I have yet to see Mad Max: Fury Road, which comes out this week, but I did get a chance to see the first three Mad Max movies over the weekend at a friend’s place: Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Each film has a distinct personality, and each belongs in the badass canon in its own way.
The brainchild of director/co-writer George Miller, The Mad Max Trilogy marked the ascent of Mel Gibson’s career, propelling him to the cusp of bona fide stardom. Lethal Weapon would then rocket him away in 1987. (Gibson’s ugly fall as an anti-semetic, abusive wackadoo would take place many years later.)
The Mad Max Trilogy may have recurring characters and tropes, but it’s less like a cohesive unfolding story and more like variations on a theme. From a continuity standpoint, the movies have more in common with the Dollars Trilogy, the Zatoichi films, Jack tales, and the Zelda games.
Let’s look at each Mad Max film individually and figure out how they riff on and complement each other.
Mad Max (1979) – Lawless Ozploitation
Mad Max, the film that started it all, wasn’t post-apocalyptic. It’s pre-apocalyptic. The world in the film is lawless and rowdy (i.e., the Platonic form of Australia?), but not the rusty, dusty S&M wasteland that would be seen in the subsequent films in the series. What we get instead is a solid Ozploitation revenge movie, one reminiscent of a drive-in biker picture or a western about bandits hunting down the lawmen that done killed one of their kin.
The first Mad Max is an origin story that the other movies will riff on and play with. Max is a leather-clad cop in a muscle car who kills a punk called The Nightrider in a car chase. The Nightrider’s posse rolls into town looking to even the score. Revenge, mannequin molestation, eccentric music cues, and general Ozplotation mayhem ensues.
When not running down goons and making them cry, Max is back at his seaside house with his saxophone-playing wife Jesse and their cute toddler Sprog. (The hell kind of name for a kid is Sprog?) Home offers a semblance of order in a world that’s otherwise falling apart and unable to be saved. Which inevitably means this domesticity is doomed.
You know things aren’t going to end well for Max and his wife because they have a cute way of saying “I love you.” This is generally a sign of someone’s eventual death in a movie, sort of like when a character develops a sudden and persistent cough.
The police force is in shambles, just holding on to some shred of order like the rest of civilization. After the grisly murder of one of his friends on the force, Max wants to quit so he can lead a normal life. His chief, Fifi, tries to convince him to remain on the force and delivers a key line: “They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well, damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes.” Max goes on holiday with his family to clear his head, which leads to a chance run-in with The Nightrider’s friends and the eventual tragedy that pushes Max over the edge.
By the end of the film, Max’s ordered and peaceful world is gone. He goes vigilante to get revenge, goes full anti-hero in his methods, and instead of returning to his seaside home, he leaves society for the road. Off he drives out into the lawless wild, which is where he now belongs.
One of the final shots of Mad Max is our hero driving off as an explosion goes off in the background. That’s not just an act of revenge carried out, it’s the obliteration of the ordered world.
Fifi’s line about the return of heroes sets up Max’s recurring reluctant heroism in the other films. In the next two Mad Max movies, Max’s motives begin as self-interested and self-serving, he eventually shows his true qualities as a character. In the process, he aids in the founding of two separate societies, giving others a chance to rebuild the civilization he’s abandoned.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) – Post-Apocalyptic Anarchy
From Mad Max to The Road Warrior, we go from lawlessness to anarchy. There’s no vestige of the civilized world. Now it’s a land of bondage gear and crossbows. To get by, people scavenge and murder. Max’s badass vehicle has gone from shiny to a dusty matte black. Both the man and the machine are amply battle-scarred; Gibson appears to have aged 10 years in movie-time even though this sequel was released just two years after the first film.
Welcome to the apocalypse—ain’t it grand?
The Road Warrior is easily the best movie of The Mad Max Trilogy, and a remarkable achievement in reckless action filmmaking. Stunt performers leap off speeding cars, hurtle through the air, break bones on impact with the Australian dirt. The vehicles—which look like someone played Frankenstein in a junkyard—are gloriously expendable, colliding at high speeds and creating the scrap metal equivalent of a Bloomin’ Onion®.
The western vibe of the first Mad Max is here again—rather than bandits out for revenge against lawmen, it’s outlaws raiding a mining town—though there’s also the air of a samurai film, particularly Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. The film follows Max as he tries to bargain for some gas from a small outpost of peaceful survivors. He eventually agrees to help them leave their besieged settlement for a seaside paradise (as seen in postcards). If the survivors were to remain, they’d be killed by the tyrannous Lord Humungus and his band of barbarian perverts clad in assless chaps and football pads.
As a character, Max begins to take on the traits of classic cinematic nomads, particularly Toshiro Mifune’s character from Yojimbo and Sanjuro and Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. In Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Max is even called “The Man with No Name” by the Bartertown announcer. (He’s also called “Raggedy Man,” which walks the line between badass and adorable.) We begin to see the recurring Mad Max motifs here: the ripped version of the MFP uniform, the bad leg, the sawed-off shotgun, his car bobby-trapped with a bomb.
Max is surrounded by a lot of colorful supporting characters in The Road Warrior. There’s Bruce Spence as the gyrocopter pilot, and also a feral child with a razor-sharp boomerang. Lord Humungus makes a strong impression with his bulging scalp, his metal hockey mask, and He-Man physique. The whole look of the Humungus posse carries forward into Thunderdome, and seems to partly inspire the goons in Fury Road.
(The influence extends to the pro-wrestling tag team The Road Warriors, later known as The Legion of Doom. The movie also inspired Tonka’s Steel Monsters toyline, which featured a hefty post-apocalyptic vehicle and action figure; as a kid, I had a Masher truck, which was driven by a Lord Humungus knock-off named Metal Face.)
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) – A Kooky Melange
As far as sequel subtitles go, “Beyond Thunderdome” is the post-apocalyptic equivalent of “Electric Boogaloo.” That and the Tina Turner song “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” are probably the lasting legacies of the film. (Unpopular opinion: “One of the Living,” the Tina Turner song during the beginning credits, holds up better than “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”) Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome carries the series out of its Ozploitation past and sticks it right in the middle of the 80s. And a bunch of kids.
Not only is Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome the most 80s entry of the trilogy, it’s also the most blockbustery in execution. The vibe is less western and samurai movie and more Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There’s also a disappointing lack of vehicular action in Beyond Thunderdome until the finale.
Max enters an outpost known as Bartertown (the outback’s Mos Eisley) in search of some stolen goods. In the process, he becomes embroiled in a power struggle between Bartertown’s founder Aunty Entity and a duo known as Master Blaster. Master Blaster runs the underground pig shit refineries that produce methane, the town’s super-fuel. There’s a fight in Thunderdome, which is an early highlight, featuring chainsaws and bungee cords and raucous chanting from the post-apocalyptic masses. Thunderdome gets beyond Thunderdome in about 25 minutes, though. Max eventually winds up rescued by a tribe of children who are convinced he’s a savior who’ll fly them to Sydney, Australia (as seen in a View-Master).
Thunderdome was apparently inspired by Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Ridley Walker, which explains the fractured/restructured speech patterns of the child tribe. The film feels like it grafts Max into this sort of story, and his previous skill set of hard-driving and vehicular cunning are not particularly valuable for this adventure. Instead, Max uses his fists and some of his wits (and a whistle… and a monkey), and yet he feels a little off. It’s the difference between the Han Solo of The Empire Strikes Back and the Han Solo of Return of the Jedi—Mad Max goes soft.
Thunderdome introduces some fascinating disjunctions to the continuity of The Mad Max Trilogy. Bruce Spence, the actor who played the gyrocopter pilot in The Road Warrior, shows up in Beyond Thunderdome as the pilot of a small plane. It’s unspecified if Spence is playing the same character in both movies or two separate pilots. Max’s car also appears again in Thunderdome, though it was blown up real good in The Road Warrior. (Maybe it’s another tricked-out Interceptor, like a second pair of black jeans just in case?)
The story of Thunderdome doesn’t entirely cohere on its own either. It feels like a Mad Max tale told by a child, which figures since the story is all about Max helping children establish a new society elsewhere. If we think of Max as serving a function in the foundation myths of the societies he’s helped create, this wildly plotted fairy tale version of a Mad Max story might have been entirely intentional.
Mad Max‘s Pseudo-Continuity – A Tankful of Juice or The Legend of Mad Max
There are a few ways to think of the loose continuity of The Mad Max Trilogy (and possibly even Fury Road), and I’m glad the series has a kind of pick-and-choose mentality, like we’re able to co-create the post-apocalyptic world to a certain degree.
Apart from straight continuity, you can think of The Mad Max Trilogy as a kind of loose continuity, with the same character wandering off and going on different adventures, and bits and pieces not always fitting together neatly. The best example of this is probably the Zatoichi films, a series of 26 movies that star Shintaro Katsu as the title character. In each film, the blind samurai known as Zatoichi tries to escape his ruthless past but is then confronted with its repercussions. Instead of a sawed-off shotgun, he’s got a sword concealed in his walking stick. There are slippages in continuity in the Zatoichi films when viewed sequentially. In one movie, Zatoichi’s sword is broken, but then it’s perfectly fine in the next. It’s like Max’s car showing up again in Thunderdome.
Another option is to think of Max as the same character-type/archetype in the films but not the same character throughout the series. It’s like the Zelda games in this regard: there’s a guy named Link who wears green, carries a sword, gathers certain items, and he goes on adventures. Maybe each Mad Max film is its own discrete Mad Max film, with each inhabiting a different world but with recurring elements and common motifs persisting between the worlds. You can also think of this in terms of Jack tales—Jack referring to the archetypal stock hero of stories such as “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Jack the Giant Killer,” and “Little Jack Horner.” In this case, we’d have “Max the Mad,” “Max the Road Warrior,” and “Max the Guy Who Went Beyond Thunderdome.”
To that, one could also think of The Mad Max Trilogy as a thematic trilogy that’s loosely connected, sort of like Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. The Man with No Name may or may not be the same character from film to film, but he embodies a character-type that’s already equipped with certain storytelling machinery (i.e., the gunslinger, the loner, the ronin). The archetype allows Leone to explore different kinds of stories that are thematically linked.
There’s another possibility I’ve been considering that provides an in-story explanation for the inconsistencies in continuity. In this possibility, Max is the name given to a mythic figure who helped various societies try to re-establish order in the post-apocalyptic world. Note that The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome are both presented as histories that are recounted by people in the future, each one in their newly established civilization for which Max is partly responsible. Max is a hero in the foundation myths of these new, separate societies. The tellings of a Max story differ since each society is defined by its own values and own history.
If the first Mad Max is closest to an agreed-upon canon, it would make sense why The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome offer divergent stories that don’t fit perfectly together—they’re the myths of two societies that have never interacted that share a mythic figure in common. The recurring Bruce Spence pilot may not be the same person, but maybe he serves the same mythopoeic or folkloric function in the two different societies, sort of like the tanuki in Japanese folklore, or the spider in African folk tales, or other kinds of tricksters who manifest themselves in different forms. Miller knows his Joseph Campbell, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this is one way he’s put his cinematic hero to good use.
This brings me back to Fifi’s lines in the first Mad Max: “They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well, damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes.” If this mythic read of The Mad Max Trilogy holds, we see Max abandon his own dying civilization, help build new civilizations, and become a hero to these new socities. Max has succeeded in giving people back their heroes, and in the process has helped seed a little bit of hope for the future.
And yet the hero at the end of each of the Mad Max sequels cannot go back to society. It’s something he’s known, he’s loved, but that he cannot recapture. Instead, he gives the new world to others. It’s like my favorite line from the book The Return of the King, which Frodo says at The Grey Havens:
I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you.
It makes me wonder how many other times Max has given up the world so that others could rebuild it and enjoy it, and how many other Max tales there are, and how they differ, as if the new civilization has played a game of mythopoeic telephone with the legend of the Raggedy Man.
One reason I think “One of the Living” is better than “We Don’t Need Another Hero” are the lines “You’ve got ten more thousand miles to go” and “You’ve got ten more thousand years to go.” In other words, a hero’s work is never done.