Some readers may have been wondering why I have neglected to post about Mad Max (dir. Miller, 1979) for so long, covering Mad Max 2 (dir. Miller, 1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (dir. Miller & Ogilvie, 1985), and my expectations for Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. Miller, 2015) before it. Well, the truth is, I just don’t hold it in such high esteem as the second and third films. Many fans will be outraged by this declaration as the original is the favourite of many of the saga’s most devout, but hopefully, this post will justify my reasoning.
Although there’s no doubt it is a superlative action movie, featuring electrifying chases and stunts, and gripping performances (Mel Gibson really makes us empathise with Max’s struggle and lose, and Hugh Keays-Byrne is unnervingly deranged as Toecutter), it just doesn’t have the thematic depth of its successors. And the themes it does cover are morally questionable (George Miller rejecting and amending them in the two sequels).
Max’s job as a cop suggests support for the establishment, while the outlaw existence of Toecutter’s gang vilifies the counterculture, and the endorsement of Max’s conventional family life becomes problematic when we consider the gang’s bisexual characterisation. Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns) is physically affectionate towards Toecutter, who refers to him as having a “sweet, sweet mouth”, implying Johnny is Toecutter’s bitch. The gang also rape a heterosexual couple and gang members act in a stereotypical ‘camp’ gay manner. It has also been suggested that Fifi (Roger Ward), Max’s commanding officer, is gay by people judging his appearance and flamboyant character. Another factor contributing to this opinion is that Roger Ward is famous for writing The Set (dir. Brittain, 1970), the first Australian film to have homosexuality as a central theme, which depicts homosexuality within Australia and is supposedly partly autobiographical. If Fifi was intended to be seen as gay, then it’s possible that similarly to Mad Max 2, the filmmakers were attempting to promote equality and show a future where sex has become interchangeable. If this is the case, they did a poor job, as suggesting one good guy is gay through stereotypical characterisation and having bisexual villains who commit rape is no way to promote equality.
The film’s central theme is of ‘survival of the fittest’. Toecutter’s gang operate via a hierarchical structure, a system he believes should be applied universally, with him at the top
TOECUTTER: “Take your hat off.”
STATION MASTER: “Anything you say.”
TOECUTTER: “Anything I say. What a wonderful philosophy you have.”
The system encourages a survival of the fittest mentality that pushes gang members to seek revenge when they are wronged to reclaim their dominance. Max is torn between his family life and his job, which the alluring thrill of is putting him at risk of becoming as dangerous as the criminals he faces. From his first appearance, there is a suggestion that it wouldn’t take much for him to tip over the edge and become as deranged as one of the gang, as we see him crash the Nightrider’s (Vince Gil) car by besting him in a game of chicken. Nightrider’s subsequent death incites the gang to seek revenge. In their search for revenge, a grudge is formed between Max’s best friend and fellow officer, Jim Goose (Steve Bisley), and Johnny. Johnny is arrested by Goose, mocked by him while in custody, and when no witnesses show at his trial, he is released, and an angered Goose attempts to attack him but is held back by his fellow officers. Johnny must prove himself to Toecutter and the rest of the gang by taking vengeance. He causes Goose’s vehicle to crash by throwing a brake drum through the window and must complete his initiation by burning him alive. Max is pushed into operating in a hierarchical system, being Main Force Patrol’s “top pursuit man”; a job he is desperate to leave but is pressured by his fellow officers to keep.
FIFI: “You’re a winner, Max. You’re on the top shelf.”
Max attempts to resign but is persuaded by Fifi to take a holiday with his family and think about it. While on holiday, he is hunted down by the gang and his wife and child are killed (a classic example of fridging, at odds with the active feminism of the sequels). Max’s fears come true, and he adopts the philosophy of the gang, setting out on a revenge-fueled rampage. He assaults a mechanic to gain information, just as Toecutter had previously done, then hunts down and kills the gang members. The last to die is Johnny, whose death parallels Goose’s. Max finds Johnny, handcuffs his ankle to a vehicle, sets up a rudimentary time-delay fuse that will shortly cause the vehicle to explode, then throws Johnny a hacksaw, leaving him the choice of hacking through the cuffs in ten minutes or his ankle in five. The desperate Johnny cries, “You think I look silly, don’t ya?”, echoing the words he used to describe Goose before his death, “Look at him. He looks silly, doesn’t he, upside down?” Just as Johnny submitted to the gang by killing Goose, Max has now submitted to their survival of the fittest mentality by killing Johnny in the same manner.
Although Mad Max is critical of the survival of the fittest philosophy, it suggests it is inescapable and the only way the world can operate: a decidedly grim and morally corrupt view. When put in context with its sequels, the film’s negativity is rectified, but when judging the films individually, I’m on the side of the latter instalments and their more hopeful outlooks.
More Mad Max!