*Originally appeared on the MacGuffin: http://macguff.in/macguffin-content/action-junkie-mad-max-2-the-road-warrior/
The original title for director George Miller’s follow up to his International hit movie debut,Mad Max, was simply Mad Max 2 when it opened to Australian and Japanese theaters in 1981. Overseas in the United States it was re-titled for American audiences as The Road Warrior. Distributors felt no one would see a movie that was a sequel to a film most people in the USA had not seen. With the Blu-Ray release of the film in 2007 the original title card of Mad Max 2was restored in place at the beginning of the movie, after the credits a low level build of horns and drums slowly usher us before it.
Using the same graphic technique for the title card of the first film, accompanied by the score, we expect the next shot will present us a widescreen window of whatever wonders are in store for this film, instead we fade to black, and a sardonic low note precedes the withered yet hardened tenure of a narrator’s voice scratching its way onto the audio landscape. To further dismay our expectations the first image we see is small, a box in the center of the screen recalling a television screen not a theater’s. What we see in this box is, again a nice twist in expectations, as we are shown for the first shot, unknowingly to a first time viewer, what will also serve as the movie’s final shot, Max standing in the center of the road, cars wrecked around him, his face beaten and bruised, as smoke is superimposed, on a separate level of film, blowing over him. In these several seconds of time a theme is presented that will follow the viewer throughout the entirety of the movie, expect the unexpected.
In the opening montage of flashback and narration, The Road Warrior immediately establishes for the viewer the most explanation of the post-apocalyptic world the story takes place in than at any other time in the Mad Max trilogy. Here the slow, sardonic voice of the narrator explains how the world essentially fell apart due to war over oil. As the narration continues we are fed images of wartime newsreels, namely from World War Two. This evokes a sense of a time when the world did possibly feel like it was ending. From newsreel footage we transition into flashback shots of Mad Max, mainly used for audiences unfamiliar with the predecessor.
The beginning montage of exposition ends with Max at the end of the previous film driving at night into the wastelands. Here he is still rather clean cut, his uniform intact, even if he is overcome with grief and madness. The shot cuts to an aerial view of a desolate road, setting the spatial tone for the film, wide open space, nothing but desert, wasteland. No hope as far as the eye can see. The camera quickly descends from the air like a bird, flying into the road and we cut to black. In an eye-popping moment, the camera, with a roar of an engine and blast of horns, pulls back from the darkness to a full widescreen shot of Max, in the present, behind the wheel of his V-8 Interceptor. Using the same framed shot of Max as we saw him last in the flashback, offers a direct comparison to Max as he is now, his hair is unkempt and fraying outward, he is dirty and what we can see of his uniform is tattered and missing a sleeve. Inside, the car has been gutted and refitted with only the essential needs for living in the post-apocalypse, this includes a dog, who’s just as wild and mangy looking as Max. The dog excellently represents a duality in Max’s character, we know nothing about the animal, or how he and Max became companions, but he represents signs of a wild creature. Befriending the dog shows that while Max embraces the wild he still holds desires of family.
Max’s uniform, which we don’t get a view of proper until later in this sequence, is a direct physical representation of his transition as a character because of, and since, the events in,Mad Max. His arm, which was run over by Bubba Zanetti’s motorcycle, is the one missing a sleeve. Paramedics attending a wound like Max’s would first cut off and pull away his jacket sleeve so as not move a possibly broken arm. His left leg is fitted with a brace supporting his knee where he was shot. A wrench hangs from the front of his jacket, ready for engine repairs. The small cupped shoulder pads used by the MFP have been abandoned and instead over his sleeveless arm, Max has installed a football shoulder pad for protection. Max has become a part of his environment, not just an adaption to it, which is echoed by the memory of his choice to enter into the wastelands for his means of revenge, and then never leaving. The irony is that now, since that choice, the world has become nothing but wasteland. His choice is no longer that, it is a prison that he can never escape from.
The beginning of The Road Warrior proper opens in the middle of a chase sequence. Max is being pursued by a highway gang. In an ironic twist the first member we’re clearly shown is wearing an altered, fetishized version of the MFP’s helmet and face protection. The action, like in Mad Max, starts the movie setting a precedent of entertainment spectacle that will be continuously outdone over the film’s duration. After taking out two of the three pursuing vehicles, one of which crashes into a semi-truck and trailer left in the middle of the road, Max stops and quickly races to salvage the vehicles leaking gasoline. On the horizon sits the remaining pursuer, Wez, one of the film’s main antagonists, and his male companion. The first villains of the film and already they are more primal and punk rock than the villains inMad Max, making some viewers ask, “How do they find time and resources to dye their hair and style it into Mohawks?” To an outright obvious degree this is a valid question, but it is also one that ignores the theme the visual aesthetic is used to incur throughout the entireMad Max series, intimidation. As Wez revs the motorcycle they sit upon, Max stands fast, placing himself between them and the gas he is retrieving, drawing a sawed-off shotgun he has holstered at his side. This is another significant factor of intimidation, as we learn later that Max at this moment in time has no bullets for the gun. He too must use elements of fear to survive in a land driven by such emotions, but here we see him turning the tables and using this against those that made intimidation the factor it is.
With the villains costume design we again have a film that capitalized on modern day film goers’ association with the punk rock music scene. The idea of style is not one of function, but attitude. Like in George A. Romero’s classic horror film Night of the Living Dead, the force of the other in The Road Warrior, is physically represented only, there are no reasons of explanation. Here instead of the undead with rotting flesh and an appetite for brains, we have hairstyles, clothing, and an appetite for destruction. Where Romero’s zombies made for a cultural reference to the world it was theatrically released to in 1968, so do Miller’s gangs of the wastelands, here in 1981 their representation is rooted in the similar concepts of anti-establishment sentiment. However, unlike in Mad Max where the villains were currently engaged in a battle against society, in The Road Warrior they have achieved their goal and roam the land doing as they please. There is no longer an establishment, not any official one.
After the opening scenes’ climax, in a similar plot structure to Mad Max, we are presented, albeit for a brief moment, with Max’s current state of being. As far as we can tell Max’s life consists of a simple philosophical existence, driving around looking for gas, so he can continue driving around looking for gas. His life, all of it, is in the Interceptor, which has been shown to us by the stripping and altering done to its’ interior. As the movie progresses and Max meets other people he seems adamant in his reproach of joining anyone or their goals, this is the life he wants. His existential status quo is quickly interrupted however with his encounter of the Gyro Captain, who essentially sends him on his path to learning to live again, as foretold by the narrator in the prologue.
At the center of The Road Warrior’s plot is a theme briefly touched upon at the end of Mad Max, fuel, gasoline, energy, it is what makes the world go around. This is broadly expanded upon at the beginning of The Road Warrior as the narrator explains that fuel caused the world war that brought upon the apocalypse. When the fuel production stopped, so did society, indicating that the two are inextricably linked. When Max meets the Gyro Captain, in exchange for his life, the Captain tells Max where he can find all the fuel he’ll ever need. The fact the Gyro Captain offers this to Max as his first resort further indicates the overall desire of the war’s survivors to find fuel, and with it perhaps civilization, or at the very least create an illusion of the comfort society could provide. The fuel refinery compound is the film’s strongest and most important example of the connection between fuel and society, as now in the aftermath of the war for oil it is oil that will by society’s salvation, or rebirth.
Telling a story in a Post-Apocalypse environment is typically about the “What if?” of society starting anew, rebuilding better what once was before, as if society before was broken or damaged and needed to be wiped clean to start over. In the instance of The Road Warriorthe case is not so much to rebuild better as it is to just rebuild something, anything resembling what was lost. The idea of societal improvement during rebuilding is the core issue of the third film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and helps complete the development of character in relation to their environment, as a linear narrative progression in a trilogy. In this movie that core philosophy is mainly concerned with finding a way to exist, the connections to the past serve as a hope to the possibility of going back to what once was. When taken in this perspective, the people of the refinery and Max are of similarity, they are both doing what they know immediately to do to exist, at least on the surface. Inside the refinery we find out they have gone past that first step and have proceeded to a plan. One based on hope for future survival, away from the torment of the gangs.
The Road Warrior is, like most action films, a story dealing with extremes, and nothing is more extreme in this film than the villains. A point so finely illustrated in their initial introduction. Riding in on vehicles the wasteland gang surrounds the refinery, recalling scenes from classic western movies where bad guys, portrayed as Native Americans, would surround a wagon train that circled in on itself for protection. The leader of these Post-Apocalyptic bad guys is The Humungous, his name, the very definition of extreme. To further push the point, The Humungous is just that, huge. He’s shaped like a body-builder and wears something you’d expect to see He-Man in. To cap off his physical presence, The Humungous wears a Hockey mask, obviously covering up some serious head and facial scars, and in doing so predates the iconic image of horror movie monster, Jason Vorhees, who was seen by audiences for the first time donning the Hockey mask in Friday the 13th, Part 3-D a year later in 1982. Around The Humungous’ neck is a giant steel brace which coupled with the mask indicates the possibility of a very serious injury, and as part of the intimidation over others factor, he’s adopted this extreme, over-the-top look to turn his misfortune into an asset. When The Humungous speaks his voice is raspy and strained, but his intonations are soft, almost inviting, as he talks through a megaphone attempting to persuade the people in the refinery to just walk away. He even goes so far as to offer clemency, if they chose to give the place over to him, free roam of the wastelands where The Humungous and his gang will leave them be. It’s a strange dichotomy between fear and safety that the villains offer for the people inside, an extreme situation for sure.
George Miller achieves with this film the ultimate goal any action film should strive for, delivering a story with character and plot as progressed through the entertainment of spectacle driven action sequences. Essentially an action scene should serve more than to just wow an audience, it should become the definition of its description, to be, action. No finer can you visually represent the concept of progression, the essence of stories, than to physically see humans forwarding the narrative of life in a live or die situation they create. If life were to be measured in ‘doing’ instead of ‘done to’ where one makes life happen instead of waiting for it to happen to them, than the action film is life in motion. This is where the need to control one’s destiny is given physical agency, and to prove this point we have The Road Warrior’s climatic chase sequence.
Already told that Max is a remembered hero in the prologue, he’s obviously done a few things by the end that leave the audience questioning whether he really is the hero mentioned before or not. To help even more with our questioning of his worth Max, after going through hell at the hands of the gang, finally agrees to drive the tanker. This seems like a heroic gesture, but given the situation, where the people of the refinery are leaving with or without Max, really leaves Max little options. Would they take him as an extra mouth to feed even if he didn’t offer help? My guess is probably not, and Max knows this. Driving that tanker is his salvation. Over the course of the gauntlet that Max, and those who go along with him to help protect the truck, go through, real character fortitude will be tested. Max proves his worth as a hero, defending off advancing attackers with his bare hands at some moments, and blasting them with the few shotgun shells he was given for the occasion, at others. The camera captures perfectly some raw and audacious stunts. While mounts were once again installed on the vehicles bringing the audience into the action, cinematographer Dean Semler, delicately keeps the spectacle in steady frame. This allows the audience to experience the thrill of the stunts while keeping it all in relation to external environments the action has to interact with.
The final progression of Max to mythic hero comes in his defeat. The rig and tanker he is hauling is finally overcome by Max taking care of both Wez and The Humungous. After the death of the refinery’s leader, Pappagallo, Max throws the vehicle into a u-turn and heads straight into his oncoming pursuers, with Wez hanging onto his front grill. The scene climaxes with the head on collision of Max and The Humungous, killing both Wez and The Humungous and sending the tanker crashing onto its side. For a moment, after the dust settles, it seems Max has failed, but in one of the film’s final twists of expectations we learn that the tanker was not hauling the gasoline like the audience and Max thought, but dirt. It was a diversion. The film cuts to the people of the refinery, traveling in a caravan of vehicles, safe from attackers, on their way to the land of salvation. To finally cap off the last twist we learn as the caravan moves across the wasteland that our narrator was a story participant, and none other than the feral kid, who Max befriends and acts as possible surrogate parent to, over the course of the movie. The last shot of the film comes full circle framing Max in the middle of the road, beaten and bleeding, the same shot we opened on. Here he is, a hero, even if he was used as a decoy, his actions still delivered the people to safety, regardless of intent. And, in the end Max, while growing as a person, is left alone again, returning to the wilds of the wasteland that he inhabited at the beginning. He and his environment, like fuel and society, are inextricably linked. Without this world there would be no need for Max, but without this world, there would be no Mad Max.