The Hero’s Journey in “Mad Max”

The Mad Max series was the brainchild of George Miller, an Australian who originally got his start as an emergency room doctor in Sydney, a job that saw him treating victims of all sorts of auto-related traumas. In 1971, while taking a summer film class, he met budding filmmaker Byron Kennedy and together, they produced the award-winning short “Violence in the Cinema, Part 1.” A few years later, they, along with first-time screenwriter James McCausland, decided to break into the local film industry, which was just beginning to make a name for itself in the international market thanks to hits like “My Brilliant Career,” with a low-budget action film. Although there were government bodies designed to invest in local film production, Miller and Kennedy felt that those groups would be disinclined to help fund an exploitation movie and set about raising the funds themselves—they even earned money for the project by going out on emergency medical calls with Kennedy driving and Miller tending to the wounded. Eventually, they managed to raise about $350,000, a slight budget under most circumstances and especially for one set in a dystopian near-future that features a number of elaborate automotive stunts as its main lure. Not only did this budget preclude the use of known actors, it meant that with only two exceptions, the leather outfits donned by virtually all the key characters were actually constructed of vinyl.

In the film, the social order of Australia, and presumably the rest of the world, is beginning to crumble due to a severe energy crisis. While civilization continues on, marauding motorcycle gangs have begun to terrorize the population and inspire the formation of the Main Police Force to patrol the roads of the outback. As the story begins, one gang leader, Nightrider, kills a cop and escapes, only to be pursued by ace MFP officer Max Rockatansky in a chase that leads to his death. In response, Nightrider’s gang, the Acolytes, now led by the equally vicious Toecutter, ramp up their orgy of destruction and even waylay a young couple and rape the woman. (While most films of this type might have lingered on the lurid details of the attack, Miller focuses more on the woman afterwards—in a movie filled with physical carnage, her emotional devastation is the most terrifying moment on display.)

Even though one of the gang members was too stoned to leave the scene before the arrival of Max and partner Goose on the scene, the punks get away with their crimes because people are too terrorized to testify against them. Later, the Acolytes attack Goose, burning him alive in his wrecked car and leaving him a vegetable, a move that causes the disillusioned Max to leave the force to retire to the country with his wife and infant son. Inevitably, the acolytes return and when they rob Max of the things that are most precious to him, he finally snaps and, with the help of a 1973 Ford XB Falcon with a souped-up V-8 engine that is the fastest thing on the road, he goes off in pursuit of the Acolytes and decimates them in a series of high-octane confrontations leading to an especially nasty denouement.

On paper, “Mad Max” may not sound like much more than an automotive riff with yet another normal man who is pushed too far and who goes gunning in violent fashion for those who have destroyed his life. However, what might have seemed to be utterly ordinary on the page proved to be utterly extraordinary when brought to life through Miller’s eye. At the time of its making, films featuring elaborate car chases and crashes were nothing new but Miller approached them in such a unique manner, utilizing cameras mounted on fenders, rapid-fire editing and a stunt crew that was apparently willing to do anything in order to get a great shot (at one point, we even see a guy get hit in the head with a motorcycle) that it was as if he was presenting such things for the first time. Even the most jaded action buffs could not believe what they were seeing—this was that rare bird of an exploitation film that not only lived up to the promises of its trailer, it exceeded them—and they were equally impressed by the intensely charismatic unknown actor at its center, newcomer Mel Gibson (who, the story goes, only went to the audition to support a friend, Steve Bisley (who was cast as Goose), and was showing the results of a drunken brawl he had gotten into the night before).