal wanderer who allows us to traverse and compare different modes of social life. Bartertown, in particular, is a fascinating conception, with its economy running on "blood and shit".
The film is unusual and ambitious in many respects, and on its release certainly disconcerted those critics and viewers expecting a topper to the pure, cinematic kineticism of Mad Max 2. The film has its spectacular set-pieces (particularly the final chase), but they are distributed throughout a rather reflective, three-part story structure, each part taking place in a different natural or social environment.
The second part – featuring the long, theatrical, “dreamtime” recitation on the origins of civilisation by the “Children of the Crack” (clearly the model for the Lost Boys in Spielberg’s Hook ) – is the least action-oriented, and (to this critic among others) the most archly self-conscious moment in the film’s “essayistic” trajectory.
George Miller has been aware at least since Mad Max 2 of the potently mythic dimension of his work – with its iconic, character archetypes (such as the outsider-hero) and its universally recurring themes (conflict, survival, establishment of a settled society). In Thunderdome this dimension is foregrounded; the film is, in Ross Gibson’s words, "unequivocally mythological". Gibson (whose own feature Dead To the World  clearly reflects his particular reading of Miller’s work) has provided what is, without doubt, the fullest and most perceptive and sympathetic account of Thunderdome. (1) It has the great virtue of linking supposedly timeless mythologies (as Miller might see them) with historical, political and national ones.
According to Gibson, the film is a primary, Genesis myth: the birth of a civilisation. Although dismissed by some as a purely “pan-internationalist” project with little Australian specificity and resonance, Gibson convincingly argues that it gathers “leitmotivs and icons from white Australian history” relating to the national myth of “transcendental failure” (which includes figures such as Leichhardt, Burke & Wills, and Patrick White’s Voss).
Yet the film’s Utopian force comes from the way it twists and renegotiates this myth. Instead of the grandly pathetic spectacle of the Gallipoli legend/myth from wartime, we are offered a vision of social growth and integration based on pervasive strategies of improvisation, adaptation and the canny re-assemblage of all signs, props, meanings and situations to hand. Max is hero in this instalment really only to the extent that he is a model improviser, making his way like everyone else.
As Gibson remarks, this view of the world and its workings can be construed as Baroque; the film’s astonishingly florid, visual style bears this out. No longer tied only to the thrills and frissons of action cinema (as in Mad Max 2), Miller’s direction reaches here for grand moments of epiphany and elation that are tied to the film’s over-arching thematic. For such a busy and sweeping film - the work, in fact, of two directors, Miller and George Ogilvie (who apparently focused more on the actors, while Miller handled the overall construction) – it reveals remarkable, internal coherence on close study.
For all its undoubted, mythic substance, Thunderdome still asks (and deserves) to be appreciated as an often garishly fascinating pop culture artefact, full of “hooks” for a contemporary audience. From a commercial viewpoint, the cast is a crazy-quilt of showbiz entertainers past and present, a veritably Eisensteinian “montage of attractions” mixing Mel Gibson with rock stars (Tina Turner and Angry Anderson), fruity theatrical performers (such as Frank Thring and Edwin Hodgeman), a dwarf (Angelo Rossitto), and colourful character actors including Bruce Spence (already prominent in Mad Max 2).
And, as coherently baroque in its aesthetic as the film may be, it is also (in the manner of much popular culture) a bit “schizo” as well, if we take this term, in the current context, as a metaphor for cultural dissociation rather than a clinical descriptor of a mental condition – a spectacle which straightfacedly decries (in its Thunderdome set-piece) the barbarity of spectacle! That’s fine pop double-think for you.
The vast transformations wrought upon the heroic function of Max constitute one of the major fascinations of this entire film cycle. From family man to revenger, survivor to nomad, hired gun to wasteland philosopher, Max has often been a reluctant and ambiguous hero – with the requisite dark hints that he could just as easily be a murderous mercenary, a ruthless scavenger or a psychotic, death-driven loner.
Max’s ambiguities are partly classic ones, the ambiguities of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954), James Stewart’s roles for Anthony Mann, or George Stevens’ Shane (1953); but they are also modern, finely in tune with amorality of contemporaneous heroes like Snake Pliskin in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981) or Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).
Thunderdome bravely closes the Mad Max cycle – at least for the 1980s – by, in essence, erasing Max’s hero status almost completely. At the end, he is really only making his way, like anyone else, through the surreal signs and settings of a world yet-to-be.
MORE Mad Max: Mad Max: Fury Road
(1) Ross Gibson, “Yondering: A Reading of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”, Art & Text, no. 19 (October-December 1985); reprinted in his essay collection South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992).
© Adrian Martin January 1992