Monday 17 January 2022

White Line Nightmare: The End of the World and MAD MAX II:THE ROAD WARRIOR (Part One) - John Baxter remembers the birth of Australia's most iconic film creation


Mel Gibson, Mad Max II: The Road Warrior

In August 1985 the 43rd World Science Fiction Convention took place in Melbourne. The organisers asked me to give a talk about some aspect of the literature that had nurtured me through an Australian adolescence. Since I happened to be working on a film with Brian Hannant, one of the writers of Mad Max II: The Road Warrior, I chose that film and its place in the history of science fiction cinema. Brian gave me access to drafts of the original screenplay, and I spoke to some of the people involved in making the film. 

            Convention attendees, seduced by such rival attractions as a fancy dress competition with near-nude competitors of at least half a dozen races (and sexes), were not enthralled, and I’d forgotten the talk until the text turned up in a recent random search. With the franchise showing no sign of flagging, and Miller planning yet another Max adventure – to be shot, perhaps, on Mars? – I felt the essay, for all its lacunae, might be worth an airing.  Notes in square brackets indicate recent second thoughts. (JB)




When Worlds Collide

To anyone growing up with the cinema of the nineteen-fifties, the end of the world was a weekly occurrence. With the Cold War being fought on the pages of every newspaper and nuclear annihilation apparently just over the horizon, few subjects attracted so much fascinated attention from the public. 

Not slow to recognise this interest, Hollywood, and in particular its more low-rent inhabitants, exploited it with all the meagre resources at their command. Some films, like Byron Haskin’s War of the Worlds  or Rudolph Maté’s When Worlds Collide, saw the threat as coming from alien invaders, either animate or inanimate. Significantly, however, both adapted works from forty or fifty years earlier. The freshest visions of our destruction came not from literature but the headlines.  

The end-of-the-world movie quickly assumed an almost ritual form, its elements dictated mostly, but not exclusively, by the cheapness of production. It generally dealt with a small group of people, isolated in a remote location after the death of almost everyone else. A desert was preferred, but an abandoned city would also serve. Of these few survivors, at least one was an attractive women, after whom one or more of the other survivors lusted. Plots hinged on whether those left should live by looting or make a stab at maintaining some kind of society. Many such films ended with the two most attractive people in the film heading off into an optimistic sunrise.

PR Image: Five

Among the most interesting of these films was Five (1951)directed by Arch Oboler, the only New York radio producer to offer any real competition to Orson Welles during his pre-movie days. Oboler put his five survivors in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house on the edge of the desert, which at least provided a striking background to the conventional struggle to survive. Ranald MacDougall’s The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959) placed an improbable trio of survivors, Harry Belafonte, Mel Ferrer and Inger Stevens, in a deserted New York, and having them abandon old social, racial and sexual rules in the interests of survival. After a strikingly-shot sequence where the two men, fighting over Stevens, hunt one another among the skyscrapers, the three agree to live in amiable multi-racial group marriage – a sensational conclusion for 1959 but one which, because this was a low-budget movie, passed almost without comment.

"...scavengers roaming the desert or skirmishing among derelict
Harry Belafonte,
The World, the Flesh and the Devil

The year after MacDougall’s film, Stanley Kramer, the biggest kid on the block in those days when it came to social comment, weighed in with what is still the most memorable of all post-holocaust films, On the Beach, based on a book by Australian writer Nevil Shute about the last handful of survivors of nuclear war waiting for the fallout that will kill them all. Kramer chose to shoot it where Shute set his book, in Melbourne.. One of its stars, Ava Gardner, was supposed to have sneered, ‘You couldn’t imagine a better location for the end of the world,’ and while Melbourne film journalist Neil Jillett subsequently confessed he’d invented the gibe, it expressed the international cinema’s general view of Australia; that, in George Lucas’s description of Luke Skywalker’s home world of Tatooine in Star Wars IV , ‘If there is a bright centre to the universe, you’re on the planet that is farthest from it.’ 

Fred Astaire (r), explains to Anthony Perkins (l)
and Gregory Peck (c), where it all went wrong,
On the Beach

A century of domination by Britain and the United States had thoroughly cowed Australia’s film-makers, who subsisted on TV commercials and documentaries. The only hope of getting an Australian feature on foreign screens lay in imitation. If one could write a Hollywood-style script and attract an international star, the result might be sneaked into the US market. But that happened so seldom that the few successes had passed into mythology. Moreover, if any Australian, such as actress Anne Richards, actor Peter Finch or director John Farrow, showed talent, Hollywood quickly bought them up and hustled  them out to California. 

But the bacillus of film is a hardy organism, and even in the hostile environment of Australia, it continued to live, if not flourish. Fifteen years after On the Beach, the Australian government made some tentative steps towards investing in local production. During that time,  End of the World movies continued to thrive, though not to develop. The Planet of the Apes series, The Last Warrior, I Am Legend and Damnation Alley followed the model of Five and The World, the Flesh and the Devil, still showing survivors of global cataclysm as scavengers roaming the desert or skirmishing among derelict skyscrapers. 

All that would change, however, after 1979, and because of a film made in Australia. Though urban settings didn’t disappear,  after that film, Mad Max II:The Road Warrior, most post-holocaust films showed mankind abandoning cities altogether, reverting to tribal origins, dressing in leather and feathers, affecting tattoos and masks, and roaming a desert landscape which, far from being empty and hostile, teemed with bizarre characters, most of them bearing eccentric weaponry and travelling in retro-fitted cars and bikes (above).



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