Retro Review – Mad Max (1979)

mad max poster

Overview

Synopsis A police officer tries to protect those he cares about in a society that’s quickly falling apart.

Length 1 hour, 28 minutes

Release Date March 21, 1980 (USA)

 

Rating R

Distribution WCWB (TV), Warner Bros. Home Entertainment (Blu-ray since 2021), VUDU (streaming), HBO Max (VOD)

Directing George Miller

Writing James McCausland, George Miller, Byron Kennedy

Composition Brian May

Starring Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne

Earlier this year I had the honor of being a director in attendance for the Perfect Light Film Festival located in Broken Hill, NSW. The township is located in outback Australia, and it’s a notable area due to the fact that two iconic Australian films were filmed nearby—The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. The latter production left such an impact that there’s a museum dedicated to the film in the neighbouring town of Silverton. How could a film geek resist the urge of visiting such a place?

Except it has been years since I’ve seen the Mad Max films, particularly the original trilogy. “You just need to rewatch Mad Max 2,” my brother advised. He was speaking from experience, as he had done exactly that in preparation for coming with me on the trip to the outback.

Yet I refused to believe him. Can you really just go straight to the sequel? How can you appreciate such a film without first understanding how Max went mad? There was only one way to see whether the original film still has a place on people’s watch lists.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: There are many vehicle-related stunts which result in crashes, explosions, and fatalities from either being the driver or being hit. The film contains cruelty towards animals and children. Moderate gore as there are close ups of wounds, burns, and corpses. A person is dragged by a motorcycle. A family is hunted down by hoons. There is implication of sexual assault. One character is given a cruel ultimatum where one option is to be burnt alive.

Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb is dropped once, along with a few instances of the s-word and other swears. God’s name is used in vain. Derogatory Australian slang words are used.

Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink alcohol and smoke tobacco in social settings.

Sexual Content: Male and female nudity is present—there are several instances throughout the film. A couple are watched having intercourse from afar. A naked couple sleeping in the backseat of a car are rudely awakened by a gang—it’s implied sexual assault occurs. A married couple are seen lying in bed together. Gang members make sexual gestures with a mannequin.  

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Content: A moral, upstanding man is reduced to committing violent revenge against those that caused an injustice—the film is unclear on whether it supports his actions. Police are repeatedly shown disrespect.

Positive Content: This film is a bleak story about the breakdown of society. If anything, it shows there’s a prevailing need for justice to exist.

Review

Before Mad Max: Fury Road came on the scene, when people spoke of their fondness for Mad Max, usually they were referring to the second film, often cited as the best one of the trilogy (until it was extended). Mad Max 2 was a massive success for up-and-coming director George Miller, but that was only because Mad Max laid the groundwork.

Having only filmed two shorts and a documentary previously, George Miller came up with the concept of this bikie gang-fuelled wasteland after having personally witnessed the horrors of motorcycle incidents through his work as an emergency room doctor. Pairing up with screenwriter Byron Kennedy, their real-world inspirations are easy to see in the film, with the movie making waves in cinema for its crashes and realistic injuries. Since Mel Gibson was not a household name at the time (Mad Max was the film that put him on the map, although some might argue it was Gallipoli), early advertising relied on the film’s impressive motor vehicle related action. It worked—for a while it was one of the most successful independent films at the box office, gathering a fantastic return for its meagre $350,000 budget. With Australian cinema only just starting to truly get off the ground, it was great news for my home country, even though all the actors at the time needed to be dubbed with American accents, including Mel Gibson’s, as Australian voices were “too foreign” to be understood by American ears due to a lack of exposure.

Yet I don’t wish to rave too much about Mad Max’s action sequences—by today’s standards they’re nothing spectacular. George Miller has already outdone himself with the subsequent sequels in the franchise, whilst other intellectual properties such as Bad Boys, Mission: Impossible, and the James Bond films of this world have pushed these types of scenes to their limit. But back in the day, Mad Max was a contender. Films such as Bullitt and The French Connection featured elaborate chase sequences where cars would dodge and squeal around obstacles on busy city streets. Mad Max was a different breed altogether. It focussed on open, abandoned roads. Long straights, where from a first person POV it morphed into a tunnel vision effect, the narrow field replicating Max’s growing rage. It’s less of a chase and more of a hunt in some scenes.

The vibe is what really sets Mad Max apart from the rest. It’s bleak. Max, an officer, tries to maintain some semblance of order in a world that’s quickly losing its morality. When justice seems futile, the story turns into raw masculine rage; a revenge fantasy. It’s an interesting example of an Australian Western—a niche genre that’s still being defined to this day—with a splash of grindhouse mixed in. The attitude presented is in the same vein as Eastwood’s films that were also popular in the same time period, with The Gauntlet being of particular note. While it doesn’t present anything in its action sequences that audiences may not have seen before, the context and tone of Mad Max’s story is what takes hold in people’s memories.

Post-apocalyptic worlds have always been reasonably popular, particularly in recent years, though the Mad Max franchise is an odd example. It’s very light on its worldbuilding and background information. If you plan on watching Mad Max in the hopes that the first film will explain how this world came to be like it is, then you’re wasting your time. This is because the whole post-apocalyptic setting was not intended. George Miller merely shot around old, abandoned buildings for budgetary reasons. The whole concept of a fuel shortage doesn’t feature until the later films. There are very brief, try-hard-and-you-might-perceive-it references to some kind of world war, and that’s it. We’re just thrown into a world of a ragtag, aging police force that’s trying to keep roaming bikie gangs under control. As such, Mad Max has the most “normal” or established society in the series, which forgivably makes sense as we see everything get weirder as each film progresses. But it does feel like Mad Max is merely a proof-of-concept film for Mad Max 2—George Miller’s vision seems only half-baked here, and is certainly stronger in his other films as he comes to grips with what he has created.

Mad Max may not deliver the thrills it once did or provide a satisfactory background story as to the state of this world, but it is still an important part of Max’s character development. It’s the one film where someone can truly claim that Max is the main character; in all subsequent movies, he’s reduced to a stoic man that grunts and begrudgingly assists the more charismatic supporting cast. In Mad Max he actually has a decent amount of dialogue! While there’s no surprise that his journey is tragic, his descent into madness feels justified, with his past explaining some of his behaviours in future films, such as his penchant for helping children. However, if you aren’t watching these movies in release order and are visiting this film after seeing some of the sequels, it can be a little underwhelming to find out the reason why Max went mad—it oddly doesn’t seem messed up enough. Compared to the deaths on display in Furiosa, Max’s experience feels pretty average in this bleak world. It’s now clear that it’s not a case where Max is ‘the most traumatised individual’ as some might have assumed initially, but rather that everyone is traumatised in their own way in this savage environment that Miller has created. Everyone’s mad, and Mad Max is the story of how Max essentially joined the masses… in his own way.

So, is Mad Max worth a watch? In the opening monologue of Mad Max 2, there is a brief recap of this film; when the sequel was released, a lot of people weren’t aware of the first, and managed to enjoy it regardless. Yet if you are keen on this franchise, then absolutely you should give the original movie a look. The stunts have aged, and it offers no great insight into the greater worldbuilding aspects of this bizarre society, but it is a fascinating piece of film history that offers a rare Australian western that mimicked the bleak outlook of the era, where revenge was visceral and the lines between the good guys and the bad guys were blurred. It’s the only one that offers a character study of Max and establishes this reasonably silent protagonist that could easily be misunderstood if not placed within the context of this film. Since half the cast are seemingly going to be reuniting at Supanova this weekend, then that’s also a good reason to give this classic a visit if you’re an Aussie geek that’s lucky enough to attend.

Positives

+ Solid stunts and chase sequences
+ Bold storytelling
+ Actually focusses on the titular character

Negatives

- Poor worldbuilding
- Has lost its shine due to age
- Gratuitous nudity

The Bottom Line

Mad Max may no longer compete in terms of style when it comes to the other entries in this franchise, but it is the only one to really explore the titular character, despite the fact that could potentially be skipped.

 

6.7

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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