The post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max 2 (dir. Miller, 1981) presents us with two differing societies formed from the ashes of our own world. The Settlers, who are refining oil within their protected compound, and the Marauders, who desire the oil and are laying siege to the compound. The Settlers present a more traditional way of living (or, at least, a more idealistically traditional way of living). They are referred to as a family, and this is proven through their care and respect for one another; e.g. Lusty Girl’s (Arkie Whiteley) unwillingness to abandon the compound when she is given the opportunity to escape, the sorrow shown when members die and the concern when they are injured. They also have a father figure in Pappagallo (Michael Preston), whose name is indicative of his position (papa), and who leads democratically; convincing everyone of his plans before decisions are made and holding meetings to discuss issues. Dressed in wholesome white clothing, the Settlers also resemble a religious order, and their desire to leave the squalor of the wasteland in search of paradise is comparable to religious belief. At one point, we see a Settler lose faith in their cause (“You’re going to die for a pipe dream”) and another, the Warrior Woman (Virginia Hey), defends it, referring to it as a belief (“No. We fight for a belief”). Although the validity of their faith is mocked – the basis being picture postcards of an idyllic coastal resort presumably long gone since the advent of the apocalypse – the Settlers’ beliefs inspire them to work together to achieve their goal – the implication being that religious ideals promote communality and social progress.
The Marauders present a more anarchic way of life. In contrast to the Settlers’ family unit, they behave more like a gang, acting aggressively towards each other and mocking weaker members’ misfortune, such as when the Toadie (Max Phipps) loses his fingers. Sporting Mohawk haircuts and BDSM gear, they resemble members of the counterculture, specifically punks and sadomasochists, and due to their large male dominance comparisons have been made to the gay underworld (different castes of Marauders are even referred to as gay-boy berserkers and smegma-crazies). One Marauder, Wez (Vernon Wells), is plainly presented as homosexual, his lover, the Golden Youth (Jerry O’Sullivan), constantly accompanying him on the back of his motorcycle. However, it is questionable whether he has given his consent, as he is held in chains, and the immoral acts of the Marauders, including rape and torture, suggest he could be an unwilling slave. They too have a leader; the Humungus (Kjell Nilsson). His name is also indicative of his position, being by far the largest and most muscular of the Marauders, suggesting he gained his position by being the biggest and most powerful, rather than through diplomacy. A lack of democracy is also shown as he is referred to as ‘the Lord Humungus’ and acts as an autocrat, the Marauders being ruled by his word alone, which he imposes through force, such as when he subdues Wez (“we do it my way”). Although he feigns diplomacy with the Settlers in an attempt to gain the oil, speaking eloquently and presenting his terms as being entirely reasonable, he only uses threat of force, making him come across as a corrupt politician and leader of an invading power.
Due to their appearance, it has been suggested that the Marauders being depicted as the ‘bad guys’ and the Settlers as the ‘good guys’, implies that the counterculture and homosexuality are deviant, wrong, and a threat to conservative values that must be upheld. I don’t believe it was ever the intention to present homosexuality or the counterculture as immoral. The film’s writers have been quoted as saying they changed the sex of the Golden Youth and the Warrior Woman to show sexuality has become interchangeable in the future; a progressive view that would have been helped if one of Settlers was also presented as homosexual. A point is made to show that the Marauders are not exclusively homosexual with a shot of a heterosexual couple having sex as their tent cover is unexpectedly pulled off, and they are also seen to rape a female Settler. As for the counterculture, director George Miller is a known rock music enthusiast who would later cast punk icon Angry Anderson in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (dir. Miller & Ogilvie, 1985), making it seem highly unlikely he would want to criticise it. Instead, criticism is aimed at life without purpose beyond selfish indulgence. This lifestyle is embodied by the Marauders, who live nihilistically, selfishly feeding off others as they drive around the desert in search of gasoline so they can drive around some more and endlessly repeat the same pointless cycle. They are consumers in endless pursuit of empty commodities, and this intemperance is expressed further by their sexual indulgence (sex being empty to them as they commit rape and treat people as commodities), moral dearth, and their aesthetic relation to the hedonistic rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. The commodity they value most of all is, of course, oil. The opening narration reveals a fuel crisis started the war that caused the apocalypse, and George Miller has gone on record saying the film was influenced by oil wars. This further establishes the Marauders as an invading power and Humungus as a political leader, connecting them more with the establishment than the counterculture. A scene cut from the original script reveals Pappagallo’s origins as chief executive of a major oil company, who with the event of the apocalypse decides to flee into the wasteland with the other Settlers.
The ‘Whole Earth, Catalogue’ was a counterculture magazine focusing on self-sufficiency and, of course, solar energy is an inexhaustible alternative energy. Pappagallo’s possession of counterculture literature and rejection of our world’s dependence on fossil fuel, and the Marauders reliance on it, further establishes the Marauders as the true establishment figures, while relating the Settlers with the counterculture.
The first film in the Mad Max saga, Mad Max (dir. Miller, 1979), sees our protagonist, Max (Mel Gibson), caught between two ways of living. His conventional family life, and his job as a police officer, which he is desperate to leave through fear he’s becoming as bad as the criminals he faces.
MAX: “I’m scared Fif, you know why? It’s that rat circus out there. I’m beginning to enjoy it. Look, any longer out on that road and I’m one of them, ya know? A terminal crazy, except I’ve got a bronze badge that says I’m one of the good guys.”
By the end of the film, we see Max’s fears come true as the murder of his wife and child by a berserk motorcycle gang sends him on a revenge-fuelled rampage. The film endorses Max’s conservative family life but presents his transformation into an outlaw as a tragedy that was impossible to escape in a world that operates by the law ‘survival of the fittest’. George Miller is said to be disapproving of its moral implications, and Mad Max 2 can be seen as addressing his grievances.
TERRY HAYES (co-writer Mad Max 2): “The first one (Mad Max) was a very bleak revenge story. I don’t think that George (Miller) particularly enjoys, now looking back, the sensibilities captured in that film. The second one (Mad Max 2) was a more generous film.”
Mad Max 2 expands the themes of Mad Max, as again we see Max pulled between two lifestyles, those of the family-like Settlers and the selfish, scavenging, Marauders. At first, Max seems to have more in common with the Marauders. He appears like a punk, dressed in ripped black leather, sporting spiky hair, and scavenges the wastelands for gasoline. He mistreats the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), enslaving him, lying to him, feeding his dog while the Captain goes hungry and refusing to release him when he has no further use for him. He rescues one of the Settlers but only so he can trade him for gasoline (“I’m just here for the gasoline”) and is accused by the Settlers of being a Marauder (“For all we know he’s one of them”), a “parasite” and “trading in human flesh”. It appears Max will find salvation through embracing the Settlers’ way of life, as the opening narration sets up the film as the story of his recovery (“He learned to live again”), and after he retrieves the tanker – so the Settlers can escape the compound with their gasoline – he is invited to drive it and join them on their journey to paradise. Max refuses the Settlers’ offer, preferring their arrangement to stay purely business and to leave with a reward of oil. Pappagallo attempts to persuade Max, criticising his lack of purpose and his coveting of empty commodities.
PAPPAGALLO: “What is it with you, huh? What are you looking for? C’mon, Max, everybody’s looking for something. You’re happy out there, are you? Eh? Wandering? One day blurring into another? You’re a scavenger, Max. You’re a maggot. Did you know that? You’re living off the corpse of the old world.”
The offer to join the Settlers provides Max with the opportunity to embrace the family life that he lost. The Feral Kid (Emil Minty) is even set up as a surrogate son for Max, as they form a close bond, and Max gifts him with a music box that plays ‘happy birthday’ – a song symbolic of childhood and family bliss – and it seems the film is endorsing a conservative family lifestyle as Mad Max did. The film also rejects the survival of the fittest mentality of Mad Max, with Wez being established as a dark parallel to Max when the Feral Kid kills the Golden Youth, and he too is consumed by a desire to avenge a loved one, that is encouraged by Humungus.
HUMUNGUS: “Be still, my dog of war. I understand your pain. We’ve all lost someone we love. But we do it my way! We do it my way. Fear is our ally. The gasoline will be ours. Then, you shall have your revenge.”
Humungus’ dialogue parallels a speech Pappagallo gives to Max. Unlike Humungus, Pappagallo condemns being consumed by loss, pushing Max to overcome the deaths of his loved ones and aspire for betterment like the Settlers instead of stagnating like the Marauders.
PAPPAGALLO: “Oh, so that’s it, you lost your family? That makes you something special, does it? Do you think you’re the only one that’s suffered? We’ve all been through it in here, but we haven’t given up. We’re still human beings with dignity. But you, you’re out there with the garbage. You’re nothing!”
Upon refusing to join the Settlers and leaving for the wasteland, Max is hunted down by the Marauders, his car is destroyed, he is severely injured, and his dog is killed. The injuries he receives can be seen as a symbolic death and the surreal sequence featuring his rescue by the Gyro Captain and elevation into the sky on the autogyro an ascension. Once returned to the compound, Max revives and changes his mind about driving the tanker, offering to drive it for free – sacrificing himself so the Settlers can reach paradise. This is symbolic of his rebirth; after again losing everything, instead of choosing revenge, he has embraced the Settlers’ communality – realising it’s the only way to survive. Again, it seems the film is siding with the Settlers, as Max has taken Pappagallo’s advice, found purpose and moved on from his loss, and his depiction as a Christ-like figure connects him to the Settlers’ religious ideals.
After agreeing to drive the tanker, Max is embroiled in a final epic chase with the Marauders, which ends with the tanker crashing and flipping on its side. Max survives and goes to inspect the wreckage. It is revealed that the tanker was filled with sand and was purely a diversion for the Marauders so the Settlers could escape with the gasoline hidden in their vehicles. From Max’s reaction, it seems clear he was unaware the tanker was filled with sand and he was being used as a decoy, meaning he was lied to by the Settlers. This adds ambiguity to the assertion that the Settlers’ lifestyle is unquestionably righteous. Although Pappagallo shows he is not a hypocrite, as he dies alongside the Warrior Woman defending the tanker, showing he will fight for his beliefs, his religious conviction has led him to exploit and lie to an outsider to further his cause. The Settlers’ prejudice against outsiders is previously hinted at; they take Max’s car and are untrusting and hostile towards him until he proves useful to them, and when he initially decides to leave with his reward, one Settler suggests to Pappagallo they keep his car. They welcome the Gyro Captain into their society, but again, it is only when he proves his usefulness, and after he is partnered with Lusty Girl, suggesting his acceptance was due to their union; evoking outdated religious traditions. It’s true the ending is presented by the Narrator (Harold Baigent) as optimistic and happy, with Max becoming a legendary hero of the Settlers’ folklore, but at the film’s conclusion, the Narrator is revealed to be an elderly Feral Child, who went on to become the Settlers’ leader and form the Great Northern Tribe. This means this is the Settlers’ retelling of the story and, therefore, biased, meaning the betrayed Max could be recast in their legends as a noble martyr instead of an oblivious pawn. Plus, it’s possible the Great Northern Tribe is not an entirely benevolent one. However, a more positive outlook, in keeping with Max’s Christ-like depiction, would be that in sacrificing himself for the Settlers’ sins (betrayal/prejudice), Max inspired the formation of a new society based on his altruism.
It’s a climax that begs us to ask questions, as although some aspects of the Settlers’ lifestyle seem entirely praiseworthy, doubt is cast on the conservatism that prevents them from achieving universal communality. So, instead of presenting a story about a man having to choose between two different ways of life, it’s exposed as one about a man who chose his own path, and although he was adopted as a messiah, we know he was just a man, proving faith does not have a monopoly on amelioration and morality and that just one man, one ordinary man, can make a difference.
More Mad Max!