While it was previously reposted elsewhere on the web, the site it called home has only recently gotten a massive overhaul, becoming something entirely other, with the few reproductions of Danny Peary’s articles – including this one – nowhere to be found. While theoretically I could tell you to all go out and find a copy of Peary’s seminal 1981 tome Cult Movies, and it’s following installments, they’ve been long out-of-print, commercially. And so, for net-posterity’s sake, here it is in full, because I fear the film-gods would smite me with hot lightening if I did not move to act – Danny Peary’s essay on “Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior,” first published in the third volume of his Cult Movies series in 1988.
“This is the second entry in George Miller’s influential, thrill-a-second, futuristic trilogy — coming between Mad Max (1979) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), which George Ogilvic co-directed. Mad Max unexpectedly became Australia’s most profitable picture upon release, raking in over $100 million on a mere $300,000 investment. The only country in which it didn’t fare well was the United States. That’s because three months after the enthusiastic AIP bought it for American distribution, the studio was taken over by the unenthusiastic Filmways. It needlessly had Americans re-voice then-unknown Mel Gibson and the other Australian actors, which made it seem like a dubbed spaghetti Western, and then dumped the picture into grindhouses. Mad Max 2, which was distributed worldwide by Warner Bros., surpassed the original’s box office internationally; and as The Road Warrior in the United States, where Mel Gibson had since 1979 become quite popular, its fate was much better — unlike Mad Max, it detoured through resounding commercial success before achieving cult status.
I think the near-future post-apocalyptic alternate-world setting in the original is much more fascinating and frightening than the timeless wasteland in the second film (and in the third), simply because it’s a vision one can relate to and appreciate other than on a subconscious level. Miller intentionally moved out of the realistic realm for the second film, using a narrator (the Feral Kid grown up) to emphasize “that this is storytelling, fable, mythology” — having a narrator from the distant future relate a story set in the near future throws time completely out of whack and makes the story fit even more snugly into a mythological framework. And though I don’t like Max becoming a vigilante in Mad Max and think — as I wrote in Cult Movies (1981) — “it is less interesting as a story about people than as a marriage between a filmmaker’s machines (his camera, his editing tools) and the motor-powered machines (cars, motorcycles) that he films,” I still find that, overall, its characters and the relationships between them are more developed than in the sequel. However, I like both films equally, and understand why most moviegoers and critics consider The Road Warrior the better film. It isn’t dubbed. Mel Gibson has even more screen presence than in Mad Max; his character has more shadings. Whereas Mad Max is a part-biker, part-horror, part-vengeance film, The Road Warrior attracted a broader audience because it seems to exist on a higher, classier, more cerebral plane — despite incorporating much material from those not-always-appreciated genres. And as mind blowing as the car stunts are in Mad Max, the $4 million sequel, which used 80 vehicles and employed 200 stunts, is even more spectacular.
What you watch with wide eyes makes your body shake. There is nonstop action and violence. There are furiously paced chases and terrifying crashes, which are shot close up by cameras that are inside speeding vehicles rather than on the side of the road. There are menacing, ritualistic, pageantry-obsessed characters. They wear leather, masks, and other weird medieval garb, and spiked, wildly colored punk haircuts; fire crossbows and flamethrowers; and race souped-up cycles and cars (chariots for these knights) across the mythical landscape. “The Road Warrior,” stated Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice, “is an honest-to-goodness movie-movie of such breathtaking velocity that it would spin hopelessly out of control if it did not have a charismatic hero at its core.” “Never,” declared Vincent Canby of the New York Times, “has a film’s vision of the postnuclear-holocaust world seemed quite so desolate or so brutal, or so action-packed and sometimes funny as in… [this] extravagant film fantasy, which looks like a sadomasochistic comic book come to life.” As Time’s Richard Coring wrote, “Miller keeps the eye alert, the mind agitated, the Saturday matinee spirit alive evoking emotion through technique.” Corliss:
“…cars crash, somersault, explode, get squashed under the wheels of semis. Skinless bug-eyed corpses hurtle toward the screen. A mangy dog sops at a coyote carcass. A deadly boomerang shears off fingertips, creases a man’s skull. That’s entertainment? As a series of isolated incidents, no… But as garishly precise daubs in George Miller’s apocalyptic fresco, they add up to exhilarating entertainment — and a textbook for sophisticated popular moviemaking.”
Corliss was one of the few American critics to have gone out on a limb and recommended Mad Max. Like other critics, he found it easier to praise the sequel because it is thematically more palatable. In its final third, Mad Max becomes another bleak, if more imaginative and compelling, revenge film with a sociopath hero; ex-cop Max, quite mad, tracks down and brutally murders the gang members who killed his wife and baby; he loses his humanity in the process. As Sarris reasoned, “[The Road Warrior] is somewhat more satisfying as genre entertainment than Mad Max because its heroics are driven less by vengeance than a vision.”
Miller told me in an interview for Omni’s ScreenFlights! ScreenFantasies (1984) that he and partner Byron Kennedy, the late producer of the first two Mad Max films, decided to make Mad Max for two reasons. First, they had a mutual “obsession for the pure kinetics of chase movies,” from Ben-Hur (1960) to Bullitt (1968), from Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd silent comedies to biker films such as The Wild One (1954) and those made by Roger Corman at AIP. Second, they were fascinated by Australia’s car culture: In the sixties, deserted rural roads were used as much for sporting arenas as they were for transportation and there was a disproportionate number of highway casualties. (While an intern, medical school graduate Miller spent six months in a casualty ward — his exposure to road trauma was “a germinating influence on the Mad Max films.”) Max’s character was of minor concern in Mad Max. They were content to have him become another in the movies’ long line of monstrous revenge killers because his vengeance story line would allow them to pursue their major interests. However, Miller and Kennedy decided to make The Road Warrior primarily to explore Max’s character. This time they wouldn’t be satisfied having a remorseless vigilante-killer as their lead. Such an objectionable character had appeal for the Death Wish (1972) audience but had no thematic interest to them. But they were intrigued by how such a character could evolve: becoming a myth-hero with universal appeal (Miller read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces); reluctantly interacting with and ultimately helping other lost, troubled people; regaining his humanity; and, because of heroics/good deeds, receiving redemption for those sins he committed in Mad Max. Miller told me:
“[When we made Mad Max], I don’t think we thought very much in terms of heroes …. It was only a lot later, after we began to analyze Max’s popularity in places as diverse as Japan, Switzerland, Australia, France, the United States, and South America, that I could see that Mad Max was a rather corrupted version of hero mythology. The film enjoyed success beyond the normal, exploitation car films because we had unwittingly, unconsciously, been ‘servants” of the collective consciousness: Mad Max was in fact another story about a lone outlaw who wandered through a dark wasteland — similar stories had been told over and over again, across all space and time, with the hero being a Japanese samurai, or an American gunslinger, or a wandering Viking, etc.
“The truth is that I had a tough time making Mad Max. I was dissatisfied with the film and felt that we had been constrained by my inexperience and our small budget, and for a long time when I was cutting it, I honestly felt it was unreleasable. When the film succeeded financially, I thought it would give me the chance to go off and do something quieter. We didn’t imagine that there would be a sequel. But the whole mythological question in regard to our hero made us want to do the first film again, to push that character a little further,
“Mad Max is a very dark film. We begin with an admittedly harsh world, but Max is a fairly normal man, working a day job as a highway cop, and having a wife and baby at home…. But the world catches up to him and his family is decimated; and he descends into his dark side. By the end of the film, mad, angry, crazy Max has become a full monster, the avenging demon. We leave him in the most pessimistic situation I’d like to leave any character. We must question whether he’s redeemable. On the other hand, The Road Warrior starts with a pessimistic world and ends with there being the possibility of rebirth, no matter how dark the order of the day is. Max spends most of the film attempting to deny his humanity. Mel Gibson called his character a “closet human being” who doesn’t want to be involved with other human beings because he believes an emotional investment will be too painful and also compromise his chances for survival. He can barely bring himself to have contact with his dog. But Mel Gibson has a quality of “goodness” to him, a “good core,” and this comes out a fair bit in his character in The Road Warrior — so you know that Max is essentially ripe for change … you recognize he’s ready to rekindle the spark of compassion within him. And that’s best characterized by his friendship with the Gyro Captain and his regard for the boy, the Feral Kid. By the end of the film, he realizes — perhaps entirely unconsciously — that he can’t live completely alone any longer, and that his life must have some greater purpose. He realizes that he has no choice but to drive the oil tanker for the people of the compound and be the one who is attacked by the marauders. It turns out that he was just a pawn of the collective, but even as a decoy he was responsible for these people gaining freedom and a new order emerging from the chaos. He begins to believe that, like all of us, he’s part of the collective, like it or not. It’s a much more optimistic outlook than we have in Mad Max.”
It may seem contradictory that Miller attempts to establish Max as a universal myth-hero yet, at the same time, sets him on a journey to find his humanity and again become a mere human being. Alter all, most of the movie myth-heroes/superwarriors to whom Max can be compared — Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy, Charles Bronson’s “The Man” in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985), Toshiro Mifune’s Yojimbo (1961), Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo — realize, as we viewers do, that they will never be part of the human race again. That they are already “dead” is what makes them and Max (and even the lethally poisoned Edmund O’Brien in the 1949 melodrama D.O.A.) fearless and so formidable. They have nothing to lose. But it should be pointed out that Miller doesn’t compare Max to any of the above figures, but to “a Ulysses or Sir Galahad, a hero with larger-than-life qualities and human limitations as well.” Certainly Max is as laconic a superhero as Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and just as efficient at killing off bad guys; Max, too, is left for dead by bad guys but has a Christ-like resurrection, and his humorous relationship with Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain definitely recalls Eastwood’s with Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967). But the road warrior differs from the Eastwood character in that he is emotional about his past (he slugs Pappagallo for downplaying the deaths of his wife and baby), is haunted by inner demons (Eastwood has no past, no guilt), and, in this second film, doesn’t initiate fights — which Eastwood always does. So it’s probably less appropriate to link Max with Eastwood’s character than with Steve Reeves’s Hercules (1960), the rare movie myth-hero who strives to he a human being (and mortal), and with Allan Ladd’s Shane (1953), the rare movie myth-hero who displays admirable human traits.
Max has been compared to Shane, because he, too, is an outlaw who comes out of the blue to help a group of settlers/dreamers defeat villains that covet their property, and, while history moves forward, wanders off again into mythology. I also suggest Miller was influenced by two other Westerns. The premise of the film — a superwarrior and his amusing sidekick join an out-manned, ragtag outfit inside a compound/fort while enemy soldiers lay siege outside — is straight out of the Alamo segment of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955); the scene in which Max drives the truck full throttle into the compound while the Gyro Captain files above and the marauders are on his heels is similar to the scene in Davy Crockett in which Fess Parker (as myth-hero Crockett), Buddy Ebsen, Hans Conreid, and Nick Cravat race through the Alamo gate just before Mexican horse soldiers catch up to them. I asked Miller about Davy Crockett — sure enough, he still remembers the excitement he felt as a kid when the picture came to Australia, and how essential it was to own a coonskin hat. Hondo (1953), with John Wayne playing Louis L’Amour’s greatest hero, is also a probable influence on The Road Warrior. Wayne and his unpettable dog, Sam, race across the desert trying to flee hostile Indians, just as Max and his unfriendly dog try to flee a “tribe” of marauders in the desert. Sam is killed by an Indian spear — Max’s companion is killed by a marauder’s arrow. Whereas Max finds temporary safety in the compound, Wayne takes refuge at Geraldine Page’s ranch, which, for the time being, the Indians will not attack, There is no counterpart for Page’s character in The Road Warrior – soon after Virginia Hey’s beautiful Warrior Woman says her first friendly words to handsome Max and he seems touched, Miller unpredictably kills her off in battle (this part was originally intended for an actor but was given unchanged to Hey). But Page’s brave fatherless son (he’ll fight adult Indians), played by Lee Aaker, who becomes attached to Wayne, anticipates Emil Minty’s scene-stealing Feral Kid. The classic finale, in which Max drives the tanker (with the Feral Kid and the Warrior Woman on board) while the marauders give chase — the Indianapolis 500 if all drivers had weapons — can be compared to a similar scene in Stagecoach (1939), but it also recalls the final sequence in Hondo, in which bloodthirsty Indians chase Wayne, Page, and Aaker and their soldier-escorted wagon caravan across the desert. Incidentally, while many people have assumed Miller borrowed ideas from the 1975 cult favorite A Boy and His Dog (a post-apocalyptic world full of scavengers, a hero with a dog in the desert, a gang leader keeping his soldier on a leash), Miller didn’t see it until after he had made The Road Warrior – he “was surprised by the similarities.” However, Miller does give credit to A Clockwork Orange (1970), presumably for influencing Norma Moriceau’s startling punk costuming, the slangy dialogue (more noticeable in Mad Max), and the ultra-violence.
In many Westerns and other action films, similar characters consciously choose opposite ways of life and become mortal enemies. The hero can understand the villain because he is much like him, except the bad guy has relinquished his morality; he can defeat the villain because he has the same capacity for violence, is as unscrupulous in battle, and has slightly more cunning. In The Road Warrior Vernon Wells’s wildman Wez and mad Max have a bond they both recognize. Wez is the vile figure Max would be like if he completely relinquished his morality. They are each temporarily chained by the leaders of their respective camps, Mike Preston’s Pappagallo and the fearsome Humungus, played by Swedish bodybuilder Kiell Nilsson. Pappagallo (“We haven’t given up — we’re still human beings!”) admonishes Max for using the deaths of his wife and baby as an excuse to be “a scavenger, a maggot living off the corpse of the old world”; he asks: “Do you think you’re the only one who suffered?” Similarly, the Humungus cools off scavenger-maggot Wez after his male lover is killed; he reminds him, “We’ve all lost someone we love.” For a brief startling moment, the masked Humungus (what a great dirty wrestler he’d be!) has dignity and the grotesque Wez is as sympathetic as Max. Miller has reminded us that before normal society disintegrated because of a worldwide energy shortage — the Mad Max stories were triggered by the surprisingly violent Australian response to petrol rationing in the seventies — and many survivors let the reptilian side of their brains take over, the people who now inhabit the compound might have been friends with those marauders who now threaten them; Wez might have been a cop, like Max; the Humungus, who Miller thinks was a former military officer who suffered severe facial burns, might have served in the same outfit as his counterpart, Pappagallo. I asked Miller if viewers identified more with the good guys than the fancier dressed marauders. Miller:
“I would hope, as a storyteller, that there is identification with both sides. I think a well-told story gives insights into all forces that interact in any conflict. I really think it’s important. I find that in both Mad Max and The Road Warrior, the bad guys are more interesting than the good guys. On a pragmatic level, it’s more fun for the actors and designers to be working with the marauder, bad-guy types than the good guys who, I’m afraid, can be rather boring. If I had a chance to do the films again, I think I’d give a bit more insight into both sides. Then hopefully, the audience would be able to see that those people with the broader knowledge, who are prepared for broader connections and want to stay alive and eventually move toward the organization of a new society, should be classified as ‘good guys.’ I think the ‘bad guys’ are designated ‘bad’ because basically they have chosen to limit their perspective. They are people who say, ‘There’s no hope, there’s no chance for rebirth, so our goal is merely to survive, which we’ll do by taking what’s left,’ And really that’s all that differentiates them from the ‘good guys.’ Max is only marginally better than the Humungus [and Wez]; he is as committed as the marauders to survival at all costs, only he’s hasn’t the total amorality of the marauders.”
Like Mad Max, The Road Warrior was attacked in many circles for having excessive violence — I could do without seeing the Feral Kid’s boomerang slice off that old marauder’s fingers, but I think the violence is functional rather than gratuitous. I disagree with Richard Corliss’s claim (not meant to be criticism) that “our nerve endings [are soon] numbed by the movie’s aimless carnage.” Many people are killed, yet Miller doesn’t allow us to become desensitized to death, especially single deaths; we’re just as upset by the gallant death of the Warrior Woman in the last scene as we were by the murders of the raped compound woman and Max’s dog earlier in the film. Interestingly, we sense the worth of the Gyro Captain (who Miller believes serves the most important function in the picture since he both provides humor and taps Max back toward his humanity) because we identify with his revulsion upon seeing the brutal rape-murder of the captured compound woman — he has seen countless murders but hasn’t been desensitized either. Significantly, her murder and the dog’s are two of many powerful incidents of violence that Miller implies, rather than shows. Miller:
“I had censorship problems with the two films in certain countries because of the violence. And it was extremely difficult to make any cuts because, as you’d see if you looked at them frame by frame or sequence by sequence, there’s not much violence on the screen. They appear to be more violent than they are. That was deliberate.
“The question of how to use violence in films, or whether to use it at all, is very difficult to answer. I do know that there’s an impulse in filmmakers and other storytellers to try and confront both violence and death and shed some light on each. Of course, there’s a fine line between exploiting these subjects and examining them, And I’m not quite sure where the Mad Max films fall.
“One thing that has helped me try to put everything into context is the notion that movies are really public dreams… that we share collectively in darkened theaters. And just like dreams have functions, nightmares help us confront our dark sides. The reasons we told these post-apocalyptic allegories, these warning fables, was to help us explore the darker, more unthinkable side of ourselves. These dress rehearsals for our own deaths help us experience that part of ourselves which we are unable to deal with in normal, conscious, everyday living. And I think that’s the kind of impulse that gives rise to the violence in our storytelling. There’s obviously a need for violence in stories, as it has always been present in them, whether we’re talking about biblical stories or children’s fairy tales.”
The violence in The Road Warrior has thematic validity. The horrifying violence is what establishes it as one of the few post-apocalyptic pictures that doesn’t suggest such a future is romantic. Even the majority of compound dwellers we care about are killed off. “This world is not meant to be inviting,” says Miller. “It is brutal, scary, and forbidding.” It’s a world that has vast excitement and entertainment for us tourists who sit in our movie seats, but not even a madman like Max wants to live there — lucky for us he has no choice.”
- by Danny Peary, published in Cult Movies 3, 1988.