The Road Warrior

Lawrence Russell

The Road Warrior (1981) dir. George Miller writ. Hayes, Miller, Hannant cine. Dean Semler music Brian May stunts Max Aspin (coordinator), Guy Morris, Glen Boswell, Gerry Causlea, Bob Hicks, Kim Noyes star. Mel Gibson (Max), Bruce Spence (Gyro), Mike Preston (Papagelle), Max Phipps (the Toadie), Vernon Wells (Wez), Kjell Nilsson (the Humungus), Emil Minty (the Feral Kid), Virginia Hay (Warrior Woman), Zetta (William Zappa)

primitivism and the big budget

At the time, this was (apparently) the most expensive movie ever filmed in Australia. Well, it costs a lot of money to put up big ugly buildings too, so brutalism doesn't come cheap. The circus is the narrative ancestor of this film, not the theatre. It's essentially a montage of stunts played by clowns in a hackneyed dystopian fantasy of human self-destruction and idealist resurrection.

An opening montage of newsreel footage in the old frame ratio tells us that a gasoline crisis led to war and famine, and the collapse of civilization. A narrator tells us about the road wars and champion who will save the few honest souls remaining.

The saviour? Max, a white trash roadster who drives "the last of the V-8 Interceptors" on a desert highway between Hell and Paradise, where the violence of movement is more important than the destination. He's a loner, but unlike the pack of scavengers led by the Humungus, he has the sensitivity to run with a dog rather than a ponce.

The culture in this movie mirrors the punk movement of the late seventies, early eighties. The bad guys wear leather chaps with no pants like some sort of gay bondage club or Roman army cult. Black leather, studded collars and wrist bands, Mohawk cuts or police helmets confirm their allegiance to the nasty and the ammoral. The unit is closed, homeostatic, its symmetry a holistic symbol of death. The "son" of the Humungus rides a Japanese racing bike with his boy-toy lover perched on the pillion, 1000 ccs of sex and violence. The Humungus drives a silver six wheeler, a mutant racing car modified for all-terrain driving and victim humiliation. He packs a 44 Magnum and a cylinder of high octane booster fuel... and hides his face behind a steel mask while leaving his arms and legs and stomach bare, maximizing his bondage appeal while confirming his body narcissism.

His army of lunatics drive assorted dune buggies, motor cycles, modified tow-trucks and large engine block American sedans in a peculiar contradiction to the world they operate in. None of the vehicles make much sense in a society starved for gas, and where the sole object of existence is to obtain gas. The cycles are road racers, the cars low rider American coupes and sedans. Some vehicles like the dune buggies and the modified stock cars make sense, but for the most part the vehicles are as vain and impractical as are the urban costumes of these violent clowns.

The good guys -- well, they're just a pack of hippies, aren't they?

It's an amusing film, though, with amazing stunts -- confirming that stuntmen, not actors, are the real cast. The narrative is built around four major chase and crash scenes: the opening, where Max is pursued by Humungus Junior and a few of the boys; the middle, where Max is pursued by the same crowd when he delivers the rig truck to the hippies at the gas oasis; the failed escape by Max when he's forced off the road, his dog executed, himself lucky to survive; the thirteen minute finale when Max leads the Humungus on a wild goose chase with the tanker as the good guys escape the oasis and head North on their two thousand mile trek to Paradise.

It's all neo-primitivism, a road battle like the barbarian sea battles of ancient history. People die spectacular deaths: fried by flame throwers, crushed below wheels, shot with arrows, bullets, grape, bitten by snakes or immolated in exploding vehicles. The good, the bad, the ugly -- they all perish in this crash theatre where the only spectators are the few who survive. Max survives, of course, but disappears into myth.

The script is crude, the acting likewise. The setting is magnificent -- the Australian desert in the Broken Hill region. It's a landscape where the horizon is mythical, rocks breaking the skyline like ancient pyramids, the red dust plains like Mars. It's spectacle, not story; sensation, not thought; attitude, not character.

Hostages get crucified, a woman gets raped, a "feral" kid chops a few fingers off a deserving idiot with his steel boomerang, a dog gets executed, a Dodge DeSoto gets torched... bodies here, bodies there, but it's all in the long view, rendered vague and harmless by the telephoto lens and the rapid cutaway. No lingering agonies, just obliterations and speed. The montage drive is into pure cinema, the imagery sado-sexual, the product voyeurism.

© LR '82/'99


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