Apocalypse Right Now: Mad Max (1979)
A few years from now…
Society is on the brink. Evil men are taking control. The good have lost confidence; they have seen too many of their own defeated and are throwing down their arms. Hope is a dying resource.
We’re thrown into a pre-dystopian world in 1979’s Mad Max, a film that frighteningly feels like foreshadowing at this point. Set in Australia, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is an officer in the Main Force Patrol, where he chases down high-speed criminals. In the opening chase sequence, a gang member named Nightrider destroys property, endangers civilian life, and dodges other officers before Max is called in. From the start, director George Miller establishes the reckless nature of this world, one where fast cars and dangerous men run rampant. Expertly staged with some incredible stunt work, the opening 10 minutes sets the bar for the rest of the now 36-year-old franchise, and that’s all before Max is introduced.
The following three entries in the Mad Max franchise, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road, deal partly with the icon and myth of Max. With those subsequent films, there are mentions of his backstory, as mentioned by a narrator or ever so briefly by Max himself; and with each film, the story changes. Miller recognizes that heroes’ tales evolve and take the shape of the time in which it’s told. In the original Mad Max, the origins of Max are told and the icon starts to take shape. In his introduction in the film, we first see him in action as a faceless warrior who takes down Nightrider. Then, when the fiery wreckage is all that’s left of the terrorizing gang member, Max pulls over his interceptor vehicle and walks into frame with a signature musical sting. Then, a scene later, we see Max with his family. He is a normal man, at home with his wife and child. This is a life that feels foreign to his character in the future.
The importance of heroes in an ever-dissolving system of law and order is reiterated when Nightrider’s gang, led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), goes after the police force and eventually gets to Max’s partner and fellow officer, Jim Goose (Steve Bisley). The gang disfigures Goose by burning him alive. Before the fire, Toecutter tells one of his henchman to light the match, saying, “This is a threshold moment.” The escalation in violence here matches the escalation in society around them. They're on the edge. That line of dialogue sums up where our hero is as well. In seeing his friend in a horrible state, Max resigns. He’s fearful not only for the safety of his wife and child, but for his own sanity. The lines are becoming blurred between heroes and villains, good and evil, and what’s right and wrong. Rather than allowing the dismantling of his soul to continue, he would rather pull himself out of the equation. Max’s boss isn’t having it and tries to win him back with a ham-fisted speech, saying, “They say people don't believe in heroes anymore. Well, damn them! You and me, Max, we're going to give them back their heroes!” Eventually Max is convinced to take a vacation to consider his place on the force. The fact that Max turns his back on the fight right there and then doesn't prove beneficial for himself or his loved ones.
Toecutter’s gang is unmerciful, roaming the Australian Outback, killing and raping civilians along the way. It’s absolutely fitting that Keays-Byrne returned to the franchise to play Immortan Joe in Fury Road. In the original Mad Max, Toecutter is the proto-Immortan Joe, leading his gang in a cult-like manner, doling out orders to his henchmen while also physically abusing and mentally manipulating them. Society is stable enough to still have a police force, homes, businesses, and a seemingly fully operational government. But, there are tears visible. In the Mad Max universe, we know where everything is headed; a gas crises and world war push everything into chaos in The Road Warrior and things only get worse from there. Starting here, the fight to control these savage lands begin.
It doesn’t end well for both Max’s wife and his son once the Toecutter tracks them down. Max loses everything and becomes what he feared he would become. As was made clear from the start, he’s pretty damn good as his job. Before snuffing out the adrenaline-driven Nightrider at the beginning of the film, Max manages to make the man cry. Merciless is his actions, Max eradicates each and every gang member with precision. He takes a gunshot to the knee and his arm is run over by a motorbike, but he soldiers forward. Driven by revenge, but also shifting into his natural state of violence, Max tosses away law and order to punish the last remaining gang member, the one who lit the match that burned Goose alive. It’s a powerful scene, one that doesn’t offer any easy resolutions for both Max and the audience.
The final image we see in Mad Max is of Max driving away into an uncertain future. It’s actually the least hopeful ending in the entire franchise. The Road Warrior and Fury Road may get the most attention of all the Mad Max films, but what makes the original so crucial is the raw essence of Max’s origin. While he may be a walking legend in the following films, Max is still a man here, albeit one leaning on the threshold of icon. What pushes him to another level, lifting him above law and order,and the natural state of normal men, is tragedy and the need to confront evil with a necessary evil.
When the lines are blurred and when the rules of man have no value, there’s no other way to survive than to meet with evil head on. This is the eventual lesson Max takes with him in the end, and one that he has to re-learn with each film in the franchise. No matter how much you turn your back on the evil around you, there are always consequences and you will eventually have to be part of the fight. A lesson we'll have to take into account soon enough, when evil men rise to power.