When I heard about Tina Turner starring in Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome as a kid, I imagined the Thunderdome as a gigantic rock stadium, filled with futuristic, potentially robotic, bikers shooting rocket grenades at each other, while Tina (wearing hair metal hair) sang rock ballads and fireworks went off. Somehow I managed not to see any of the Mad Max trilogy until recently, at film school. When I got to number three, I was sadly disillusioned (except for Tina’s hairdo). The Thunderdome isn’t particularly thunderous at all, it is a fairly rudimentary bucky-dome in the desert, in which blokes swing about in an ungainly testicular fashion on bungy ropes trying to hit each other. Though Mad Max is an 80s high concept film, it is Australian after all, and I suppose they would not have achieved such high profit to outlay ratios on the production of these films, had they not had the homegrown touch (which is part of their b-gradey charm).
Anyway, there’s probably been more than enough written about Mad Max by film critics in Australia and beyond, so I’m unlikely to enlighten anyone, but here are a few thoughts on how much Mad Max owes to the Western. I found writing this essay interesting, more than the films themselves, as it reminded me of the films and documentaries I watched and remixed for Spoole‘s live audiovisual Glitch Western show – especially as that performance was also examining the Western in the context of the Australian landscape.
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As the movie begins, we hear the sound of the wind blowing, like a lonely wail across the plains. We almost expect to see a tumbleweed blow across the bottom of the screen – but as the picture fades up from black we see a lone figure on the horizon, silhouetted against a big sky. Up to this point we could be watching a Western. This lone figure could be about to mount his trusty steed and ride into town but instead as the camera draws closer we see this is a man dressed in a much more modern costume of torn leathers, emerging from a cloud of whirling smoke. This is just the first few seconds of the opening scene of the second film in George Miller’s Mad Max cycle, and already the audience is receiving clear signs indicating conventions (which can be found in all three Mad Max films) of the popular movie genre, the Western. However we also begin to glimpse elements that are prominent in other film genres, including elements distinctive of the post-apocalypse film, a genre that can itself be seen as a sub-genre of both the Western and the Sci-Fi.
Genre is simultaneously an easy way for audiences to predict what a film may be like based on its membership in a familiar grouping, a mode of criticism that catalogues codes and motifs occurring in multiple films over a period of time, and a series of conventions which can be used as short-cuts for the audience to understand meaning conveyed in a familiar fashion. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson define genre as types of movies that “seem to resemble one another in significant ways”, pointing out that “defining the precise boundaries between genres can be tricky” (Bordwell & Thompson 2008, p. 318) . However they suggest that common themes, characters, plots or formal elements such as setting, lighting, iconography and costume can indicate the presence of genre conventions. When it comes to the Western, they see the central theme as the confrontation between ordered society and the lawless Wild West. The jeans and Stetsons of the cowboys, and tribal garb of the Native Americans are iconographic, scenes of attacks on wagon trains or settlements are conventional.
Each Mad Max film is the story of a reluctant anti-hero. In the first film he would rather be at home with his young family (though he feels the lure of destructive impulses behind the wheel of his V8 Interceptor) – but their murder at the hands of the brutal bikie gang forces him to take to the road to destroy their killers in revenge. In the second and third films he has been so burnt by these experiences that he now wanders the desolate landscape alone, only to be drawn in by a settlement under attack (in Mad Max 2), and by a lost civilisation of innocents (in Mad Max 3) both of whom he is forced, by circumstance, to defend. Each film is set in a desolate desert landscape, and is populated by two opposing extremes of humanity – a representation of moral social order, and a gang of b-grade, comic-book style punks who attempt to dominate them ruthlessly, embodying a brutal, anarchic, destructive force (although the society of Border Town in Mad Max III is perhaps more totalitarian than anarchic, ruled by Aunty Entity’s iron fist). These elements have strong resonances with the Western genre, though the two alternatives that are presented to the desert societies– to band together along the lines of societal convention, or to relapse into a barbaric dog-eat-dog brand of survivalism – are more reminiscent of the post-apocalypse film, even as they echo the fears of the frontier.
Bordwell and Thompson also remind us of the social function of genre – that the popularity of certain types of films both reflect and play upon the audience’s fears and also seek to reinforce popular, or politically expedient attitudes. The Mad Max trilogy is a good example of this – in that it references the way the classic Western dealt with industrialisation and colonisation which were deep social concerns in the American psyche through the depiction of life on the Western frontier. J. Emmett Winn refers to the possibility that Mad Max 2 played well to the Reaganite neo-conservatism of 1980s US audiences, given that it could be interpreted as a rejection of the other, of the indigenous, the non-white, the homosexual, in favour of white god-fearing (though not overtly in the film) folk (Emmett Winn 1997).
But the Mad Max films also follow conventions of the post-apocalypse film in which audiences grapple with the human need to survive in the face of nuclear holocaust, or other disastrous events. The nuclear arms race, and the cold war were re-invigorated by Reagan during the period the second and third Mad Max films were produced, even as Glasnost and Perestroika emerged in the Soviet Union, and the “communist threat” began to collapse. Without explaining the details of the diagetic apocalypse in much detail, the Mad Max films herald another potential obstacle to human survival – the scarcity of energy, which was present in audiences’ minds from the energy crises of the 1970s, an issue that only demands more attention for today’s audiences given current fears regarding peak-oil and climate change. Mad Max 3 Beyond the Thunderdome is often referred to as a mythic film, and can be understood as a version of the genesis myth. As a post-apocalypse movie, it is however about the re-birthing, rather than the birthing of humanity (Sanes 1996).
In his analysis of the post-apocalyptic film genre, Mick Broderick considers that this type of genesis myth is a method whereby audiences of the 80s could “learn to stop worrying and love the bomb” (a quote from Stanley Kubrick’s more ironic statement in Dr. Strangelove, 1964) through indulging in a utopian fantasy of a newly created Eden on a post-holocaust Earth (Broderick 1993). The post-apocalypse movie is considered by some to be a sub-genre of the science fiction genre, and by others to be a derivative of the Western, but is probably derivative of both. Mad Max is inescapably part of the post-apocalypse sub-genre due to its setting in time and space – in a desolated landscape after largely mysterious apocalyptic events have occurred. In all of the Mad Max films you can find a strikingly dystopian vision, but particularly in Mad Max 3 there is also a glimpse of the utopian Eden in the young community Max finds at the “Crack in the Earth”, and the hope the audience holds for their survival at the end of the film. The Mad Max films show the large debt the post-apocalypse sub-genre owes to the Western, given their themes are derived from the classic Western’s opposition of “civilised man” with the inhospitable desert plains, and the rough men or savages who manage to survive out in the wilderness, beyond the edge of town.
Both Mad Max and Mad Max II have strong representations of savage tribes, the “injuns” familiar to audiences from the simple moral tales of earlier Westerns, before more complex and ambiguous Westerns such as those of John Ford (e.g. Ford’s epic, The Searchers, 1956) or the revisionist Westerns of the 1960s and beyond (such as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, 1992). The physical similarities of the post-apocalyptic post-punks to these one-dimensional Native American villains are striking, especially in Mad Max II where the attacking tribe shoot arrows, sport Mohawks and are adorned with war-paint. Beyond this, the tribe also plays the familiar role of immoral, degenerate and barbaric attacking hordes, which launch themselves at the settlement (of nice family-oriented, and white-costumed folk) with no mercy. While the social-function of demonising Native Americans is clear (to justify their slaughter at the hands of the Europeans, and the stealing of their lands), to a lesser extent the tribal punks of Mad Max could raise the social-spectre of anarchism and youth rebellion raised by the punk movement in the late 1970s, which surely must have been frightening to the suburban mums and dads of Australia and beyond. The homosexuality and bondage gear of the tribe are also signifiers of their anti-social tendencies – Max is somewhere in between, in his figure-hugging leathers.
Another familiar trope of the Western is this stranger who rides into town – a character caught between civilisation and the wilderness, between order and chaos. This perhaps exploits the audience’s own ambivalence towards these issues – most people would prefer to sit safely by the fire in our homesteads when the sun goes down, but to pick up the story of the cowboy who roams the plains by moonlight, to read in our rocking chairs. Mad Max is a prime example of this archetype – he is the knight errant (a precursor to the lone ranger) who wanders from place to place, an adventurer following his own moral compass, rejecting the comforts of civilisation. This character’s roots in the knight errant, or the samurai, or its cultural equivalents in other parts of the world, show the Western’s own roots in earlier stories from the action-adventure genre.
Max’s family has been murdered; he has no blood-ties to family anymore. He becomes the tough tobacco-chewing Marlboro Man of the classic Western. The Revisionist Western often re-examines masculinity and attitudes to women present in these earlier films. Gender is a primary, if ambivalent and unresolved, concern of the Mad Max cycle. In the first film his wife represents all that is humane, civilised, and loving about Max – all that is destroyed along with her and their baby. He loses his own femininity (as defined by his wife). In the second film the attacking tribe is overwhelmingly masculine – to the point where the tribesmen take men as their lovers. The feminine is equated to some degree with the weaker and yet civilised aspects of humanity, whereas the masculine is strong, brutal and primitive. In the third film Max tries to subordinate the young woman who leads the lost civilisation of survivors (in his attempt to avoid confrontation with Aunty Entity and stop the young tribe from running head-first into danger) by hitting her, shooting at her, and finally tying her up – but all to no avail, as she escapes. Aunty Entity herself, as leader of Border Town, is a masculinised woman – the only kind who can lead this band of ruffians in the desert.
However women in Mad Max films are for the most part merely victims of, or targets for, grotesque sexual and physical violence. Adrian Martin refers to generic influences to be found in Mad Max from international traditions of action-adventure fiction generally, including the Western as well as the horror-thriller genre film such as Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1975 and John Carpenter’s Halloween, 1978 “for its moments of gore (flashes of severed or charred body parts) and its insistent setting-up of women and children as imminent targets for violence” (Martin 1995, p. 41).
The Mad Max trilogy owes a huge debt to the Western, following many of its generic conventions closely in terms of its setting (a vast unfriendly landscape), a protagonist who is an anti-hero caught between civilisation and the wilderness, chase sequences (though on cars and motorbikes and all kinds of modified vehicles instead of horses and wagons), the savage tribe (in the gangs of neo-primitivist punks and bikies) and more. It is an updated version of the Western, transferring many of these conventions to a futuristic, post-apocalyptic, and even mythic landscape, evoking motifs from other genres along the way. But essentially they are Westerns, using the post-apocalyptic frontier to confront audiences with their fears of the unknown, and the breakdown of civilisation that reveals the savagery of human nature, when survival is at stake.
Bordwell, D, Thompson, K 2008, Film Art : An Introduction, McGraw Hill, New York, N.Y.
Broderick, M 1993, ‘Surviving Armageddon: Beyond the Imagination of Disaster’, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3, November, p. 362
Emmett Winn, J 1996, Mad Max, Reaganism and the Road Warrior, in Kinema, accessed 23 April 2009 , from http://www.kinema.uwaterloo.ca/winn972.htm
Martin, A 1995, ‘Mad Max 2’, in Scott Murray (ed.), Australian Film 1978 – 1994: a survey of theatrical features, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne
Sanes, K 1996, Mad Max as Social Criticism: Technology as a Source of Values, in Transparency, accessed 23 April 2009, from http://www.transparencynow.com/max2.htm