Mad Max at 40: how the low-budget original remains a film-making feat | Film

“A few years from now …” reads the title card that opens George Miller’s Mad Max, and that’s it. How did we get to this dystopian wasteland in so short a time? Why has the highway turned into this throbbing artery of death and destruction? What explains these virtual ghost towns where the few residents left are tormented by deranged marauders? What has happened to the police force? The justice system? The basic fabric of everyday life?

Now that we’re 40 years and four movies into Miller’s Mad Max series, his vision of a near-future Australian no-man’s-land has been better defined and expanded, with the ravages of war and shortages in resources like fuel and food leading to mass anarchy and the emergence of various barbarians to fill the power vacuum. But revisiting the original Mad Max now, it’s remarkable how little interest Miller has in exposition or conventional world-building. There are clues everywhere to suggest that society has collapsed, but no explanation of what brought it to this place, only credits that deliver the chilling news that the end of the world as we know it is just a few years away and that it’s going to feature “Hugh Keays-Byrne as the Toecutter.”

Here and in the sequels, Miller is trading a little coherence for chaos. To experience Mad Max is to feel like you’ve slumbered like Rip Van Winkle and woken up in a future that’s terrifying and virtually unrecognizable, and the best you can do is survive on your wits. Miller thrives on that feeling of disorientation, and whatever we pick up about the setting is learned entirely on the fly, amid the noise of shotgun blasts and souped-up, nitro-charged muscle cars and motorcycles. There’s a pitched battle going on here between the Main Force Patrol (MFP), the police unit that watches over the highway, and the Toecutter’s deranged motorcycle gang, filled out by wild-eyed men with names like Mudguts, Clunk and Grease Rat.

Miller has said he intended Mad Max to be like a silent movie with sound, and it does have that kind of lizard-brain simplicity, at least on the surface. There are good guys and bad guys, and once it gets personal for Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) in the final act, it becomes a crude vigilante thriller about a family man mowing down the horrible brutes who destroyed his family. While Miller’s script occasionally sneaks some colorful turns of phrase into the dialogue, the language is so minimally important that most Americans experienced the film in a poorly dubbed version that was circulated in theaters and home video, and it’s only in the last 20 years that the original Australian track has been available on DVD and now streaming.

Compared with the full-bore amplification of the sequels, leading up the symphonic mayhem of Mad Max: Fury Road five years ago, Mad Max now looks like a dry run, produced before Miller secured bigger budgets and refined his technique. Yet from the vantage of film history, it’s a landmark achievement, fusing the base pleasures of Ozsploitation with the sophistication of Australian New Wave curios like Wake In Fright and The Cars That Ate Paris. At the same time, Miller had his eye on American gearhead road movies and demolition derbies. One reason why Mad Max became an international sensation is because it synthesized so much of what was happening in Australian and American genre cinema at the time, then cranked up the intensity.

The Mad Max films are routinely referred to as post-apocalyptic, but that’s not where they started. Miller and his screenwriter, James McCausland, were influenced by the 1973 global oil crisis, when Arab oil producers cut off exports to the US in protest of its military support for Israel in the war against Syria and Egypt. Yet nuclear destruction wouldn’t happen until later in the series, and Miller wouldn’t start giving answers until the opening narration of Mad Max 2 (AKA The Road Warrior) in 1981. All we can gather is that gasoline is precious and the world has reached a tipping point where the police and the justice system are on the verge of obliteration and lawlessness is coming up fast in the rearview mirror.

The “Halls of Justice” sign at the beginning of Mad Max looks like the entrance to an abandoned insane asylum, and the MFP operate out of ramshackle facility that looks more like an auto repair shop than a police precinct. But even after a blistering opening chase sequence that ends with an outlaw named Nightrider getting killed and the Toecutter’s motorcycle gang eager to avenge him, Max and his mates do make an effort to arrest one of Toecutter’s men and bring him before a jury. When no jury can be sequestered and the criminal is released to cause more mayhem, including burning Max’s partner alive, whatever thin tissue is holding society together is torn.

Miller sees the apocalypse coming – how lawlessness leads to open warfare leads to nuclear catastrophe – but he’s also making a down-and-dirty vigilante film around Gibson as Max, the patrolman who turns to a bloodier form of justice when the official kind falls through. Gibson had starred in a popular (but now-obscure) American Graffiti knockoff called Summer City two years before Mad Max, but Miller treats him like the hero of a Sergio Leone western, introducing him through his black leather get-up and profile before giving the audience a fuller view. He seemed to know earlier than anyone that Gibson was a star in the making – either that or he was hellbent on building that mythos himself.

Under the strictures of budget and time, not to mention his own inexperience as a first-time director, Mad Max can seem rudimentary compared to what Miller would achieve later. Yet the unique kinetic language of his action films – and even his dramas, like the operatic Lorenzo’s Oil – is already in place in its best moments, like his tendency to follow chase scenes with the camera at top speed and low to the ground or the dramatic juxtaposition of his heroes against the arid expanse of the Outback. This would seem like territory worth ceding to nihilistic beasts like the Toecutter or The Humungus in The Road Warrior or Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road. But the fight goes on.

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