By the time Mad Max arrived on the scene in 1979, the cupboard of post-apocalyptic cinema was already pretty well stocked. From The Time Machine to the Planet of the Apes cycle to A Boy And His Dog, for as long as the threat of nuclear annihilation has hung heavy in the air, there’s been a steady stream of movies to helpfully illustrate the multitude of ways mankind can/will end himself. Nonetheless, there’s something about Mad Max, both the film and the franchise, that’s allowed it to stand the test of time, not only as a work of art in and of itself, but also as a name and brand that commands cultural currency thirty years since the character’s last appearance.
Launching the careers of both director George Miller and star Mel Gibson, the original Max was produced for the embarrassingly low sum of $400,000, and its out-of-nowhere success proved to be a seminal moments for the Australian film industry in the 1970s. The resultant effort remains notable for the way the director turned his relative inexperience behind the camera into an advantage, envisioning and executing a spectacle that depicted the kind of horrific injuries he himself tended to during his previous life as an emergency room physician.
After deciding that the violent tableau he envisioned would work far better with the temporal distance offered by removing it from the here-and-now and kicking it down the curb to “a few years from now,” Miller teamed with producer Byron Kennedy and screenwriter James McCausland to shape what would eventually become Mad Max. The plot the trio sketched out centers on Max Rockatansky (Gibson), a driver for “Main Force Patrol,” the last semblance of law & order in Australia’s rapidly crumbling civil society following some unknown global calamity that’s left gasoline as the most precious resource in the Outback (and presumably the world).
The quintessential “good man in a bad world,” Rockatansky struggles to maintain the fragile hold of civilization over the rapid encroachment of anarchy. However, he’s finally pushed over the edge when a gang of biker outlaws led by the colorfully named Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Bryne) brutally kills first Max’s best friend and partner (Steve Bisley), and then his own family. Realizing that the old world’s rules haven’t survived into the new order, Max turns his back on the law, setting out in his souped-up police cruiser to enact his own brand of justice as he tracks down the Toecutter and his gang one by one. As the film closes, Max is on the open road, his own future now as uncertain as that of the world.
When viewed thirty-six years removed from its initial release, what’s most impressive about the original Mad Max is how much mileage Miller was able to squeeze out of his pittance of a budget, which was microscopic even by 1970s standards. While understandably betraying its limits at times, he imbues the proceedings with a gritty, documentary feel that helps to heighten the immediacy of the piece, in turn making the many elaborate road collisions feel far more real than audiences of the era had been conditioned to expect. While Max has a reputation today for its rampant violence, it’s worth noting how little gore Miller actually depicts, allowing implication and reaction shots to do most of the lifting.
Further, even when looked at through a modern lens, there remains something volatile and unsettling about the film, part of which comes from the very nature of the storyline. From the opening, with the MFP attempting to halt the demolition derby-style mad dash of escaped con Crawford “Nightrider” Montizano (Vince Gill) the unpleasant reality of the world we’re in is laid out in stark detail. This isn’t a place where “happily ever after” happens, and even as Max attempts to flee the crumbling society with his wife (Joanne Samuel), we know it’s an uncomfortable waiting game until the inevitable happens.
What’s also interesting is how the specifics of the movie’s dystopian setting are left largely uncontextualized. In a marked contrast with so many would-be franchise-launchers today that threaten to fall in on themselves with their reams of prefab mythology ready to go should the need for a trilogy materialize, Mad Max leaves the specifics mostly unstated. We know it’s the near future, and we know things are bad, but outside of a few snippets of dialogue here or there, it’s up to the viewer to fill in whatever exposition they need to make it all work (or not work, as it were).
Of course, with any discussion of Mad Max, we must discuss the man who fills the title role with such authority that he launched not only a movie series, but an entire career off its back. Since Mel Gibson’s profile over the past ten years been consumed by a series of personal controversies, it’s easy to forget what a magnetic screen presence the one-time superstar was in his prime. Even at this early stage of his career (he was just twenty-two when Max was filmed), Gibson displays a maturity that belies his relatively slight years, and brings a believable intensity to his transition from loving family man into something much darker.
I have no idea whether Miller realized what kind of phenomenon he had on his hands when he first began development on Mad Max. I’m not sure how he could have. As mentioned earlier, it’s not like this project was suddenly inventing a new genre out of a whole cloth. Sure, it was skillfully produced, even pretty darn clever at times, but it was just another entry in the long list of post-apocalyptic cinema, which had already accrued a fair bit of use already. Nonetheless, Mad Max found a receptive chord with global audiences, earning a cool $100 mil against its piddly budget, in turn making it one of the most profitable films in history.
Ironically enough, one of the few markets where the movie didn’t leave much of a mark was North America, where it was released with a dubbed-over audio track that dispensed with Aussie accents and vernacular (and much of the charm in the process). Still, its global success was inarguable, of a kind that doesn’t come along often. Nonetheless, a second installment was made all but inevitable, and with Max having put both Miller and Gibson on the map, the pair’s reunion a few years later would up the ante in every measurable way. If the world we saw in Mad Max was just teetering on the brink of collapse, the next time out we’d see what George Miller’s vision of total anarchy looked like.