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,Mad Max

Mad Max

"Mad Max [1979] is a movie made by and for film buffs," John McCarty wrote in 1997 for The Films of Mel Gibson. Certainly true, the groundbreaking Australian biker flick-cum-apocalypse fable was influenced by the American westerns writer-director George Miller had seen as a child (High Noon (1952) comes immediately to mind, as do the Italo-westerns of Sergio Leone), along with such cult classics as The Wild One (1953) and A Boy and His Dog (1975). Sandy Harbutt's Sydney-set Stone (1974) was an earlier Aussie genre hybrid that welded the motorcycle film to murder mystery and the cop-infiltrates-gang thrillers (Mad Max actors Roger Ward, Hugh Keays-Byrne and Vincent Gil even appear as bikers sporting the comic book monikers "Hooks," "Dr. Death" and "Toad") while Peter Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris (US: The Cars That Eat People, 1974) was the gnarly tale of an Outback hamlet whose twisted natives cause road accidents in order to profit from the plunder. The genius of Mad Max is its refusal to shiver in the shade of its influences. Asserting itself like an alpha (and likely rabid) dog and rocketing forward like "a fuel-injected suicide machine" (to quote one of its more out-there characters), Mad Max rarely drops out of high gear, becoming (as the critic for Variety put it) "the most audience-involving film since Halloween [1978]." Alongside director Miller, producer Byron Kennedy and star Mel Gibson, credit must also go to editors Cliff Hayes and Tony Paterson, whose cutting is (as scholar Ross Gibson claims in South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia), "better tuned than any pursuit vehicle."

After a couple of short subjects funded by state grants, Miller (a former physician) and producing partner Byron Kennedy spent three years trying to secure financing for their feature film debut. Written with economist James McCausland, Mad Max reflected global fears born of the 1973 OPEC crisis and the statistic that the last of the world's great oil fields had been discovered in the mid-1960s. With gasoline in short supply and automobiles running on fumes in anaconda-like petrol queues, the future looked bleak. Mad Max was also Miller and Kennedy's response to the distinctly Australian cult of the car, a national death wish they considered as hard-wired to the culture as the cult of the gun was to America's. For research, Miller put time in at a Melbourne emergency room treating car crash victims. The senseless violence and concomitant mutilation was a key component of the Mad Max mythos of a dystopian near-future in which highways are a battleground fought over by feral bandits and the robotic super-cops charged with running them to ground. The hyperkinetic and excessively violent Mad Max was met with unalloyed scorn from The Australian Film Commission, who concluded that it had "the moral uplift of Mein Kampf."

The film's eventual $380,000 nut was cobbled together by Miller's earnings as a medic, by investments secured by Kennedy from Melbourne car tuners and repair shop owners and by funding from Warner Brothers International (for the foreign rights) and distributors Village Roadshow. With shooting set to commence in the fall of 1977, Miller and Kennedy wanted unknown performers to flesh out their cast. Acting students sent from Sydney's prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art included Judy Davis, Steve Bisley and Bisley's New York-born pal Mel Gibson. Less serious than his classmates and unsure of what acting held for him, the 21-year-old Gibson had only recently cut his hippie hair and beard to find himself the recipient of leading man roles at school (including Romeo to Davis' Juliet) and a two-week bit on The Sullivans, an Aussie soap opera that offered early paychecks also to actor Sam Neill and pop star Kylie Minogue.

While Davis was rejected as "too strong" (she'd go on to international acclaim two years later as the star of Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career, 1979), Bisley and Gibson were hired on the spot. The pair had appeared previously as surfers in the low budget beach picture, Summer City (1977). While Gibson had played second fiddle to the more obstreperous Bisley in Summer City, for Mad Max the roles were reversed - Gibson got the title role and Bisley was cast as the hero's best friend. (Gibson was actually Miller's second choice for Max Rockatansky, after actor/abattoir worker David Healey turned down the role in a Lugosian fit of pique over the paucity of dialogue.) In later years, Gibson would spin an elaborate myth of how wounds sustained in a pub brawl had won him the lead role - a tall tale discounted by everyone else present for the audition, who nonetheless remain in agreement that Gibson's screen test revealed a superstar in the making.

A pivotal moment in Mad Max comes when Gibson's stoic but not-yet-mad Max reacts to the revenge-fueled beyond-recognition burning of his partner by turning in his bronze to go native with wife Jessie (soap star Joanne Samuel) and infant son Sprog (Brendan Heath). Gibson's real life father had similarly turned his back on the world when the actor was a child. A devout Catholic, Hutton Gibson grew aghast at the galloping permissiveness of American society post-Vatican II and used an injury settlement from the New York Central Railroad to finance the family's repatriation to Australia in 1968. Because Gibson's NIDA tutors refused to release him for filming prior to his October 1977 graduation, Miller and Kennedy pushed production back a month. The day Gibson received his diploma he was on a plane to Melbourne, where cast and crew were billeted dormitory-style, sleeping on camp stretchers that no doubt added to the post-apocalyptic ennui. Shooting was beset by various calamities, not the least of which was a preproduction accident that injured stunt coordinator Grant Page and shattered the legs of original leading lady Rosie Bailey (necessitating her replacement with Samuel). In another incident, Gibson and Bisley were pulled over by a highway patrolman while driving to the location in their prop V-8 Interceptor and wearing their futurecop fetish gear. Illustrating the filmmakers' combination of bravado and recklessness, a Navy booster rocket was used to goose up one car stunt. When fired, the rocket sent the stunt car hurtling at 150 mph straight for DP David Eggby's camera, where it spun 180 degrees and went 400 meters off its intended mark. It was only in the rushes that the stunt proved to have photographed perfectly.

Long story short, the low budget, high octane Mad Max wound up being nominated for ten Australian Film awards (of which it won six), made an impressive show at the Cannes Film Festival and changed the shape of a national cinema known for earnest period pieces such as Donald Crombie's Caddie (1976), Bruce Beresford's The Getting of Wisdom (1978) and Phillip Noyce's Newsfront (1978). Mad Max went on to be an international hit (except in the United States, where distributor American International Pictures revoiced all of its actors with Americans), earning over $100 million worldwide. When George Miller and Byron Kennedy were persuaded to go ahead with a sequel, a $4 million production budget was raised with just two phone calls. Mel Gibson was lured back for Mad Max 2 (US: The Road Warrior, 1981), to even greater international success. By the time of the $8 million Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), the third and to date final installment of the series, producer Byron Kennedy was dead in a tragic helicopter crash at Warrangamba Falls. George Miller was left on his own to tease from Gibson a detached performance at best and the actor was not shy about bashing the production during lulls in shooting for the benefit of journalists eager to print his beer-soaked gripes.

Producer: Bryon Kennedy, Bill Miller
Director: George Miller
Screenplay: James McCausland, George Miller, based on a story Byron Kennedy & George Miller
Cinematography: David Eggby
Art Direction: Jon Dowding
Music: Brian May
Film Editing: Cliff Hayes, Tony Paterson
Costume Design: Clare Griffin
Cast: Mel Gibson (Max Rockatansky), Joanne Samuel (Jessie Rockatansky), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter), Steve Bisley (Jim Goose), Tim Burns (Johnny the Boy), Roger Ward (Fifi Macaffee), Lisa Aldenhoven (Nurse), David Bracks (Mudguts), Bertrand Cadart (Clunk).
C-93m. Letterboxed

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Mad Mad: Film Phenomenon, Mad Max DVD
The New Australian Cinema, edited by Scott Murray
Mel Gibson: Man on a Mission by Wensley Clarkson
The Films of Mel Gibson by John McCarty
Lethal Hero: The Mel Gibson Biography by Roland Perry
South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia by Ross Gibson
"Scientists warnings unheeded" by James McCausland, The Courier Mail December 5, 2006
Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia
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