Saturday 5 March 2022

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

Editor's note: This is the (short) fourth part  of a  series by John Baxter devoted to the production of Mad Max and the work of the film's co-creator George Miller. The first part can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE the second,  THE MAN FROM CHINCHILLA IF YOU CLICK HERE and the third THE BIRTH OF MAX IF YOU CLICK HERE


Hugh Keays-Byrne, Mad Max


Australia was ready for a story that traded on its innate tribalism. The first European settlers, perceiving the landscape as an empty waste, had retreated into territoriality, fencing their land and importing sheep and wheat, which drove out the plants and animals that had fed and clothed the aboriginal people for millennia. Socially, they clung together, defending racial purity, revering a Britain where many would never again set foot. ‘We’re a far more collective people than we like to imagine,’ says poet Les Murray. ‘Australians aren’t really individuals in a lot of ways. We’re more of a tribe.” 

Some performers in the first Mad Max had sensed a tribal subtext already. Assembling his biker bandits for the first film, Hugh Keays-Byrne recruited them like a real gang, then led them on a tour d’honneur through Melbourne – an archetypally tribal act. But Miller, like Lucas, had worked his way to the structure by instinct, not study,  ‘To tell the truth,’ he admitted later,  ‘I never really knew what Mad Max was about, at its core, until after it was finished.’ 

Though the Australian government was now spending money on script development, and screenwriters were popping up like mushrooms after rain, Miller snubbed them, preferring to work with another journalist, Terry Hayes, a specialist in tabloid sensation. With him, Kennedy and Miller wrote a 34-page outline. Dated 10 December, 1980, it contains almost everything that was to appear not only in Mad Max II: The Road Warrior but in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, third film of the trilogy.


The theories of Propp and Campbell encouraged Miller to deepen Max’s mystery and despair. Gibson would play him as a limping recluse in black leathers, a metal brace on his leg, who doles out words as if they are his life blood. Shots that pose him against vivid outback sunsets or show him carried, dazed and wounded, by helicopter while the desert unrolls beneath him, suggest epic, even Christ-like suffering.  

Mad Max (Mel Gibson) and canine friend

The film also attached to him many of the characteristics assigned by Campbell to the shaman. Such men were often maimed, because disability encouraged the development of non-physical skills. They also abjured family to concentrate on the greater good of the tribe, undistracted by sex or sentiment. Their only companion was typically an animal, which encouraged the cliche of the witch or wizard’s ‘familiar’, supposedly their conduit to diabolical forces. (In the original screenplay, Max’s dog was also maimed: called Trike, it had only three legs. Miller decided against this when a couple of dog handlers, hearing he wanted a three-legged animal, eyed their pack and asked casually, ‘How soon do you need it?’)

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