Mad Max: Fury Road is FINALLY almost here, which means it’s time to turn back the clock and re-watch the original Mad Max trilogy.
Let’s get right to it, shall we?
The first film of the original trilogy was released in 1979, and was simply called Mad Max. It was Mel Gibson’s first major film role, as he was but 23 at the time.
And boy, does he look it.
Look at that fresh-faced youngster. He looks like he could be a Ralph Lauren model or something.
The original movie has a great opening scene, in which officers of the Main Force Patrol, or MFP, are in pursuit of a psychotic joyrider who gleefully calls himself the Nightrider, and spouts stuff like, “I AM THE NIGHTRIDER! I’M A FUEL-INJECTED SUICIDE MACHINE! I AM THE ROCKER, I AM THE ROLLER, I AM THE OUT-OF-CONTROLLER!!”
Despite the fact that he’s clearly nuts, I kind of liked the Nightrider. Unfortunately for him, that part about being a suicide machine turns out to be pretty accurate, as the chase ends in a fiery explosion. It’s a great opening scene that sets up the movie’s setting very well.
One of the most interesting things to me about this first Mad Max film is that it’s never really spelled out in the movie what exactly has happened to the world that led to this point. We get more background in the second movie, but in the first one it’s left very ambiguous. The movie opens with the words “A FEW YEARS FROM NOW…”, so it’s always set in the near future no matter when you watch it.
Also, and this is fascinating to me, there appears to still be some semblance of civilization and society that have survived. There’s still an organized police force, the MFP, of which Max himself is a member. There are still restaurants and nightclubs and there even appear to be lawyers and some kind of justice system still in place, so while it’s clear that things have started to go downhill at this point, they haven’t yet gone completely to hell (although that has certainly happened by the time the second movie takes place).
Another thing I noticed while re-watching the movie last weekend was that, with the exception of Max, all of the MFP officers are pretty damn useless. They manage to wreck two of their squad cars and almost run over a little kid in the street while pursuing the Nightrider, and he would clearly have gotten away if Max hadn’t joined the chase when he did. It made me think that maybe the MFP is just accepting whoever the hell shows up and volunteers to be an officer, since (again, except for Max) most of them seem to have no idea what the hell they’re doing.
The MFP is headquartered at the grandiose-sounding Hall of Justice. Isn’t that the same place where the Justice League was headquartered? Ironically enough, director George Miller was attached to a Justice League movie at some point, but it never happened. It’s really too bad.
Anyway, the name “Hall of Justice” sounds very proper and justice-y, and would maybe give the MFP a little more credibility, if it weren’t for the fact that the Hall of Justice is an absolute shithole. Seriously, it looks like an abandoned building that a bunch of druggies would use as a crack den.
Now that I think about it, it’s a little bit funny that the MFP is so useless. Are parts of this movie intended to be satirical? I dunno, maybe. There is a sense of cruel irony to it, in the sense that, as the world is going down the tubes, the people who are supposed to prevent it from going any further downhill are pretty much completely unprepared and unable to do so.
The captain (or lieutenant or whatever) of the MFP is one weird-looking dude. Just look at this bastard and tell me you don’t feel the need to take a shower for some reason.
I actually took notes on all three movies as I watched them, which I don’t usually do, and I think my note on this freaking guy speaks for itself. In my notebook, I wrote, and I quote: “The police captain looks like the commandant of a Nazi sex dungeon.” I defy anyone to disagree with that. His name is Fifi, for crying out loud! If that’s not the name of a commandant of a Nazi sex dungeon, then I just don’t know what is.
So we’ve established that the cops in this movie are a bunch of incompetent losers who are in way over their heads and are run by a guy whose tastes I don’t even want to speculate on, now how about the actual villains in the film?
Well, turns out that our old friend the recently-deceased Nightrider was part of a crew led by a fellow called the Toecutter, who looks like this:
Yeah, he definitely looks scarier than Fifi the sex-dungeon enthusiast, and him and his pals, while all clearly loony, are better organized and much more ferocious than the hapless MFP.
SIDE NOTE: the actor who plays the Toecutter, a fellow by the name of Hugh Keays-Byrne, plays the villain Immortan Joe in Fury Road. You know that dude from the trailers with the terrifying skull-mask thingy and a serious case of crazy eyes?
You know, this guy?
Yup, same actor. It’s cool that they’re bringing him back to play another psychotic villain. Kinda makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.
Anyway, the Toecutter is the leader of a motorcycle gang whose members, like I said, all appear to be off their rockers, but they do display some measure of loyalty towards their leader (or maybe they’re all just scared of him), and they’re much more ruthless than the MFP. If you took the MFP and the Toecutter’s gang and dropped them all into an enclosed area and made them fight to the death team-deathmatch style, I know which team I would put my money on.
The funny thing about the original Mad Max is that it (and its sequels) seem to have reputations as really super-violent movies, but, by today’s standards at least, they’re really not. In the first movie in particular, much of the violence happens off-screen. It’s really not a particularly violent film at all. Maybe it was by 1979 standards, but I’ve seen PG-13 (hell, even PG)-rated movies with way more violence than this R-rated one has.
In my opinion at least, the movie is a little boring. There are long stretches where nothing much really happens. The movie spends a long time with Max and his wife and their kid as they go on vacation, and nothing all that interesting really happens. Eventually, of course, they do run afoul of the Toecutter and his crazy pals, who run down Max’s wife and kid. And, even though Max’s family are murdered by presumably being run over by psycho bikers, we don’t see this happen directly, as the camera pulls away just as Max’s wife and son are about to go down. It’s another example of how the movie leaves a lot to the viewer’s imagination.
After this happens, Max has nothing left to live for but good old-fashioned REVENGE, so he swipes the Nightrider’s car from impound and takes off after the Toecutter and his gang of psycho-douches.
Also, I forgot to mention that the Nightrider’s car (I could be wrong about this so don’t get mad at me) just so happens to be the classic Interceptor, the iconic Mad Max car, which I think the MFP somehow managed to salvage and put back together after the opening chase scene (at least I think that’s what happened).
Max hunts down and takes out the Toecutter and his crew (in the process being shot in the leg and having his arm run over by a motorcycle), and has a dead look in his eyes as the movie ends. I have no idea if George Miller ever thought he would get to make a sequel to this movie, but he does a great job of setting up Max as the wasteland-wanderer we see in the second movie.
One of the many things I love about these three movies is that there is a strong sense of progression from film to film. There is no real indication as to how much time passes between the first and second movies (or the second and third movies), but watching all three sequentially gives the viewer a strong sense of the downward spiral of society.
In the first movie there is still some semblance of civilization, but in the second movie that is nowhere to be found. And by the time the third movie takes place, people have moved on from the old world and started to form new societies.
I’ve already written about The Road Warrior, which is the second Mad Max film, in my post titled “The Man We Called Max,” and I still stand by everything I wrote in that post, so I refer you to that if you want my more detailed analysis of the film.
But don’t worry, I’m not going to skip over The Road Warrior entirely, I love it far too much for that. There are a couple of things that stood out to me on my most recent viewing, which I would like to describe here.
The main thing I realized is that there are strong parallels drawn between the two opposing groups in the film. Just as a refresher, in The Road Warrior a group of folks holed up in an oil pumping station are in conflict with the Wasteland marauders led by the Lord Humungus (the muscular guy with the hockey mask in the poster above), who want their hoard of gasoline. In the world of The Road Warrior, mobility equals survival, and gasoline is more valuable than gold.
But what I realized is that these two opposing groups aren’t really all that different. There’s one specific bit of dialogue that keyed me in to this, which requires a bit of background.
I think most people would agree that the Lord Humungus is one scary-looking dude.
One of his henchmen, Wez, hangs out with a blond dude and it’s implied that Wez and the blond guy have a thing together. When his boy toy gets killed by a razor-sharp metal boomerang to the head, Wez flips out and Humungus attempts to calm him down.
What Humungus says to Wez is very interesting. He says, “Be still my dog of war. I understand your pain. We’ve all lost someone we love. But we do it my way!”
This fascinates me. Humungus doesn’t get angry at Wez, he talks to him as a friend and sympathizes with him. He seems to genuinely care for him. Despite his frightening appearance, Humungus appears to be the most sane and rational of his entire group, which is probably at least part of the reason why he’s in charge. His statement that they do things his way indicates that he is used to getting what he wants, but it also suggests that he has a plan that doesn’t involve just running into the pumping station and killing everyone there, which is clearly what Wez is in favor of doing.
He goes on to tell Wez that, “We do it my way. Fear is our ally. The gasoline will be ours. Then you shall have your revenge.” Humungus sympathizes with his screwy pal, but he’s got his priorities straight, and he clearly understands the value of intimidation.
And even more interestingly, he appears to not be without some measure of compassion. His appearance suggests a mindless killing machine, but his words and actions say otherwise. He even gives the people in the pumping station multiple chances to leave peacefully. I’m quoting him a lot here, but only because this is so intriguing to me. After he calms Wez down, he picks up his microphone and tells the pumping station inhabitants that “There has been too much violence. Too much pain. But I have an honorable compromise. Just walk away. Give me your pump, your oil, the gasoline, and the whole compound, and I’ll spare your lives. Just walk away and we’ll give you a safe passageway in the wastelands. Just walk away and there will be an end to the horror.”
He clearly understands what he is putting the beleaguered inhabitants of the pumping station through. You could even say that his speech here is tinged with just a bit of regret at the fact that he has to cause more pain. He’s seen (and caused) his share of pain and suffering, and he doesn’t want to cause any more if he can avoid it.
Look, I’m not trying to hold up the Humungus as a shining beacon of humanity and virtue in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. He’s clearly not a really nice guy, since he lets his men kill and rape pretty much whoever they want. And there is of course no way of knowing if he would have kept his promise of safe passage and not just killed everybody as soon as they surrendered, but I dunno, something about the way he says it makes me think he’s serious.
He’s not a brainless lunkhead like some (heck, maybe most if Wez is any indication) of his acolytes, and he understands honor and compassion. I get the impression that he’s the only person capable of keeping his group together, and that without him around, they’d all turn on each other in a heartbeat.
When it comes to the Humungus, I’m torn between being happy at the fact that his background is never given, since it makes him a more mysterious character, and really wanting to know exactly what this bastard’s origin story is.
We get maybe a hint of it when he takes out his signature weapon, a scoped magnum revolver, which he keeps in a red-lined case.
We can see what look like medals of some kind, perhaps indicating a military background. And although it’s slightly obscured by the scope in the picture, there appears to be some kind of skull-and-crossbones emblem. I’m no expert here, but to me it looks a lot like a Nazi Totenkopf, or Death’s Head symbol, which was used by the SS in World War II.
And who’s in the picture? Is it him? Maybe his parents? Did the gun belong to his father or something? He clearly cares about it, since he takes such pains to preserve it and only brings it out for special occasions (as a side note, Googling “Nazi totenkopf” probably put me on some kind of CIA or Homeland Security watch list. The things I do in the name of blogging).
These movies are so good at suggesting things, which is so hard to do effectively. It is really hard to show and not tell. It is really hard to be subtle. How many movies and TV shows have you seen that get bogged down at times by endless exposition? It’s a storytelling crutch that can be hard to avoid, but these movies do it effortlessly.
And I realize I talked for quite a while there about the Humungus, but I promise there was a point to all that. Remember when I said that there was one particular bit of dialogue that keyed me in to the idea that the marauders and the defenders of the pumping station aren’t all that different? Well, the first half of that comes in what Humungus says to Wez to calm him down, and tells him that they have all lost something.
The second half comes when the leader of the pumping station, named Pappagallo, is trying to convince Max to stay with them. Max wants to leave, but Pappagallo presses him, and what I realized here is that Pappagallo’s message to Max is almost exactly the same as Humungus’ message to Wez earlier.
Pappagallo implores Max to tell him his story, and says, “Tell me your story, Max. C’mon. Tell me your story. What burned you out, huh? Kill one man too many? See too many people die? Lose some family?”
At this, Max glares at Pappagallo angrily, but he continues undeterred. “Oh, so that’s it, you lost your family? That makes you something special, does it?”
Max loses his temper at this remark and punches Pappagallo in the face. But Pappagallo is nothing if not persistent, and when he gets up he says, “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.”
This sets up a very strong parallel between Humungus and Wez, and Pappagallo and Max. Max’s mistake is in thinking that the fact he has lost something makes him special. But it doesn’t. In this world, everyone has lost something. What makes one person different from another, and what truly separates Pappagallo’s group from Humungus’ group, is in how you deal with it, and in how you choose to move on.
By the end of the movie, I like to think Max has learned that. At the end of the first movie he has a dead look in his eyes, suggesting that some part of his soul has died along with his family. At the end of the second movie, despite being bruised and battered, he looks somehow more purposeful, like he has realized that life, despite its hardships and despite everything he has lost, can still be worth living, and that, as the film’s opening narration tells us, he has learned to live again.
Which brings us to the third movie, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, probably the least-loved of the three.
Beyond Thunderdome is a movie of two halves, and its main problem is that its two halves don’t fit together very well.
In the first half, Max stumbles across a place called Bartertown, run by Aunty Entity, played by Tina Turner. Bartertown runs on Methane, generated by pigsh*t. Aunty Entity is in the middle of a bit of an energy crisis with the guy, or guys, who run the Underworld, which is where the pigsh*t farming takes place (it sounds weird when you write it down, but it makes more sense when you see it in the movie).
The Underworld is run by MasterBlaster. MasterBlaster is actually two people – Master is a small fellow who rides on the back of Blaster, a hulking behemoth of a man. Master is the brains, Blaster is the muscle.
Master knows that, since he controls the energy supply, he’s really the one in charge of Bartertown, and he repeatedly rubs this in Aunty Entity’s face. Aunty Entity does not take kindly to this, and so she hires Max to take care of the problem for her. Max picks a fight with MasterBlaster, which leads to him facing off with Blaster in the titular Thunderdome, where the only, oft-repeated rule is, “Two men enter, one man leaves.”
The Thunderdome fight is very creatively staged, where Max and Blaster are both suspended from cables strung from the top of the dome. There are weapons at various places in the dome, which can be reached using the cables the combatants are suspended from.
Max eventually defeats Blaster by using a high-pitched whistle, after having previously discovered that Blaster has a weakness to loud, high-pitched noises. Max refuses to kill Blaster, however, after knocking his helmet off and discovering that Blaster, despite his hulking physique, has the mind of a child. Aunty Entity, unhappy that Max has reneged on his deal, executes Blaster anyway, leaving Master helpless. Master loses quite a bit of his bluster once Blaster is gone, which is really sad to see, as he cries despondently over the body of his fallen comrade.
Aunty Entity sentences Max to exile in the Wasteland for having reneged on their deal and Max wanders the desert and eventually collapses from exhaustion.
It is here that the second half of the film begins, and in many ways it feels like a completely different movie. Max is found by a mysterious young woman who takes him back to her home, where she lives with a group of children, who are the descendants of a group of people whose plane crashed in the desert years ago. They think that Max is Captain Walker, the captain of the plane, and that he has returned to lead them to safety. Max hates to burst their bubble, but he tells them that he’s not Captain Walker, and some of the more devout among them refuse to accept this.
Through a series of circumstances, some of them end up going back to Bartertown and rescuing the imprisoned Master, and the film climaxes with an epic pursuit across the desert as Aunty Entity and her henchmen give chase. Ultimately, the kids escape and I guess establish some sort of settlement in the ruins of Sydney, where they tell tales of Max, the man who saved them.
At the end of the climactic chase, Aunty Entity decides to let Max live, and as the film ends he wanders into the desert into places unknown, as he passes into legend among the tribe of lost children.
So, yeah. I’m just going to come right out and say that the kids in the movie are basically the Lost Boys from Peter Pan. My problem with this aspect of the story is that seems like a rehash of the previous film, where Max becomes the savior of a different group of people. I mean geez, can this guy not go anywhere in the Wasteland without becoming someone’s mythological savior?
I still love the idea of the loner who shows up and saves everyone and then disappears (I talked about this a bit more in my previous post on The Road Warrior), but it’s just not as poignant in Beyond Thunderdome as it was in The Road Warrior. Partly it’s because the kids are, let’s be honest, kind of annoying. Their way of speaking is a bit overly cutesy (sample kid line: “Time counts and keeps countin’, and we knows now finding the trick of what’s been and lost ain’t no easy ride”), and they just don’t really connect very well with the first half of the film.
My other problem with this movie is that, ultimately, I wasn’t sure what it was trying to be about. Is it about survival? Redemption? Moving on from the old world? I don’t know. By the end of the movie, it just left me feeling unsatisfied. To me, it didn’t have a satisfying conclusion, and it doesn’t really feel like it goes anywhere.
It also lacks a strong central antagonist. I wasn’t even sure who the villain of the movie was supposed to be. I guess it’s Aunty Entity, but she didn’t seem particularly evil to me. She’s power-hungry and a bit ruthless, but that doesn’t automatically make her evil. The movie lacks a clearly-defined conflict, and that makes it feel a bit empty. The movie has good ideas but doesn’t really know what to do with them.
Still, overall, I love these films. What I’ve realized over the course of writing this epically long post is that I only love one of these films individually. That film is of course The Road Warrior, which will always be one of my all-time favorite movies. I like and appreciate the first and third films in the trilogy, but I don’t love them.
But taken as a whole, as an overall trilogy, I do love these movies, even if I don’t love them all individually. There’s a strong sense of connectivity and continuity between them, and they all present different, distinct stages of what the world could be like after the downfall of society.
There’s also a strong sense of continuity in the character of Max himself. Even the injuries he sustains from one movie to the next carry over. In The Road Warrior, Max’s outfit is the result of the injuries he received from the Toecutter’s gang (the sleeve of Max’s right arm is ripped off where it was run over by a motorcycle, and Max walks with a slight limp and wears a brace on his left leg where he was shot in the first movie). And in the third movie, if you look close enough, you’ll notice Max’s left eye is always dilated and there’s a slight scar over his eyebrow, due to the injury he received in the second movie after his car was run off the road.
While I would only consider one of these films (the second one) to be a masterpiece, taken as a whole they still work extremely well. Each film can stand on its own, but they also strongly cohere as a unit, and I think that these films will continue to be remembered. They have already stood the test of time, and I strongly believe that they will continue to do so. Something about these movies has really resonated with people, and from what I’ve heard about Fury Road so far, the future is looking bright…
…for the man we called Max.