Tag Archives: cult movies

Danny Peary on “King Kong.”

Following his write-up of George Miller’s Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior, I present here Danny Peary’s look at Merian C. Cooper’s million-dollar monkey movie, King Kong – first published in Cult Movies 1, in 1981, which examines the film from a Freudian standpoint, although not the one that many would expect, surprisingly  –

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“With the exception of The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Citizen Kane (1941), no picture has been the subject of more critical writing than the original King Kong, an irreplaceable part of twentieth century American culture, the greatest, most popular, most intriguing horror fantasy film ever made. As King Kong is a testament for those who believe film is a collaborative an, the majority of articles have dealt with the various achievements of the numerous individuals who worked on the project, with the tremendous contributions of special effects genius Willis O’Brien and composer Max Steiner (who understood that Kong should be scored like a silent picture) being singled out most often. Because there is so much available material that documents the technical wizardry of Kong, I will confine myself to two other areas.

An Interpretation. Like most producers, Merian C. Cooper insisted that all his films, including King Kong, were strictly “entertaining pictures,” but Kong is so rich in implication that few critics haven’t read added significance into it. It has been interpreted as: a parable about an innocent, proud country boy (probably a muscular, uneducated black) who is humbled and finally destroyed when he comes to the cold, cruel city; an indictment of “bring ’em back alive” big game hunters; a racist visualization of the fears a white woman has about being abducted by a black — or, as Harry Geduld and Ronald Gottesman suggest, “a white man’s sick fantasy of the Negro’s lust to ravish white women”; and a parable about the Great Depression, an interpretation I have never understood.

Numerous critics contend that Kong was intentionally filmed as if it were a nightmare. (If the picture is indeed a dream, this would explain the frequent changes in Kong’s size, according to scale.) B. C Dale writes:

“The film manages to bypass the critical, censorious level of the viewers consciousness and to secure his suspension of disbelief with what appears to be great ease. A number of French critics have attributed this phenomenon to the film’s oneiric qualities, its pervasive dreamlike control of some subconscious, uncritical pan of the mind. Indeed it does succeed in dreaming for us.”

I agree that King Kong is dreamlike — in fact, our first view of Skull Island is an exact reproduction of Arnold Bocklin’s dreamlike painting “Isle of the Dead” — but I don’t think that it is our dream we watch on the screen. The film begins in the real world, in dark, cold Depression New York where unemployed, hungry people stand in soup lines; but from the moment The Venture leaves port for uncharted regions, I believe we are on a journey through Carl Denham’s subconscious. Just as Pauline Kael described the landscape of Altair 4 in the Kong influenced Forbidden Planet (1956) as being .the caves, plains, and the towers of Dr. Morbius’s mind,” Skull (as in cerebral) Island’s expressionistic landscape — fertile, overgrown, reptile infested, watery, cave filled — is Denham’s fantasized sexual terrain.

And Kong, I believe, is a manifestation of Denham’s subconscious. Much like Morbius’s Id monster. Whereas Morbius conjures up his monster to kill off the men he fears will take away his daughter (likely his lover in his subconscious), Denham conjures up Kong as a surrogate to battle Driscoll for Ann’s love and to perform sexually with her when he has never been willing (or able) to have a sexual encounter himself. Although young and virile, misogynist Denham has traveled to the far corners of the earth with an all male crew to avoid intimate liaisons because he believes women will strip him of his masculinity (“Some hardboiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and he cracks up and goes sappy”). Kong is Denham’s female lusting side — his alter ego, which he keeps in the dark recesses of his mind, as remotely located as Skull Island, behind a figurative great wall. Kong is evidence of Denham’s desperate need to possess Ann; his birth is a result of Denham’s continuing to suppress his sexual/romantic drive even after he meets, and immediately falls in love with, Ann.

In New York, Denham tells Ann, “Trust me and keep your chin up.” A few seconds of screen time pass, and Ann, now on board The Venture, is struck accidentally by Driscoll — on the chin. This is a sign that Denham can’t be trusted to protect Ann’s physical well being even if he wants to. As his secret (even from himself) love for Ann increases, his Kong side overcomes his desire to protect her. He betrays his lack of concern for her safety (from Kong): for her screen test aboard The Venture, he dresses Ann in white — with her bee stung lips and hair style she looks like one of D. W. Griffith’s virginal Victorian heroines — as if preparing her for sacrifice, or perhaps a sexual initiation rite; then he takes Ann onto Skull island before he knows if it is safe. Just as Denham saved Ann in New York from jail (for stealing an apple), unemployment, and starvation, Kong continues Denham’s gallantry toward Ann on Skull Island, saving her from a tyrannosaur and a pterodactyl. But the difference is clear: the civilized Denham (the man) believes his interest in Ann is “strictly business,” while the primitive Denham (Kong) has placed no such restrictions on himself.

Since Kong is a side of Denham, Kong needn’t follow the movie formula of having Denham and Driscoll vie for Ann’s affections. Denham can allow Driscoll free reign with her because, in truth, the schizophrenic Denham is moving in on Ann from his Kong side. Also, through Kong, Denham tries to eliminate Driscoll and all other men who “pursue” her. When Driscoll’s kisses bring Ann to her height of sexual passion, and her breathing is heavy and her body is like jelly, he is conveniently (as far as Denham is concerned) called to a meeting with Denham and the captain. Suddenly natives, who to Denham probably represent the link between civilized man (himself) and his simian ancestors (apes), climb aboard The Venture at the very spot where Ann stands, at the first moment she is alone, and kidnap her to be Kong’s bride. Is it the natives’ lucky night? Or were things so easy for them — being part of Denham’s dream — because Denham’s subconscious orchestrated the whole thing in their favor?

That Denham and Kong are rarely in the same shot further gives one the impression that Kong is being directed by some external force, namely Denham’s subconscious, At one time Kong is on one side of the tree trunk bridge that holds Driscoll (who climbs off to safety) and several other men pursuing Ann (who fall to their deaths) — while Denham is out of sight on the other side of the bridge and only emerges after Kong has left. Not coincidentally, a later scene in New York shows Kong reaching into a hotel room (to which Denham’s subconscious must have directed him), snatching Ann, and knocking down Driscoll — while Denham is out of sight in the hall and only appears after Kong has left.

Denham and Kong do confront each other (the visualization of Denham’s internal struggle) when Kong breaks through the supposedly impenetrable door of the great wall (Denham’s mental barricade) — just as the Id monster breaks through the supposedly impenetrable laboratory door in Forbidden Planet. Confronted with his bestial side, the civilized Denham — a model for Morbius, who at this point denies his Id monster, thereby making it cease to exist — puts it (Kong) to sleep with gas bombs. Back in New York, Denham still tries to control his sexual side by literally chaining up Kong. However, once Kong breaks out of his supposedly unbreakable chains, Denham’s last barrier, we never see Kong and Denham together again until Kong lies dead.

Denham’s words “it was beauty killed the beast” makes sense only if the beast he’s referring to was part of himself. It is an understatement to say that Kong is too big for Ann, but we could overlook this except for the fact that Kong’s size prevents him from considering her a beauty. That he can’t even recognize Ann by her looks is evident when he pulls the wrong woman from the hotel and can only tell she’s not Ann by hair color and smell — not by beauty. That Kong reacts so violently when the photographers take pictures of Ann is not because he thinks they’re trying to harm her — Kong probably doesn’t recognize her — but because filmmaker Denham, a voyeur (as many critics have acknowledged), becomes filled with jealous rage because others are taking pictures of his actress / woman / property / beauty; and it is his subconscious that wills Kong to intervene by breaking his bonds and chasing the photographers away. Once loose, Kong is out of the civilized Denham’s control and goes all out to succeed in his mission of having sex with Ann. On Skull Island, a snake (a Freudian sex symbol) attacks Kong — a symbolic act that shows Denham is trying to suppress his sexual instincts; however, in New York, Kong attacks the snake — the Third Avenue El — making it clear that nothing will get in his way this time. Having no penis — is impotence the reason Denham avoids women? — Kong has symbolic intercourse with Ann when he takes her up the world’s greatest phallic symbol: the Empire State Building. Once this sexual act has been carried out (consummated), Denham is no longer sexually repressed (or a virgin). As his sexual self can surface at last, he no longer has to enjoy sex vicariously through a surrogate — and Kong, now obsolete, can die. Therefore, it makes sense that in the Cooper Ernest B. Schoedsack sequel, Son of Kong (1934), where Denham is the romantic lead and has a love affair with Helen Mack, the gorilla need not be and is not a sexual being.

Kong as Hero. That Kong is regarded as a hero rather than the prototype for all monster villains is quite extraordinary, considering how many innocent people he kills and how much property he destroys, all done with the emotion of someone eating a melting ice cream cone. His hero status is even more unusual since the recent reinsertion of scenes censored in 1938 from all prints of the film. These scenes of Kong partially stripping Ann (touching her and smelling his finger), viciously trampling and chewing on helpless natives, and dropping the woman he mistakes for Ann to her death from high above the city streets, make Kong’s “beastliness” much more pronounced.

Kong is a hero, I suspect, because he is a great fighter, capable of beating Tunney or Dempsey with his pinky, or the entire United States Air Force if it fought fairly; he gallantly risks his life for his woman; black people see him as a black character who fights White America; the poor see him as their champion who wreaks havoc on New York City, home of Wall Street and the least popular city during the Great Depression and not much more popular since; women see that he doesn’t hide his feelings as most men do. And Kong is certainly sympathetic. We feel sorry for grotesque characters whose love for someone beautiful is not returned — Fay Wray earned her reputation as the screen’s top screamer by shrieking every time Kong came near her. He is taken forcibly from his homeland, where he was god, to be, as Denham tells the theater audience, “merely a captive to gratify your curiosity.” He is destroyed by airplanes, something he can’t understand, for reasons he can’t comprehend. As his last act, he puts Ann in a safe place so she won’t suffer his horrible fate — what is truly upsetting is that Ann doesn’t verbally acknowledge the nobleness of this gesture. Kong dies so tragically and so theatrically (as a hammy silent movie star might) that we forgive and forget all that he has done. But for all this, as Robert Fiedel writes in The Girl in the Hairy Paw (Avon, 1976), “Most critics have always been at a loss to give adequate explanation for the great feeling of tragedy evoked by Kong’s death.” When the airplanes start firing on Kong we suddenly feel we are losing our best friend, when up till now we have thought Kong our enemy. I believe Fiedel pinpoints the reason for our dramatic reversal:

“The answer lies, in fact, in the musical score… Nowhere is the score more manipulative than in the death scene. As Kong realizes that his death is immediately impending, we hear a lamenting variation of the “Ann Darrow” motif played passionately by the strings… Then as Kong finally dies and loses his hold atop the Empire State Building, his motif is resolved by rest chords… signifying his acceptance of defeat… Kong’s actual fall is accompanied by a sustained blaring dissonant chord, and finally resolved by an orchestral outburst. It is interesting that his fall is resolved only by the score, and not by the visuals… The score serves the vital function of resolving the tension of the actual fall and denoting the precise moment to trigger our emotional responses… As Denham muses philosophically over the body of Kong… a celestial statement of the “Ann Darrow” motif is played in the upper string register which makes a final tragic comment on the death of Kong. A final recapitulation of the resolved “Kong” motif ensues, concluding the film on a negative, disturbing theme.”

King Kong is an institution, a folk hero, certainly more real to us today than the defunct studio that created him. Kong has been resurrected so many times — initially by major studio releases in 1938, 1942, 1946, 1952, and 1956, and then by impossible to miss television and repertory theater screenings — that he has become immortal. The King is dead!”

– by Danny Peary, published in Cult Movies 1, 1981.

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Danny Peary on “Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior.”

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.

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“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.

Credit must go to “Cueball” for his reproduction of the above promotional photograph.
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