Mad Max – 40th Anniversary


Director: George Miller

Starring: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Geoff Parry, Steve Bisley, Tim Burns, Roger Ward

Words – Rebecca Kirby

If like me, your first exposure to the Mad Max franchise came via Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, it’s predecessor 1979’s Mad Max sure looks and feels like a very different movie.

Set in a dystopian near future where resources are scarce and law enforcement is stretched to the limit, rather than the scorched post apocalyptic landscape of The Road Warrior, the world hasn’t yet fallen apart for Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky. Here Max is a highway patrolman, a member of Main Force Patrol, facing the near impossible task of policing roads now owned by violent motorcycle gangs.

The MFP’s attempts to bring one such gang led by Bubba Zanetti (Geoff Parry) and Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) to justice leads to a brutal ambush on Max’s friend and colleague, Jim Goose. Horrified by the attack on Goose and increasingly frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the MFP, Max retires to live a quiet live with his wife, Jessie and baby son, Sprog. When an encounter between Max’s family and Zanetti and Toecutter ends in violence and horrific tragedy, Max is pushed over the edge and sets out for revenge.

Known for it’s iconic vehicle chases and crashes, which after 40 years still remain spectacular, Mad Max is a difficult movie to categorize. It’s a revenge movie that only plays out in the last 20 minutes of screen time. It’s an action movie where the action only happens in short, sharp bursts. It’s Ozploitation. It’s essentially a Western but with one key difference. The Wild West represented a frontier to be conquered and tamed, while the world that Max inhabits is regressing back to a wild lawlessness. Max cannot establish law and order when civilisation is on the verge of collapse. It’s telling that Max’s reaction to the death of his friend is not to seek revenge or to fight to bring the perpetrators to justice, but to walk away from the MFP and take care of his family.

It has a style and tone that is unique amongst the Mad Max series. The adrenaline rush of it’s successor The Road Warrior and the 2015 reboot Fury Road is replaced by an almost melancholy atmosphere, this being perhaps a reflection of director George Miller’s background as an emergency room medical doctor. It’s a much more stripped down experience, a simple tale of loss, revenge and the devastating impact of both. The hardened Max we encounter in The Road Warrior is born of pain and loss here. By taking vengeance for the loss of his family, Max loses much of himself. His final encounter with young gang member Johnny the Boy, who reluctantly killed Jim Goose after being coerced by Zanetti and Toecutter, is shocking in it’s callousness and even served to inspire the ‘Saw‘ series of movies. Max may well don his MFP uniform to chase down the gang members responsible for his devastating loss but it’s revenge not justice that drives him.

It’s this that maybe divided opinion of the film upon it’s release in 1979 and saw it banned in New Zealand until 1983 and in Sweden until 2005. The mixed reception still saw Mad Max win three Australian Film Institute Awards in 1979 and hold the record for the most profitable film ever made taking a Box Office of $100 million, entering the Guinness Book of Records at the time.

The influence of the Mad Max series in popular culture can be seen in everything from cartoon characters to video games, from movies to music videos but here is where it all began.