Classic Movie Review
Directed by: George Miller
Starring: Mel Gibson and Hugh Keays-Byrne
By: Mike Peters
Max (Mel Gibson) is a cop dedicated to keeping the roads of a desolate looking Australia safe in the near future. But soon after a fellow police officer is severely injured, Max decides to retire from the force. During his hiatus, his wife and child are attacked by a gang of marauding bikers causing Max to seek bitter vengeance against them.
Mad Max is a post-apocalyptic action film with elements of horror, sci-fi and melodrama. But at its core, Mad Max is a Western. During the beginnings of Australian Cinema, Australia struggled to define a cultural identity for themselves through the language and visuals of their films. As it is with most national cinemas, many filmmakers import ideas, themes and structures from the most dominant filmmaking country in the world, the United States of America. One of the most prevalent genres/structures in, not only film, but in literature has been the Western. The Western, at its most general level, can be used to symbolically express emotional truths about everyday society. As a result, the Western has morphed into many types of films from James Mangold’s Copland (1997) to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005). The Western has many simple truths and focuses on issues such as family, loyalty, adversity and heroism. So, one cannot truly blame George Miller for incorporating many elements of the Western into Mad Max. Every nation does it.
It is very difficult for national cinemas to define themselves (through their films) when striving to eliminate the imposing influence of American entertainment. American films have set the standards for modern day storytelling and have become extremely successful as a result. What other nations do on a regular basis however is that they tend to adopt the structure of the American film and then deconstruct it from within using their own themes and symbols. This is definitely true of Mad Max. It is an action film fused with a Western but still manages to create a solid Australian identity anyways.
The film is about a lawless land where lawless people rule. Multitudes of men ride into town on their motor bikes (horses) and proceed to terrorize it. The police are unable to stop them. That is until Max (the sheriff) decides to take a stand. It is not out of loyalty to the force or the land but rather it is a vengeful journey for Max, who seeks retribution for the destruction of his family (in fact, there are no other families present in the film-the family structure has been destroyed in the future). He is alone in his battle but seeks to bring a sense of his law to the land.
Australian film and the Western, for that matter, have always been built on one necessary contradicting theme, Wilderness versus Civilization. The motorcycle maniacs enter the civilized city from the wilderness of the land and then systematically deconstruct the structure that has been set in place. They are anti-establishment, anti-authority and, as a result, carnage and mayhem are played out. The wilderness is typically defined as an area that symbolizes masculinity in the Western. There is a kill or be killed mentality that exists throughout it. As a result, the civilized ones are unsure of how to deal with the wanderers from the land and thus fail.
Max is a member of the civilized world. Yes, he does dress in black leather (which gains him points for masculinity) but he is unequipped to match the rawness presented to him. After quitting the force, he further shies away from any form of masculine trait. He becomes a family man. He buys a dog, expresses emotions (he was unable to before) to his wife and journeys with his family in the family automobile. His mode of dress changes as well (he wears light colors symbolizing his transition into a feminized male) which further works to strip him of his title as ideal male. Thus, as a result, he is unable to protect his family in their time of need. It is only when he has lost everything, that he regains a sense of his manhood. He retrieves his black leather garb and obtains a powerful, 600 horsepower, beast of a machine (car) and heads out after the bikers. He leaves the civilized world behind and enters the wilderness. He is expressionless (in other words, emotionless) and determined to kill these men in their own land. To win, he must become what he is not. He feels no pity or any remorse, especially when he handcuffs one of the bikers to a car leaking gas. Max is a new man with a new identity. He has adapted to the harsh landscape and, as a result, emerges victorious.
Australian Cinema is, in a large way, most concerned about the representation of masculinity in their films. It is an important thematic value to them as it goes to resemble the fortitude, strength and ruggedness of the Australian male. The fact that Max drives off into the wilderness at the end of the film only works to further solidify this point. Max is forever changed and he cannot return to what he was. In two sequels that followed, Max is a lonely wanderer, one with the wilderness. His body becomes beaten and abused but his survival instincts have increased. It is only because he has learned the ways of the land that he has been able to survive.
Mad Max is a very low budget film but for the lack of money, the film makes up for it in terms of raw energy and mind-blowing stunts (especially for 1979). Mel Gibson was an unknown at this time and his Australian accent is prevalent as ever. It is actually a shame that Mel Gibson became such a star here in North America. The fact that audiences will immediately recognize him damages the films overall strength nowadays. We know that he will succeed….it’s Mel Gibson. Back in 1979 however, audiences did not know what to expect which made this film an enjoyable ride with no preconceived notions of any kind. With this being said, the film, to this day, still continues to hold its own and remains one of the most successful and important films in Australian film history.