With Mad Max: Fury Road lighting up the box office like a canister of gasoline, it might be time to go back and re-examine what made the original trilogy so worthy of a 2015 re-boot. After all, we haven’t heard from Max in a while, and his contributions to cinema haven’t been as widely praised as other big films of that era recently. This is probably because we don’t associate Max’s face with beating up Aussie biker gangs anymore as much as we associate it with the bloodying of Christ. Also, other morally dubious opinions.
Mad Max was the most famous of the Ozploitation films to come out of Australia in the 70’s. Australian genre film making was amongst the most exciting and vicious in the world, and it was characterised by the constant presence of the motor vehicle, an object which through the lens of the Australian camera became a living, breathing, almost sexual creature. Mad Max may not have been the pinnacle of this kind of fetishisation, but it ran deep within the films blood, and the series would come to both eroticise and demonise Australian car culture.
The first film in the series is one of those examples where the first entry doesn’t sport the iconography for which the rest of the series is best known. See also Friday the 13th as an example, where Jason doesn’t get his trademark hockey mask until Part 3. In the first Mad Max, the world isn’t a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Oil has become a scarce commodity certainly, but this film takes place more in the initial breakdown of society rather than the aftermath of it. There is still a police force, although as is essential to the context of the film, they are stretched, unappreciated and under constant threat of attack.
Max is a highway patrolman who wants to get out of the game. It isn’t the personal danger he faces that scares him. It’s that he’s beginning to like it. He needs to cut the adrenalin fuelled excitement out of his life before he becomes addicted to it, perhaps even dependant on it. He wants to settle down with his wife and kids, or else he will succumb to the seductions of a daredevil’s existence on the road. Then all that will separate him from the biker gangs is a badge and that distinction isn’t good enough for him.
One of the best things about this film is that it is a classic example of storytelling through the world and not through explanation. It’s ozploitation after all, not ozposition. There is no grand speech, no lecture about the scarcity of natural resources. You can absorb the factors of this world through osmosis. It leaves the rest of the films running time to focus on the action, story, and character development of Max as he travels a road he has no idea will lead him to insanity.
Director George Miller knows how to tell a story simply and economically. Far too many films nowadays have scene after scene and pages of dialogue, but have nothing to show as a result. Miller knows how to get the desired effect from a couple of shots and a few hushed lines. The quality of his communication is such that we know exactly what is going on and what we are supposed to feel.
Take the, now legendary, chase scenes. Simple angles that frame the action for the best possible view of the devastation caused. He is an expert at getting just the right amount of tension from a crash. Notice how he edits a shot of a poor bastard’s eyes at just the right moment to get the maximum amount of fear and anguish out of the audience. Just one or two frames and Miller puts you right inside the head of the doomed motorist.
He knows when not to complicate the shot, but he also knows when to hold back. Take the hospital scenes. Miller was inspired to make this film while working as a doctor in an Australian A&E and treating patient after patient who got their wounds in car crashes. In one scene he makes the burns on one victim’s arms the sole aspect of the shot, shocking in its frankness. In another he pans the camera away to focus on the doctors talking about the patient. As it’s leaving you can clearly see how devastated the victim’s body is, drawing you in as the film focuses elsewhere.
It’s scenes like this that showcase George Miller’s mastery of workmanlike storytelling. It is what has made him such a successful director and the Mad Max films the most iconic Australian films of his generation. It’s also a technique that would lead to two successful sequels. Check back with the site soon for more on the Mad Max franchise.