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"I'm Just Here For The Gasoline": An Overview Of The "Mad Max" Saga

If you were to gather a group of disparate film lovers together and ask them which of this year's upcoming releases they were most genuinely excited to see, you would probably get a number of different answers. Some might say "Tomorrowland" because of the air of mystery surrounding that project and the estimable track record of director Brad Bird. Those whose tastes lean more towards art house fare might suggest the equally mysterious latest offering from Terrence Malick, "Knight of Cups." Others would probably cite "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," even despite those fairly sorry prequels. However, if there is one title out there with the possibility to inspire across-the-board enthusiasm from moviegoers of all stripes, it is the eagerly awaited "Mad Max: Fury Road." For one thing, the trailers alone have managed to squeeze in more visual and kinetic excitement into their limited time frames than most conventional feature films of late have been able to accomplish in theirs, while suggesting that they comprise only the tip of the iceberg. For another, it features two of the most exciting actors working today in Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. Finally, and most significantly, it marks the long-awaited continuation of one of the most exciting of all film franchises 30 years after the release of its last installment.

The series was the brainchild of George Miller, an Australian who originally got his start as an emergency room doctor in Sydney, a job that saw him treating victims of all sorts of auto-related traumas. In 1971, while taking a summer film class, he met budding filmmaker Byron Kennedy and together, they produced the award-winning short "Violence in the Cinema, Part 1." A few years later, they, along with first-time screenwriter James McCausland, decided to break into the local film industry, which was just beginning to make a name for itself in the international market thanks to hits like "My Brilliant Career," with a low-budget action film. Although there were government bodies designed to invest in local film production, Miller and Kennedy felt that those groups would be disinclined to help fund an exploitation movie and set about raising the funds themselves—they even earned money for the project by going out on emergency medical calls with Kennedy driving and Miller tending to the wounded. Eventually, they managed to raise about $350,000, a slight budget under most circumstances and especially for one set in a dystopian near-future that features a number of elaborate automotive stunts as its main lure. Not only did this budget preclude the use of known actors, it meant that with only two exceptions, the leather outfits donned by virtually all the key characters were actually constructed of vinyl.

In the film, the social order of Australia, and presumably the rest of the world, is beginning to crumble due to a severe energy crisis. While civilization continues on, marauding motorcycle gangs have begun to terrorize the population and inspire the formation of the Main Police Force to patrol the roads of the outback. As the story begins, one gang leader, Nightrider, kills a cop and escapes, only to be pursued by ace MFP officer Max Rockatansky in a chase that leads to his death. In response, Nightrider's gang, the Acolytes, now led by the equally vicious Toecutter, ramp up their orgy of destruction and even waylay a young couple and rape the woman. (While most films of this type might have lingered on the lurid details of the attack, Miller focuses more on the woman afterwards—in a movie filled with physical carnage, her emotional devastation is the most terrifying moment on display.)

Even though one of the gang members was too stoned to leave the scene before the arrival of Max and partner Goose on the scene, the punks get away with their crimes because people are too terrorized to testify against them. Later, the Acolytes attack Goose, burning him alive in his wrecked car and leaving him a vegetable, a move that causes the disillusioned Max to leave the force to retire to the country with his wife and infant son. Inevitably, the acolytes return and when they rob Max of the things that are most precious to him, he finally snaps and, with the help of a 1973 Ford XB Falcon with a souped-up V-8 engine that is the fastest thing on the road, he goes off in pursuit of the Acolytes and decimates them in a series of high-octane confrontations leading to an especially nasty denouement that would be referenced nearly a quarter-century later in "Saw."

On paper, "Mad Max" may not sound like much more than an automotive riff on "Death Wish" with yet another normal man who is pushed too far and who goes gunning in violent fashion for those who have destroyed his life. However, what might have seemed to be utterly ordinary on the page proved to be utterly extraordinary when brought to life through Miller's eye. At the time of its making, films featuring elaborate car chases and crashes were nothing new—Hal Needham had pretty much carved a cottage industry out of them with things like "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Hooper"—but Miller approached them in such a unique manner, utilizing cameras mounted on fenders, rapid-fire editing and a stunt crew that was apparently willing to do anything in order to get a great shot (at one point, we even see a guy get hit in the head with a motorcycle) that it was as if he was presenting such things for the first time. Even the most jaded action buffs could not believe what they were seeing—this was that rare bird of an exploitation film that not only lived up to the promises of its trailer, it exceeded them—and they were equally impressed by the intensely charismatic unknown actor at its center, newcomer Mel Gibson (who, the story goes, only went to the audition to support a friend, Steve Bisley (who was cast as Goose), and was showing the results of a drunken brawl he had gotten into the night before).

Created in near-obscurity, "Mad Max" became a massive hit throughout the world and earned over $100,000,000 at the box office. Curiously, the only country where it didn't do well was America—after American-International Pictures bought it for distribution, they were purchased by Filmways, who were noticeably less enthused with it and dumped it into drive-ins and grindhouses with little fanfare, though not before inexplicably choosing to poorly redub it with American voices on the belief that local audiences would not be able to understand those pesky Australian accents. (The current DVDs and Blu-Rays include the original voices.) And yet, while it was not a success by any means, those that did encounter it when it hit cable a few months after that botched release were knocked out by it and it soon became a cult favorite. By that time, Miller and Kennedy had already decided to make a follow-up but instead of offering a mere rehash of what they had already been done, "The Road Warrior" (known as "Mad Max 2" throughout the rest of the world) saw them expanding on their original concept, both in terms of the action set-pieces and in the concept of the antihero at its center, and had one of the largest budgets in Australian film history (roughly $4,000,000) at their disposal.

Following a brief recap of the events of the previous film to set the stage for newcomers (i.e. the American audience), we learn that a few years have elapsed, what previously passed for civilization has succumbed to violent anarchy following nuclear warfare and gasoline has become a virtually priceless commodity that people will kill for in order to keep their vehicles moving. Max, known as the Road Warrior, roams the outback in his car looking for fuel when he eventually comes across a community of survivors housed in a former refinery that contains precious petroleum. They want to leave for what they are convinced will be a better life on the coast but are under constant threat from a violent motorcycle gang, led by the maniacal Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), who want all of their gas for themselves and who will kill anyone who tries to slip past them. At first, the burned-out Max has no interest in helping them beyond finding them a truck rig that will allow them to transport their fuel in exchange for a fill-up but after he is once again waylaid and left for dead, he returns to help drive their gasoline to safety in a final flight to freedom that finds him fending off the relentless attacks of Humungus and his men. 

As good as "Mad Max" was, "The Road Warrior" managed to improve upon it in virtually every imaginable area. Forsaking the revenge conceit of the first film, Miller and co-writers Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant chose this time around to tell a more overtly mythological story (a point further accentuated by having it framed as a story being recounted many years after the events occurred rather than in the here and now) that contained overtones of that most mythic of film genres, the Western. Intriguingly, this is accomplished not by transforming its once-ordinary main character into an almost superhuman being (as was the case with the Clint Eastwood character in the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns) but by presenting Max first as a mythic conceit and having him gradually transform over the course of the story into someone more closely resembling the human being that he was when we first met him.

This is a smart move because considering all the wild characters—including the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) who becomes Max's ally, the unnamed Feral Kid (Emil Minty) who wields a mean, finger-severing boomerang and bonds with the mysterious stranger and the Warrior Woman (Virginia Hey), one of the toughest of the good guys and one who defies genre expectations by not becoming Max's lover, not to mention Humungus and his hordes—and situations, the film needs something solid at its center to keep everything from flying off the tracks into complete chaos. 

It would seem almost impossible for anyone to improve on the automotive antics seen in "Mad Max" but Miller manages to somehow do just that with a string of action beats that remain mesmerizing more than 30-odd years down the line and which are all the more impressive for having been pulled off in the days before CGI came along to bring the wildest flights of visual fancy to life. (The climactic stunt involving the tanker truck flipping over was deemed so dangerous that it is alleged that the stuntmen involved were not allowed to eat up to 12 hours before shooting in case they needed to be rushed immediately into surgery if things went wrong.) Right from the start, the action is relentless and because of the ingenious decision to shoot many of the scenes in overwhelming closeups taken from within the speeding cars rather than from medium shots taken from a safe distance and edit them in a form of rapid-fire montage that would prove to be ahead of its time, the film had a visceral effect that set it apart from most other examples of the genre, then and now.

At the same time, Miller was not interested in giving viewers easy thrills in which the violence has been anesthetized to the point where it has no meaning. When people die here—whether they are otherwise anonymous players or more central characters such as the Warrior Woman or the lover of Wez (Vernon Wells), Humungus's chief enforcer—their deaths have real meaning for characters who can still recall what it once meant to be civilized and are not just casual adds to the body count. This, when all is said and done, is what separated "The Road Warrior" from the legions of violent post-apocalyptic car crash movies that would emerge in its wake and it is why it has stood the test of time while all the knockoffs have faded into well-deserved obscurity.

Already a hit around the world when it finally appeared in America in the summer on 1982, a period that saw the release of such instant and eventual classics as "E.T.," "Blade Runner," "The Thing," "Star Trek II," "Poltergeist" and "Tron," "The Road Warrior" proved to be a hit here as well and landed Miller his first Hollywood gig when an impressed Steven Spielberg hired him to direct one of the segments of the eagerly awaited "Twilight Zone-The Movie" and while that film was not the hit that it was expected to be, largely because of the tragedy surrounding its production, Miller's hyper-kinetic take on the old episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" got enough attention to ensure that he could do virtually anything he wanted for his next project. For a while, it seems that he was noodling around with a "Lord of the Flies"-style story about a tribe of children in a post-apocalyptic future who are found by an adult who becomes their unexpected savior until it was decided that this could form the basis of a third "Mad Max" film with Max as the savior.

Titled "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," tragedy struck the production early on when Byron Kennedy was killed in a helicopter crash during a location scout and this may be why Miller decided to split the directorial duties with George Ogilvie—he would handle the action sequences while Ogilvie would direct the more dramatic scenes. The other big difference this time was that for the first time in the series, there would be a well-known star in the cast other than Gibson—musical icon Tina Turner, still in the flush of her celebrated comeback, was hired to co-star, her first dramatic role since her appearance as The Acid Queen in "Tommy" a decade earlier.

Set fifteen years after the events of "The Road Warrior," Max is crossing the desert in a wagon when he is attacked by a pilot (Bruce Spence, playing a different character from the Gyro Captain) and his son and has his possessions stolen. He tracks them down to a place called Bartertown, a community where visitors trade their meager possessions and which is fueled by a crude refinery that runs on pig droppings. The town is the creation of ruler Aunty Entity (Turner) but the all-important refinery is the possession of the dwarf Master (Angelo Rossitto) and he, with the help of hulking bodyguard Blaster (Paul Larsson) is challenging her for control. Max strikes a bargain with Entity to defeat Blaster in Bartertown's preferred realm of conflict resolution, a duel to the death inside Thunderdome (imagine a homicidal Cirque de Soleil act), in exchange for the return of his possessions but when he learns that neither she nor Master/Blaster are what they initially seem to be, he refuses and is exiled to the desert and certain death as punishment.

He is rescued by a group of children, survivors of a plane crash who were left behind by adults trying to find civilization and who are convinced that he is the plane's captain returned to fix the craft and lead them to safety. Max tries to convince them that there is nothing else out there but when some of them decide to take off anyway, he goes off in pursuit with some of the remaining kids. With nowhere else to go and with no supplies, they all head off to Bartertown to rescue Master and escape through a truck that is the key component of the power generator, inspiring Entity and her men to give chase.

For years, "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" has been considered the weakness of the trilogy, decrying it for lacking the relentless kinetic energy of the first two films, the presence of the kids in need of rescuing, what they felt was the gimmicky casting of Tina Turner and a PG-13  rating that promised less brutality than in the previous installments. This is crazy because rather than being a lazy cash-grab sequel, this is an enormously ambitious film that tries to give viewers something new instead of rehashing what they had seen before. This time around, Miller and co-writer Terry Hayes offer viewers an expanded view of the dystopian world that they have created and its inhabitants through the ingenious Bartertown, a place that alternately comes across as both fantastic and eminently plausible. The scenes involving the kids are arguably the talkiest in the entire franchise but Miller and Ogilvie present them in a way so that they become a group worth rooting for without ever becoming too cutesy or cloying for their own good.

As Aunty Entity, Turner is an undeniably striking presence and her character serves as another reminder that throughout the series, Miller has always been interested in strong women who are not solely defined by their sexuality. (Indeed, it is one of the dark, unspoken jokes of the series that only in the wake of the apocalypse do racial and gender barriers finally fall to the wayside.) As for the action sequences, while it may be true that they lack the gruesome detail of the earlier films, that doesn't prevent it from presenting moviegoers with two of the most exciting scenes in the history of the franchise—the Thunderdome brawl (one of the cinema's greatest fight scenes) and the jaw-dropping chase that takes up a good chunk of the film's final third and contains stunts that you cannot believe anyone would even propose, let alone execute.

Ending with a final shot of Max, his humanity now more or less restored for good by helping the children to safety, heading off alone into the sunset, "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" felt at the time as though it would be the final word on the character as its principal players moved on to other things. Miller would direct "The Witches of Eastwick" and "Lorenzo's Oil" and become an unexpected magnate of family films by producing the beloved "Babe" and directing the even better "Babe: Pig in the City" and the animated hits "Happy Feet" (for which he won the Oscar for Animated Feature film in 2006) and "Happy Feet Two". Gibson would parlay his superstar success into a directorial career that would include such hits as "Braveheart" (for which he won Oscars for Best Picture and Director) and "The Passion of the Christ" before a series of well-documented personal troubles would largely drive him from the limelight. During this time, there were the occasional rumors of a fourth "Mad Max" film, and, in 2001, "Fury Road" was set to go into production with both Miller and Gibson but was postponed in the wake of 9/11 and cancelled outright a couple of years later due to difficulties in international filming after the outbreak of the Iraq War. While Gibson moved on, the dream never died with Miller (at one point, he even contemplated doing it as a 3-D animated film) and finally, he was able begin shooting in 2012.

Whether "Fury Road" will prove to have been worth the wait remains to be seen but, contrary to Tina Turner's theme song from "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," we need another hero on the big screen now more than ever—one that can stand out amongst the flood of oddly costumed superheroes that are all the rage these days. Having more than delivered the goods three times before, Miller and his creation will hopefully be able to fit that bill once more and give moviegoers something that lives up to the high bar set by its predecessors while simultaneously thrilling a new generation of viewers. 

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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