“Mad Max” returns

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Their leaders talked, and talked, and talked. But nothing could stem the avalanche.” –from the movie “The Road Warrior”

So I’m noodling around the Internet at the end of another long day and suddenly, lo and behold! I realize we’re rapidly approaching the 30th anniversary of one of my favorite films – the timeless, kitschy post-apocalyptic masterpiece MAD MAX!

Filmed almost as a lark by an honest-to-goodness Australian DOCTOR (yes, the ones that work in hospitals) named George Miller and his friend Byron Kennedy, Mad Max hit the big screen in 1979 and became an instant cult classic, followed in quick succession by Mad Max 2 in 1981 (re-titled The Road Warrior for its U.S. release) and Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome in 1985 (staring TINA TURNER as the evil VILLAN! Can you believe it??!!)

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I loved those movies as a teenager and still do – even though the first two Mad Max films were incredibly violent and gritty for the time, but appropriately so, for they WERE visual discussions about the potential for a post-apocalyptic breakdown of civilized society. The Road Warrior is perhaps the most intense of the bunch, as the heroic anti-hero (how’s THAT for a contradiction in terms!) Max Rockatansky(and how I LOVED that name!) scrapes out a meager existence, scavenging gasoline and food, until he comes to the rescue of a group of settlers besieged by a motorized horde of barbarians in search of fuel and plunder.

[Like all “good” bad movies, you’ll notice the sound is out of synch with the video in the trailer for "The Road Warrior,” making it resemble the badly-dubbed "Godzilla" cinematic imports from Japan then extremely popular.]

How appropriate that The Road Warrior rotated around the axis of fuel – a weary band of settlers huddled around a tiny drilling rig and home-made oil refinery, producing fuel for a battered menagerie of vehicles they hope and pray will allow them to escape the barren wastelands around them. Outside their main gate (appropriately ironic; an armored school bus) lies the ubiquitous raggedy band of marauders, the veritable scum of the earth bent on rape, torture, pillaging, and other horrors.

All to get fuel; all to live yet another day for more reckless mayhem. Makes one cringe!

Max – a former police officer turned soulless wanderer after losing his wife and only child to a cold blooded motorcycle gang in the first movie – initially views helping the settlers only as a way to refill his own thirsty fuel tanks, returning an injured scout to them (unfortunately, not soon enough, for the tortured man dies.) By the end of the film, he regains enough of his humanity to help them stage a wild breakout – leading the charge in a wickedly retrofitted 1970s model Mack R-600 daycab tractor, pulling an armored tanker trailer.

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Ah yes! The last quarter of the movie is taken up with a rolling highway battle pitting a small band of the settlers – with Max’s steady hands on the wheel of the tractor-trailer – against the vicious mob of degenerates commanded by the “Lord Humungous,” a hockey-masked body-builder, fearsome and freaky. Of course, it’s a fake-out – the tanker is filled with sand and while the barbarians chase after it, the rest of the settlers flee to safety, dynamiting the refinery behind them

Is it high cinematic art, the Mad Max trilogy? Hell no! The car chases and stunts are the high points of the movies (though the third one is a major let down on that score). Max – played by the one and only Mel Gibson – almost has fewer lines than Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator and what dialog exists is downright dreadful.

By today’s standards, the violence in all three Mad Max films (especially the first two) is positively banal. Yet it proved shocking enough for the times to propel Kennedy and Miller into full-on stardom. Miller readily abandoned his medical career (he and Kennedy made short films that won them critical acclaim and – more importantly – beefier movie budgets while Miller was completing his residency) going on to make more mainstream (and child-friendly) films such as Babe and the animated hit Happy Feet (which garnered him an Academy award) before starting his own production company, Dr D Studios.

[Here’s a great montage of the chase scenes from all three “Mad Max” films set to the music of one of my favorite bands, Motorhead. Thank goodness “musical taste” wasn’t a job requirement when I got hired!]

The vehicles themselves proved to be the biggest stars of Miller and Kennedy’s Mad Max trilogy – at least for the first two movies, anyways. The most notable is, of course, Max’s ride, a 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT Coupe modified by several members of the film crew (Murray Smith,Peter Arcadipane, Ray Beckerley, and others) as work on the first film began in 1976. The main modification is the front nosecone, made of fiberglass and designed by Arcadipane (marketed as the “Concorde” style, strongly influenced by the slightly earlier HPF Firenza), while the famous supercharger protruding through the hood of the car was for looks only, as a working supercharger can’t switched on and off as shown in the films.

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It is one bad ass car, let me tell you – dubbed a “Pursuit Special” and called “The last of the mighty Interceptors.” Man, I wanted one the minute I got my license – but of course, there are those critical ingredients “skill” and “talent” that you need for building custom rides … and I lack both. That and the panache necessary to tool around in a black leather suit held together with duct tape, sporting a double-barreled shotgun-slash-pistol (highly impractical weaponry for the badlands – an AK-47, as chronicled by Larry Kahaner, would’ve been better. But that pistola sure looked cool!) was beyond my meager ken!

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The Mack R-600 is the other big notable – equipped with a “cool-power” engine setup (using an after-cooler on the cylinder head and a tip turbine fan) plus a dual-gearshift transmission. The massive cowcatcher mounted on the front of the grill – ostensibly to protect the truck from wayward kangaroos – becomes a massive battering ram, with armored plates welded in front of the radiator (with air slits for cooling ventilation) and armored cages around the wheels, touched off with fortified, spike-encrusted turrets and barbed wire strung up along the sides of the tanker. Whooo diddly! Now THERE is a vehicle well-equipped to take on L.A.’s freeways!

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Still, the first two films of the trilogy leave one with an eerie feeling, as if you are looking at future world that doesn’t seem all that far-fetched – a feeling easier to understand after living through several years of oil price shocks, mostly notably this summer’s $147-plus price for a barrel of “black gold.” For a while there, battling to the death over a refinery in the desert didn’t seem like the stuff of over-active imaginations.

Hopefully, it’ll never come to that.

[For fans of these movies, here’s a special treat – the opening chase scene from the original “Mad Max” WITHOUT the hideous overdubbing done for its U.S. release. It’s always amusing that Kennedy and Miller called their police force of the future “Main Force Patrol” … having no idea its acronym “MFP” stood for “Maximum Fluoride Protection” in America. Fortunately their slang nickname – “The Bronze” – more than made up for that oversight.]

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