Mad Max (1979 Australia)

Heavily drawn from his observations of the 1973 oil crisis’ effects on Australian motorists and the 1975 film, ‘A Boy with his Dog’, director George Miller, with first-time screenwriter James McCausland, created one of Australia’s best known films: Mad Max. The first of several in the series, this movie tells the story of a dystopian future, where the scarcity of oil has begun to cause the collapse of civilization. Law and order are barely holding on within the towns while the highways are controlled by the outlaw gangs.  Despite popular belief, the film wasn’t a hit in the USA until later. It wasn’t until 1982’s Mad Max 2 (retitled The Road Warrior in America), that Americans started to love the original film. In the meantime, 1981, horror author Stephen King dismissed Mad Max as a “turkey” in his book, Danse Macabre.

Made with “guerrilla-style filmmaking”, the film is famous for its wide-shot of the open road and its violent car crashes. A kind of porn for people that love fast cars and action. While the onslaught of then-intense action is a bit dated I have to say, the car stunt work that this film had to do, is some of the best I’ve seen. It’s something worth celebrating. After all, this is the movie that put the Australian film industry firmly on the world map. Certain sequences still dazzle, and Miller’s close-to-the-street cinematography still captures the thrill of speed in highly effective way, but the film series doesn’t really establish its post-apocalyptic themes that well, yet. Its underdeveloped, due to the low budget, and very close to our own world. It’s weird to see the beach landscape, all ‘normal’ lush greens and blues, instead of a washed out sepia tone. When was the last time you’ve seen a post-apocalyptic film like that?

It isn’t a point that’s particularly laboured in the movie, but society has devolved to the point where the only difference between “good” and “bad” is a badge. The cops are nearly as bad as the criminals. This minor, but core aspect is what I liked the most about the film: the idea that there aren’t any heroes. There is right and wrong, but the lines are often blurred. Mel Gibson’s Max is superb. His devotion to being a family man is the heart of the film, giving proceedings extra depth. The scenes of him at home with wife and child are the calm before the storm, at times being the only normality amongst a world gone mad. Hugh Keys-Burn does a star turn as the demented Toecutter, the leader of a Biker Gang. Toecutter’s thirst for anarchy and bizarre behaviour is quite chilling. Embracing the violence, and leading a pride of misfits that literally hang off every word he says, even though he is as nutty as a fruitcake.

But the main stars of the show are the vehicles. They speed around, roll and fly through the air. Twisted metal and debris on every street corner. The driving action is poetic. White lines and blacktop flow by almost dreamily and you don’t have to be a petrol head to appreciate that. The sequels may have had bigger budgets, but this film stands as an example of what one film director can do when pushing himself, and his crew, to the absolute limit under the merciless antipodean sun. And if we replace the motorcycles with horses, we have a classic western revenge flick more than the paper thin “sci-fi” plot. Mad Max is more about human rage and the desire for revenge than futuristic ideas. I do recommended seeing this one more than the over-the-top sequels. Just make sure to find the original Australian version (rather than the one dubbed for Americans who may not understand Aussie speak) for the best watch. Overall: Mad Max is a groundbreaking low-budget exploitation film that had some significant impact on modern popular culture, inspiring many sequels and knock-offs.

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