Movie Discussion: George Miller’s Mad Max (1979)

  • Monthly Theme: Ozploitationmad_max_ver1
  • The Film: Mad Max
  • Country of origin: Australia
  • Date of Australian release: April 12, 1979
  • Date of U.S. release: May 9, 1980
  • Studio: Crossroads, et al.
  • Distributer: American International Pictures [AIP]
  • Domestic Gross: $8.7 million
  • Budget: $650,000 (estimated)
  • Director: George Miller
  • Producers: Byron Kennedy & Bill Miller
  • Screenwriters: James McCausland & George Miller
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: David Eggby
  • Make-Up/FX: Chris Murray
  • Music: Brian May
  • Part of a series? Yes, this is the first film in the Mad Max franchise, followed by 1981’s The Road Warrior, 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: Yes. Hollywood star Mel Gibson.
  • Awards?: 3 awards at the 1979 Australian Film Institute and Special Jury Award at the 1980 Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival.
  • Tagline: “The last law in a world gone out of control. Pray that he’s out there somewhere.”
  • The Lowdown: This week we take on what might be the Ozploitation movie to end all Ozploitation movies. Mad Max did extremely well in the global box office (in fact it held the world record for highest profit-to-cost ratio until it was dethroned by The Blair Witch Project in 1999), but only really became well-known in the United States after the wild success of the movie’s sequel, 1981’s The Road WarriorMad Max codified a certain kind of post-apocalyptic cool that had only been hinted at in earlier 1970s science fiction films like A Boy and His DogThe Omega Man and Damnation Alley. Blending the style of late-1960s hippie culture with the nihilism of punk rock, Mad Max and its sequels made Mel Gibson a global superstar and popularized the engines-and-asphalt aesthetic that is now the default for anything set in “the post-apocalypse.” The plot of the movie is a simple revenge tale – Max Rockatansky (Gibson) is one of the best officers in the elite Main Force Squad, a futuristic highway patrol unit. When Max runs down a highway bandit known as the Nightrider, a gang of biker nomads targets Max and his family for vengeance.

If you haven’t seen Mad Max our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Kristine: Okay, I don’t know what my expectations were going into Mad Max… but I was totally caught off guard when it turned out to be a complete homofest +  incongruous offbeat comedy. I kind of loved it.

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Snowballin’ in the Outbac

Sean: The Mad Max movies are notorious for having all the villains be flaming homos.

Kristine: Flaming homos.

Sean: In The Road Warrior, Wez – one of the prominent bad guys – leads a twink sexslave around on a leash. It is true. The movies have come under fire from gay groups for that shit.

Kristine: But the homosexuality in Mad Max is not just confined to the villains. FIFI, the leather daddy police captain? I was dying.

Sean: Ok, so apparently Roger Ward, the actor who plays Fifi, wrote erotica in his spare time about swinging and gay sex…

Kristine: I bet he did. Moustache erotica?

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Tom of Finland of Australia

Sean: …and then they made a movie out of it that was the first Aussie movie to ever talk about the gayz.

Kristine: A movie called… Mad Max

Sean: Did you really find Mad Max to be that supergay? 

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: I am fascinated/amused, because usually I am the one calling out subtextual gayness. Tell me your reasons.

Kristine: Okay. First off, Max. When we first meet him, he is this anonymous badass in leathers. Then the movie takes a turn and Max is presented as this khaki-wearing, sensitive “family man” who is learning how to express his fweelings – and that’s when his life turns to shit. I honestly feel like the message of this movie is not that S&M bikers are villains. It’s that khaki-wearing family men are fucked. After his wife and (insanely huge) baby are murdered, Max doffs the khakis and puts on his leathers and then he is back in control. Sans family, he is a badass. Avec family, he is a luckless sap. That is my take. 

Sean: Yeah, I’d agree with all that. But how is that supergay? 

Kristine: Because the movie presents life as being sans ladies. Bikes, leathers, no ladies… How much gayer do you want it?? Plus, scarves everywhere. Also, Johnny the Boy. That’s enough to be supergay.

Sean: But the absence of ladies doesn’t make it necessarily gay – just homosocial.

Kristine: Okay, fine. 

Mad-Max-1-Max-And-Goose
Just a couple of bros in their skin-tight leather, bein’ manly and shit

Sean: I’m just asking for clarification because I’m wondering how Mad Max picks up on some of the threads in Wake in Fright about male bonding and male power… In our discussion of that movie, you said “I would think male heterosexuality would be defined by being around women – but instead it seems to be defined by having sex with women, but spending time with men – hunting, football, male-dominated professions – those things are emblems of male heterosexuality, which seems all backwards.” It seems to me that Mad Max addresses that same subject matter, but in a different way. As you point out, the Max/Jessie relationship is something that’s constructed as an alternative to the macho world of engines-and-asphalt (though Jessie seems pretty comfortable behind the wheel). Remember when Max tells Fifi, “Any longer out on that road, and I’m one of them, you know? A terminal crazy. Only, I’ve got a bronze badge to say I’m one of the good guys.” The idea being that, in the “wild” (for this film that means the remote highways where much of the action takes place), Max is somewhat feral and uncivilized, just a half-step away from total savagery. But then in “civilization” (for this film, the domestic space and heterosexual marriage), he is tamed and reshaped into a “man of feeling.” I think all of that’s fascinating and also, perhaps one of the archetypal action-movie narratives. So I think you’re right that the family is seen as a “liability” in this world and that’s what makes it a dystopia, right? The whole point of the movie is that Max is trying to become “a man of feeling” but that leaves him vulnerable and everything gets destroyed, so he becomes a “man of action.” That soliloquy he gives to Jessie about wanting to talk about his feelings is insane. He says, “I’ve never been able to say things to you, Jess, about how I feel. Guess I always counted on you understanding. When I was a kid, me and my father used to go for long walks. I remember staring down at his shoes. They were special shoes, brown. And he always kept them really shiny. He was tall, and he used to take long strides. And there I’d be right alongside him, just trying to keep up with him. I don’t think he ever knew how proud I felt of him. Or how good it felt just to be there alongside him. Even now, when I think back on it, I still feel… The thing is, Jess, I couldn’t tell him about it then, but I can tell you about it now. I don’t wanna wait 10 years to tell you how I’m feeling about you right now.” All of the ideas and imagery there – the masculinity of the father figure, rooted in his shoes; the internal struggle over not having been able to put his feelings about his father into words; the weird parallelism between the absent father and the present wife that the speech constructs… There’s so much going on there, but first and foremost, the thing that sets Max apart from the traditional action movie star/superhero is how he acknowledges the appeal of expressing emotion. Max doesn’t quite fit the archetype of the classic laconic hero (maybe best embodied by Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in those Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns) – he yearns for a different kind of masculinity. But then he, of course, reverts to pure aggression by the end of the film.

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 1.28.14 PM
The sads

Kristine: I absolutely agree that this movie picks up on those themes from Wake in Fright and that it constructs its moral universe as you’ve described. But how about a motorcycle gang that acts like a band of merry pranksters from a lost Shakespearean play? This movie was written by a homo theatre geek with a leather fetish. And that is supergay. 

Sean: It is fact that several of the actors playing the “scoot jockeys” are Shakespearean-trained actors in real life.

Kristine: Sean. Sean. They somersault-mount their bikes.

Sean: They’re like, all kinds of pansexual superfreaks who are just glampunked out, right? 

Kristine: Yes. Neo-vaudevillian motorcycle gang. 

Sean: But the problem I have is that Goose and Max are presented as these really trad macho dudes and the movie worships them for it, where as the pansexual superfreaks are evil rapists and perverts.

Kristine: They aren’t that macho, but yeah, I know what you mean. I mean, the lady singer that Goose has a hard-on for? Not that femme. And Max’s wife playing the saxophone while he watches, chin in hand? There are all sorts of genderfuckery happening all through this crazy ass movie. That sax-playing scene was so weird. My boyfriend was like, “This is something out of The Naked Gun.” 

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 1.45.37 PM
Little Girl Blue, blow your horn

Sean: I cannot with the sax playing.

Kristine: Wasn’t it weird? 

Sean: Though I really found Jessie to be kind of adorable and likeable, despite that scene and despite having no inner life whatsoever.

Kristine: She definitely took on the male role on numerous occasions.  And she was a terrible parent, and was he. The baby playing with a gun? Rolling around un-restrained in the back of the car while Jessie drives around like a maniac?

Sean: When did she take the manrole? 

Kristine: Playing the sax while he watched adoringly. Telling him to shut up and jump in the car and just trust her. Taking off to go to the beach while he watched the baby. Small things, but they stood out to me. 

Sean: Right. Did you like her? 

Kristine: She was spunky and cute, but I don’t understand this Australian insistence on the flat-in-the-back-fluffy-on-the-sides hairstyle. It bugs. 

Sean: I liked her hair.

Kristine: Umm. 

Sean: I thought it was cute.

Kristine: It was cocker spaniel hair, textbook.  So, I have questions for you. When did you first see this, did you immediately realize it was gay, and did it turn you on? 

Sean: No, I didn’t consciously think it was gay. I was too young for that (like 11 or 12). It DID turn me on – did you see all the incredibly tight pants? 

Kristine: Yes, I did. 

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Rearview queerer

Sean: Young Mel Gibson, despite having grown up to be a monster in real life, was one of the most beautiful men in the world (in my opinion).

Kristine: I can’t separate now-MG from then-MG.

Sean: I can, and do. Young Mel exists solely within the space of cinema for me, as only a part of the diegesis, if you will. He doesn’t exist outside the frame. But I understand not being able to handle MG. Totally. More questions? 

Kristine: Just… I mean this movie is so weird. It seems like a straightforward revenge flick, but then it gets pretty involved in the weird dynamics of the biker gang, like the rivalry between Bubba (!!) and Johnny the Boy for Toecutter’s (I can’t) affections. 

Sean: Bubba was kind of hot, I thought. Kind of Liev Schreiber-y.

Kristine: I disagree. 

Sean: The Toecutter is a monster. The plucked brows. The frosted tips. The manservant who fusses over his hair. The everything.

Kristine The Samarai topknot.

Sean: Nightmare. 

Kristine: FYI, throughout this movie my bf was all like, “Sweet fairings” and other motorcycle-esque observations. I was like, “Fairies?” and he was like, “No, Kristine. Eyeroll.” He says the motorcycle-styling in this movie is super iconic in the mucho macho world that he inhabits. Do you know what fairings are? 

Frosted tips of rage
Frosted tips of rage

Sean: Well, no. But do you agree with him that this movie is “cool”? Just stylistically?  Do you find the cars and bikes and clothes “cool”? 

Kristine: Yeah, but I find it amazing that it can be so cool to the hetero dudes and so so gay at the same time. I love it.

Sean: Yes, I love that too. It just makes me sad that most hetero dudes can’t see the gayness, or if they do see it they think it’s “bad.” I wish they’d just embrace the flaming macho realness.

Kristine: Fairings are the front of the motorcycle. Like, the breastplate of the bike, if you will. Surrounding the headlight and such. 

Sean: Didn’t ask, don’t care.

Kristine: Why can’t you embrace the mucho machoness? 

Sean: I can. I just don’t fetishize things like bike boobies. But I’m happy for your bf if he loves it.

Kristine: Bike boobies.

Sean: That’s what you said they were. 

Kristine: I think the point is that, sans ladies, men don’t become cavemen. They realize they need glam accessories and bling and find a “manly” outlet through which they can dress it up. 

madmax1979brripxvidac3r
The soft chestflesh of a man of feeling

Sean: Well, would you agree that main language of this movie is the language of style? I think that is the movie’s main vocabulary.

Kristine: Yes. Style and weird humor.

Sean: Okay, so I see a tension going on between 1970s punk and classic 1960s hippiedom in the movie and I was wondering if you picked up on that.

Kristine: Like with the lovebirds who get raped by the gang? And the bucolic countryside versus the burnt-out city? 

Sean: Yes. And remember the first sequence of the movie? With Big Bopper in his punk leathers watching those two naked hippies fuck in the grass? 

Kristine: Big Bopper.

Sean: Just that name conjures up images of 1950s greaser culture for me.

Kristine: Through the cross hairs of his rifle, yeah, you’re right.

Sean: Then that hippie couple is doubled later on by Max and Jessie as they run through the fields half naked to go swimming.

Kristine: Right, true.

Sean: Remember how that guy whose just been gang-raped is fleeing pants-less into the wilds and Goose is yelling “You’re a turkey!” after him?

Kristine: “Hey guy, you’re a turkey.”

Sean: I think this movie fantasizes about 1960s flower power as a kind of lost paradise (saxophone wife, all the macking hippies) and embraces 1970s punk style as the new language of disaffected cool, of bravado and machismo and nihilism. Like how one of the other Main Force Patrol drivers is named “the March Hare” – a total reference to 1960s psychedelic culture.

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Death to the 1960s

Kristine: This reminds me, did you ever read Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson

Sean: Never. What gives? 

Kristine: It’s actually totally fascinating. I completely agree with what you are saying… The connection I am reminded of is Altamont, which for many was a pivotal moment when the ‘60s ended, and free love turned bad. 

Sean: The “nomad scoot jockeys” represent that post-Altamont Hell’s Angels contigent, right? 

Kristine: Agreed. And Toecutter seems like a “dropped-too-much-acid” product of ‘60s counterculture, right? 

Sean: Yes. And Nightrider and his bride at the beginning are all punked out – bone necklaces, earrings, pink hair, facial tattoos… “Metal damage… Brain damage… I am the Nightrider. I’m a fuel-injected suicide machine. I am a rocker, I’m a roller, I’m an out-of-controller.” He’s quoting an AC/DC song there.

Kristine: Sean. His girlfriend’s name is Marmaduke. The bf and I couldn’t stop cracking up at that. 

Sean: Hahaha. Dying.

Kristine: I was, like, unimpressed with Nightrider and Marmaduke. He lost me when it was revealed he was driving with bare feet. No badass motorcycle boots.

Sean: Hahaha. He’s a crustpunk.

Kristine: I loathe crustpunks. My least favorite subculture ever.

Sean: Yeah?  Did you find the car chases to be thrilling at all? 

Kristine: I thought Goose’s motorcycle ride was cool. Did you love Goose? 

Sean: “Don’t write off the Goose until you see the box going into the hole.” Goose was like, fine. He was Max’s boyfriend. I didn’t love him calling the male rape victim “a turkey.” 

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The tumescent head

Kristine: What about when he calls Johnny the Boy a “raper of women!”? 

Sean: His whole I’m-too macho-for-the-law schtick was bugs. I don’t like Goose, I guess. You? I liked Charlie. 

Kristine: Am I making this up or was Tommy Boy Cruise’s boyfriend in Top Gun who died also named “Goose”? 

Sean: Yes. 

Kristine: That is interesting. I mean, what are the odds?  I am making a statement. I am declaring Top Gun to be a Mad Max rip-off. 

Sean: So I would classify this as a “male melodrama.” There are so many details that feel operatic – like during the assault against the hot rod couple, as they’re being pulled from their vehicle screaming the camera cuts to a raven flapping its wings and cawing. So ridiculous and I love it. Do you concur?

Kristine: Yes, but I am still dazzled by my revelation. This changes everything. 

Sean: It only does if Top Gun matters. I say it doesn’t.

Kristine: I don’t like you right now. 

Sean: Why honey? Tom Cruise is a shithead.

Kristine: Because you are raining on my parade. Just acknowledge that the plot is the same and the characters are the same and they even have the same names.

Sean: No, the plot is not the same. But the names are the same for those two isolated characters and that is the end of all similarities.  

Kristine: Plot same.

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In Australia, nothing beats an impromptu rape party

Sean: No band of marauders in Top Gun and no mortally injured wifey/dead (enormous) baby.

Kristine: Yes. Ice and his boys are the marauders. Done with you. I will work on my award-winning thesis on my own. 

Sean: “Ice,” huh? 

Kristine: Whatever. Isn’t that his name? What is it then?? “Cube”? “Freeze”?

Sean: Iceman.

Kristine: I thought it didn’t matter.

Sean: There were some super-expressionist moments of gonzo melodrama I’d like to point out… Did you notice how stylized the filmmaking was in places? Example 1: The super dramatic lighting and zoom in to Max’s eyes when he finds Goose in the burn unit. 2: The musical score throughout is so over the top and I loved it. 3: Toecutter’s eyebulge when he met his death.

Kristine: That burn unit scene was one of the high comedic points for me. And yes to score – the same dude scored this movie and Patrick. Music by Brian May.

Sean: Well, he’s great. Why was the burn unit high comedy? 

Kristine: Are you kidding me? The cheesiest telenovela would have been like, “Too much” at the burn unit scene. 

Sean: Tell me why. Because of Max’s emotional eyes? Was it like something off of Melrose Place

Kristine: It was ridiculous. The soaring music, the white sheet hiding Goose’s broiled flesh and then the chicken-foot hand reveal??? Come the fuck on. It made Doctor Kimberly’s head scar reveal seem subtle and realistic.

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Visine ad from the 1970s

Sean: See, those gonzo flourishes are what make me love this movie. 

Kristine: It is certainly different from what I am used to with American movies set in dystopian futures, right? 

Sean: Yes, this manages to be self-serious and absurdist at once. That’s a tough note to hit, and the Aussies are really good at hitting it.

Kristine: I agree. 

Sean: Don’t the meatplant rapists from Razorback make more sense now that you’ve seen Mad Max

Kristine: Definitely. Psychotic dandies are an Australian hallmark. 

Sean: Ha. So the eyebulge when Toecutter dies?

Kristine: Just everything about Toecutter was crazy to the max. My favorite Toecutter moment was when the old lady threatens them with her shotgun and he puts on a show of false terror. I was dying laughing.

Sean: Yes. I love a good gun-totin’ grandma. Toecutter is a complete “supervillain.” This is such a superhero movie, right? A total comic book? The Halls of Justice, Anarchie Road… How Fifi keeps exclaiming, “People don’t believe in heroes anymore!” 

Kristine: Fifi.

Sean: I bet he frequents that ridic nightclub with the disco music and Olivia Newton-John realness, with the saxophones, etc. On the licorice road.

Kristine: That song. That lady.

Sean: Were you dying? I had forgotten her and I was dying. 

Kristine: I was D-Y-I-N-G. When she licks her teeth at the end of her “number”? I died. 

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Mouthslug

Sean: She was a drag queen.

Kristine: What’s her drag name? 

Sean: Koala LaRouge.

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: So I’d like to get a clearer picture in my mind of what you knew about Mad Max coming into this. What did you expect it to be? 

Kristine: I knew very little. Seriously, the only imagery I could conjure in my mind was from Tina Tuner’s video for “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” That’s it. The Thunderdome is a reference I have often used, despite never having seen any of the movies.

Sean: Did you know it was set in a dystopian future? 

Kristine: Yes, I knew it was a dusty, dreary future.

Sean: I never, in a 1000 years, saw you liking this movie. But it is like, the Ozploitation movie, so we had to watch it.

Kristine: It was total fun. I like fun.

Sean: Would you watch the sequel? 

Kristine: Sure. But I bet it isn’t as fun, am I right? 

Sean: It’s more “serious,” but also even campier. I’m telling you: assless chaps, sex slave on dog leash.

Kristine: Really? Amazing. Sign me up.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Better and weirder than I expected AND Queerer than you’d think AND Pop perfection.

The Freak’s Rating: Pop perfection AND Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative AND Stylistic triumph.

Vroom vroom vroom, I want you in my room
Vroom vroom vroom, I want you in my room

5 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: George Miller’s Mad Max (1979)

  1. I’ve seen Mad Max a few times, but not for several years, and I didn’t remember it being the gay fest Kris reported. So I rented it from Casa, and there are a lot of gay references, especially the tight leather, but IMO, it’s more a sub-text than a major theme. Some other points;
    — I too can’t make sense of the sax playing scene.
    — What’s the big deal with young Mel Gibson? Max is totally bland, and had the affect of your garden variety sociopath. I much preferred Toecutter. He was totally psycho, but would be fun to have a drink with.
    — Why was there was no big showdown between Bland Max and Toecutter? Just a motorcycle/car chase which ends with Mr. T splattered on a 10-wheeler’s wind shield. Yawn.
    — BTW, how did Max avoid being turned into red guacamole by the truck which flattened Toecutter? His car was only inches behind Toecutter’s motorcycle. Oh I know. Max’s car, going 100+mph, turned into a dirt road to avoid impact. Really. Are the laws of physics different in Australia?
    — The film’s dystopian/post-apocalypse back drop was weird. If society had gone to shit, why were the roads in such good shape? The Halls of Justice HQ looked suitably Third-World, but was this the result of an apocalypse or an Australian budget sequester? Does it matter?
    — Kudos to Kris for bringing up Hunter Thompson’s “Hell’s Angels.” It’s a must read, and makes Toecutter and his lads ring true, at least in a gonzo 60s/70s world. Also recommend the contemporary documentary “Gimme Shelter” in which the Rolling Stones hire the Hells Angels as security for the Stones 1969 Altamont concert. The Hells Angels made creative use of cue sticks and Rock lost its innocence.
    — Speaking of references, how much did “Mad Max” owe to earlier biker-gone-bad movies like “The Wild One?”
    — All in All, “Mad Max” should have been called “Bland Max” despite the great car stunts and the entertaining Toecutter and Fifi. Much better was the crackerjack “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” which even Mel couldn’t screw up. “The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla!” Yeah baby. Please review. Would also like to see your take on “A Boy and His Dog.” Even “Damnation Alley.” On second thought, maybe not.
    –Keep up the good work.

    1. Dave, your point about the high-quality road maintenance is amazing! And hilarious! For me, personally, its not even that I think there’s gay subtext – I just think the filmmakers establish that effeminacy, flamboyance, polymorphous perversity and genderfuckery are all villainous qualities and that “toughness,” laconicism, straightness and gender normativity are heroic qualities. There are weird characters – like Fifi – that don’t quite conform, but for the most part, that’s the movie’s attitude (as well as the attitude of The Road Warrior). But doesn’t this movie just LOOK great? I was amazed at how stylish and modern it still looks, how cinematic it is (George Miller has got an eye on him), and how crisp and hyperreal the cinematography is. It’s been over 10 years since I’ve watched The Road Warrior, but I remember it looking dusty and dingy and there being lots of grody kids in it… Reserving Hell’s Angels from the library now…. Dave, will you go see the reboot with Tom Hardy as Max? Are you excited for it? Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!