“The Road Warrior” (1981)
dir. George Miller
Miller’s original Mad Max, a combination of the action and car-chase genres, can also be seen as a post-modern, revenge Western. A man who works in law enforcement sets out to avenge the death of his family by criminals, forsaking the law – what little remains of it – for his own brand of justice. Not only does the film fit the plot and thematic construct of the Western but the aesthetics as well; the sprawling Australian outback is a dead ringer for the American Old West .
In his follow up, The Road Warrior, Miller gives us another Western set in a post-apocalyptic future. Unlike the original, which featured a crumbling but recognizable society, Warrior offers an almost alien landscape of uninhabitable terrain, seemingly devoid of life and resources- how the first Europeans to set foot in Australia most likely saw it. In addition to the setting, the plot is a staple of the Western genre: Max, the consumet loner, assists a small settlement against a band of ruthless outlaws. Though Max is not civilized enough to join the community nor is he savage enough to take up with the outlaws. He can appreciate the need for law, even if he cannot live by it. Let’s not forget he once wore a badge.
Apart from influencing post-apocalyptic films for years to come (12 Monkeys, Waterworld), The Road Warrior also employed familiar Western iconography. Several of the bad guys use modified crossbows and arrows and the arch-villain carries a large revolver. Max’s main weapon is the double-barrel shotgun and he drives the stagecoach equivalent in the form of a giant oil-tanker, as the vicious savages give chase in the climax of the film. The stagecoach assault is a much-used set piece of the genre. It is so iconic, that audiences who have seen few Westerns can identify it. As such it has been the target of ridicule, satire, homage and parody over the years. One such example can be found in another Mel Gibson vehicle, Maverick, a comic Western, which gives its own tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the set piece.
The savage outlaws – a sadistic group who have adapted to the unforgiving wasteland by becoming as cruel and hostile – are an amalgamation of “the savage indian” and “the outlaw” of the classic Western. They represent the other; a continuos threat to civilization. Their outfits, made up of animal parts or practical objects like the Humungus’ hockey mask, are meant to intimidate by enhancing their appearance, inflating their physique into grotesque proportions. They appear to be inhuman, though we are given glimpses of their humanity – vestiges of their pre-apocalyptic lives perhaps?
Many Westerns traditionally used different wardrobe to identify the good and the bad. The good, white, the bad, black. In films where a good character turns bad, we would see their outfits change to represent the transition. Thus, in Warrior the outfits worn by the characters serves a similar purpose; those who live in the walled community wear white (and some lighter colours) and the savages wear black and are adorned with horns and other similar accessories. The most interesting costume is Max’s, of course, which is black but does not deform his physique. It suggests danger but not immorality. His costume is akin to Fonda’s in My Darling Clementine; a sleek, black outfit that sets him apart from both the villains and the townsfolk. A man between law and disorder.
These townspeople, as far as the universe of the film is concerned, are a bad of puritans from before. A group that have no place in the new world; they despise their surroundings and see the savages, who have adapted in the wilderness, as “evil.” But they are unable to bring civilization to the wilderness; they cannot hope to tame that which they do not understand; hence the need for someone who walks between worlds. Who is capable of understanding their plight but match wits against their oppressors: enter Max. A more cynical, less romantic incarnation of Gary Cooper’s Hooker in Garden of Evil, who, like Max, is introduced to us as an enigmatic loner seeking his fortune but decides to help out, first for the sake of his own well-being but ultimately out of principal.
It should also be pointed out that the main reason we sympathize with Max is because he agrees to assist the community – selfish motives aside. Were he to have remained uninvolved in the matter, watching the siege from afar, waiting for the opportunity to scavenge the remains, we would not be the least bit pleased with him. This is not so unlikely a scenario as he does exhibit anti-social behavior and vested self-interest; he is only a few steps away from turning “savage” after all. These are traits that has allowed him to survive and make possible his escape from certain death at the end.
True to form, Max, like the protagonist in many Westerns, ends up more or less in the same situation we found him in. Think of Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Tom Logan in The Missouri Breaks. His financial or material situation has remained largely unchanged – not that these things have any value to him – not has he gained salvation. But he hasn’t been damned either. He remains in a state of uncertainty; a purgatory of sorts.