I first viewed The Road Warrior on a double bill with Superman III at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fourteen years-old at the time and saw the movie(s) with my father.
Alas, my showing of The Road Warrior was interrupted three times by police incursions into the auditorium (the Castle was that kind of theater in the eighties...) but somehow the danger in the theater only added to the aura of danger, anxiety and uncertainty generated by George Miller's landmark, startling post-apocalyptic film.
At that young age, I had rarely experienced an action film as intense or cut-throat as The Road Warrior, but now that I've screened the film a dozen times over the years, I recognize that it wasn't merely the experience of seeing it at the Castle during a drug bust or three; it's the film itself, which remains of the ten great action films of the last forty years.
More than that -- and discounting Planet of the Apes -- it's one of the cinema's most effective and brilliantly-shot post-apocalyptic efforts.
The Road Warrior, released in America on May 21, 1982, opens with an evocative and tightly-edited black-and-white montage. A voice-over narration accompanies the fleeting but memorable documentary images (stock footage), which depict our twentieth-century "oil culture" as two "mighty warrior tribes" go to war to control the dwindling resource.
The montage reveals vast war machines at sea and on land, and then endless, stagnating debate among world leaders on how to control the limited reserves. After this debate, the montage reveals, the thundering war machines of technological man "sputtered and stopped."
Furthermore, world civilization itself "crumbled." Cities exploded in a whirlwind of looting, and man "began to feed on man." Nomadic gangs took over the highways, dominating them and making the roads treacherous, murderous passages. It is here, via stock footage of 1979's Mad Max that we are introduced to the personal story of Max [Mel Gibson], an ex-policeman who lost everything; only to wander the wasteland as a "burned-out" desolate sentinel.
In terms of narrative, the voice-over device and stock-footage montage in unison frame this tale as though it occurred in the distant, murky past.
In part this is because of the grainy stock footage, which looks to be drawn from the early part of the twentieth century, but the sense of an "old story" also arises from the voice of the narrator, which suggests wisdom and age, among other qualities.
The war is history to the adult "teller" of the tale; and our civilization itself is pre-history. This remote time frame thus lands the post-apocalyptic "future" of Mad Max into the realm of origin myth, or heroic legend. The teller could be speaking of Achilles and the Trojan War, or perhaps more aptly, the Old West in his discussion of the manner in which a new civilization was founded from the ashes of the old.
The Old West metaphor also works to the film's advantage because in -- some very critical ways -- The Road Warrior is not unlike a Spaghetti Western of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Witness these facts: it is filmed in a location that could be the American West (here, the Australian Outback); the camera work is highly fluid (like the work of Sergio Leone); and the production is distinctly, but not alarmingly, low-budget.
Similarly, much like many Italian Westerns, the film also actively sets about to deconstruct or de-mythologize its world, focusing on such horrible human behaviors as rape and murder. To put it politely, The Road Warrior is not a romantic vision of human nature.
Even the treatment of a child -- the Feral Child -- is realistic rather than romanticized.
After the opening exposition, which plays like the visual equivalent of a dusty history book, Miller's kinetic camera swoops down (apparently from a helicopter) at near-warp speed towards an endless highway.
The asphalt flies by the camera and immediately the audience feels a sense of momentum and acceleration. Suddenly we're enmeshed in colorful, full-speed chase, as loner Max is pursued by the motorcycle-riding thugs of a warlord called Humongous (also known as "the ayatollah of rock-and-rollah...").
From this first moment, the film never lets up, never stops, never really slows down. It is a race from start to finish, a maelstrom of flipping, careening vehicles, high-speed pursuits and bloody confrontations.
The cinema has provided us all manner of "end of the world" scenarios before, from nuclear war (Planet of the Apes) to germ-created vampires (Last Man on Earth), to melting ice caps even (Waterworld), but The Road Warrior today seems to offer the most plausible (or at least relevant) scenario as it explicitly concerns a war over limited resources, in this case oil.
In 1982, America had not yet fought two wars for oil in the Middle East, and so didn't seem quite so prophetic.
But now? It's seems so indeed.
Before long, Max is dealing not only with these inhabitants of the refinery (who feel they have a rightful claim to the oil), but with the occupying, invading army of Humongous. The Warlord, who admonishes the peaceful refinery people to "just walk away," requires the oil to keep his mechanical war machine running. Without it, one realizes, even his loose society of scavengers and marauders would likely fall into total anarchy.
The story of fallen mankind fighting over the scraps of civilization (like "angry ants," as one character notes), is buoyed by Miller's directorial sense of invention and also his understanding of framing and mise-en-scene.
For instance, in the scene in which Max is confronted by an auto-gyro pilot (Bruce Spence), notice how Gibson is almost always positioned in the center of the frame, He deals with snakes and an armed assailant...yet those threats still "orbit" Max, not vice versa. This is important because the framing makes us believe in Max as immovable object -- a tower of strength -- early in the film (witness his handling of the snake...), a notion which is undercut significantly later in The Road Warrior when he is bruised and beaten after one encounter with the scavengers.
The idea, I suppose, is to open with Max as figure of strength, and then -- as the events of the film overcome him -- figuratively cut off his legs, so that the audience grows more involved with his survival. He starts out as a loner, but by the end of the film, Max needs the others to survive. This is an important element of his growth; of his redemption and return to the human race. The journey is completed in the final film, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
The stakes are high in Max's world, and George Miller doesn't shy away from revealing how bad things are there. There is a scene, for instance, in which Max sits on the rim of a mountain eating dog food, and acts as though it is the best thing he's ever tasted.
Miller also dramatizes a failed escape attempt with horrific results. A man and a woman flee the refinery and are set on by the marauders. The moment, seen through the lens of a telescope, culminates in a double murder. The auto gyro pilot watches this event lasciviously at first, because the female escapee is stripped (we see her breasts...), but his desire turns to horror as she is brutally raped and murdered. '
This is what mankind has come to, and it's only hope is Max, a man whom the screenplay describes as "a parasite." Max is no hero; the people of the refinery are no saints (they resort to duplicity with Max, for one thing...);but both Max and the town people are better than the utter immorality and monstrosity represented by Humongous and his gang. Here -- as in many cases -- it is a choice between the lesser of two evils.
So much of The Road Warrior is unromantic and blunt. Consider, for instance, the beautiful, Amazonian warrior (Virginia Hey). She protects the refinery and is portrayed as heroic and courageous. In most Westerns or genre films, a romance might blossom between this gorgeous, strong character and Max.
Not so here.
Instead, she is brutally murdered in the film's final chase scene. She is shot and left to dangle off a truck turret. The message: this is a world that makes no distinction between male and female; between movie "hero" and movie "fodder."
Likewise Humongous's version of Baghdad Bob loses his fingers to a boomerang in one scene, and Miller indelicately cuts to an insert shot of those fingertips flying through the air. Even more tellingly, it was the Feral Kid -- a warrior, himself -- who throws that boomerang. A child! And how do Baghdad Bob's "friends" and associates react when he loses his fingers? They cheer and guffaw.
In this world, pain is a source of laughter; even if the person hurting is on your side. The message is again that society is gone, and that we -- as viewers -- can't expect decorum from this film if we simultaneously expect it to be "true" to what such a world would look and feel like.
The murder of a dog (or dingo) is depicted slightly less bluntly, but there are other harrowing moments here, when arrows are yanked out of human skin on screen, for instance. And examine Max's demeanor too. In the film, he demonstrates no compassion or human consideration for anyone, including the pilot, until he himself requires help and rescue. All of this focus on human ugliness makes The Road Warrior a nihilistic action film, but one of remarkable imagery and power. With civilization goes decorum; with decorum goes decency; with decency goes humanity.
The central portion of The Road Warrior involves Humongous's Alamo-like siege on the refinery (and there is a brilliantly-staged, almost De Palma-esque tracking shot featured here as Miller's camera pursues a rabbit hopping madly through the compound as an attack gathers nearby...), yet it is the final third of the film that leaves one breathless and walloped.
The last act of The Road Warrior is an eighty-mile-an-hour chase scene, a non-stop demolition derby involving a weaving tanker truck, buzzing cars, roaring motorcycles and the swooping auto-gyro. Characters leap from speeding vehicle to speeding vehicle; characters swing chains, fire arrows, and drive for their lives.
It's a go-for-the-gusto finale that tops everything else in the picture, and to this day still tops most action movie denouements. I should add, it was all executed on a low budget, with real vehicles (no CGI!) and absolutely rousing stunt work. Coupled with Brian May's pulse-pounding soundtrack, the action climax of The Road Warrior is a burst of sustained adrenaline, injected right into the heart.
A superb and clever addition to the post-apocalyptic film pantheon, The Road Warrior is artistically crafted, and the film pauses its relentless drive to the climax only long enough to offer a little homage. In a scene involving a music box and a corpse falling out of a truck cab, Miller's film momentarily pays tribute to a quieter moment in Romero's Night of the Living Dead.
It does so, I submit, because Miller recognizes Night as a spiritual antecedent. Both films are distinctively unromantic portraits of humanity; both films are about a change (or degradation...) in the social order, and both films are blunt in their portrayals of violence.
The only significant difference is that Night of the Living Dead is so bleak that it kills Ben (the film's hero), whereas the device of the montage/voice-over leaves room in The Road Warrior for the possibility that mankind -- in a better iteration, hopefully -- will go on to thrive in a new world; one where the violence we see here is but a misty memory; just like that warrior of the wasteland, Max.
The third film completes Max's journey of redemption, but even there, he is not quite ready to return to the human race, to civilization.