Monday, November 17, 2008

The Road Warrior (1981)


George Miller, in his collaborative screenwriting efforts and virtuoso directorial performance, etched a piece of popular entertainment as combustible and cyclonic in its action as it is resonant and catholic in its moral foundation. The Road Warrior is a sequel to the 1979 Mad Max, about a man charged with serving and protecting innocents, turned vigilante, in post-Apocalyptic Australia, and loses his wife and child to the marauding, road-trekking barbarians who plague whatever is left of civilization. The original film is endearing as a “cult movie,” but its aspirations are limited, restrained by a tiny budget that renders much of it primitive in comparison to the orchestral roar of action of this picture—represented in purely cinematic terms such as movement, image, sound, all invaluably linked to one another through breathtaking choreography and geographical mastery. Miller's mise-en-scene is dazzling in its complexity, but what makes The Road Warrior most successful as a piece of pure cinema is its methodical and meticulous mythologizing of the hero.

The Road Warrior is firstly a tale about myth, like all stories, but most especially ones set in the past or future. Playing out in a barren, dystopic post-nuclear world where people have been reduced to hoarding their gasoline—the lifeblood of the modern, developed world, made literally the life-source of those who survived the abominable extinguishing of the planet in its beautiful form. The myth-making is apparent immediately, as a sage narrator explains the background to the generation he is presumably entrusting to follow him. Like all older, wiser men telling pertinent tales of the foolishness of man, he doubtless hopes that the generation that succeeds him will not repeat the recurring mistakes of man.

“My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories. I remember a
time of chaos. Ruined dreams. This wasted land. But most of all, I remember The
Road Warrior. The man we called 'Max.' To understand who he was, you have to go
back to another time. When the world was powered by the black fuel. And the
desert sprouted great cities of pipe and steel. Gone now, swept away. For
reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a
blaze which engulfed them all. Without fuel, they were nothing. They built a
house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped. Their leaders
talked and talked and talked. But nothing could stem the avalanche. Their world
crumbled. The cities exploded. A whirlwind of looting, a firestorm of fear. Men
began to feed on men. On the roads it was a white line nightmare. Only those
mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive. The gangs
took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice. And in this
maelstrom of decay, ordinary men were battered and smashed. Men like Max. The
warrior Max. In the roar of an engine, he lost everything. And became a shell of
a man, a burnt out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man
who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place,
that he learned to live again...”

The screenplay, written by Miller, Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant, gives the hero-myth that animates so many, from the man wanting to take his mind off his troubles for ninety minutes to the late Joseph Campbell, an appropriately gauzy starting point. Seeing the original 1979 movie is unnecessary firstly because this picture asserts itself with such an involving and propulsive beginning by itself, so as to leave the first chapter in the saga otiose in comparison and secondly because the above narration is visually reinforced by imagery from the first picture, most importantly the slaying of Max's wife and child “...[i]n the roar of an engine...” The film, having solemnly promised to be nothing less than a rollicking artistic avatar for the ancient tradition of proliferating the “Creative Mythology” of a people, to appropriate Campbell, bolsters its myth with the avoirdupois of human nature. Any film so self-possessed in its confidence, pursuing the strategy inherent in its raison d'etre, naturally borders on grandiloquence. Here, the narrator's words are supplied with historical weight. “For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all.” Surely in the late 1970s and early 1980s fears of nuclear annihilation—the most unthinkable possibility, nevertheless repeatedly flirted with throughout the Cold War's duration—were justified. Ironically, those fears' salience, their being so easily reduced to being incorporated in the makings of pop entertainment, whether in the '40s, '50s, '60s or thereafter, compellingly prove the case.

Miller allows the pyrotechnics obligatory in his film's world blanketed by madness to commence the moment the prologue ceases, eschewing any further build-up in favor of christening the audience in the baptismal fire of a gripping chase sequence. Max, played by Mel Gibson (who starred in the 1979 picture and would later reprise the role in the 1985 Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), is pursued by a group of rapacious bandits. Outwitting them, Max ensures that he can survive for another day. And that is what he most definitively cares about. Max has indeed been stripped of his humanity by the inhumanities from which he has suffered so greatly. Like a more cynical and coldblooded Han Solo from Star Wars (1977), Max is unwilling to enlist in causes, no matter how just; his particular steely iciness and emotional self-denial encapsulates the lengths to which he will think of himself in all situations. Or so he has forced himself to believe. In a manner befitting the soul-drained knight of this adventure, Gibson's performance reminds one of other ruffians or stoic doers of justice, convincing themselves that they were instruments of more elemental contrivances. Like John Ford's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) or Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro Kawatabake in Yojimbo (1961), Max here is a largely pensive, bottled-up protagonist. Gibson rightly plays the part with a deadpan asceticism. He is playing a part whose role is determined by the characters who surround him. It is they who make Max a hero, in many ways; it is literally and lyrically foretold. He shall be lionized. What those who encounter him bring with them is what paints the portrait of Max. That portrait's coloring fluctuates between the begrudging respect earned from comic relief sidekick “Gyro Captain” (Bruce Spence), righteous indignation by the leader of the tribe vainly trying to get Max to drive a tanker truck full of the surviving community's gasoline named Pappagello (Mike Preston) and adulation from an eight-year-old who growls, grunts and laughs in a constant state of delirium named Feral Kid (Emil Minty).

That Feral Kid attacks one of the film's more considerable forces of evil, a malevolent marauder named Wez (Vernon Wells), who hops about uncontrollably, his facial warpaint and tomahawk hairdo adducing his unrefined truculence. The Feral Kid flings a lethal metal boomerang in the direction of Wez, but the wicked warrior avoids it, leaving his ostensible male lover doomed to receive the instrument, which lands squarely in his head. The pain Wez feels is palpable. What follows is fascinating. The boomerang flies through the air again, and the event is made into a joke by the evil and destructive Lord Humungus's (Kjell Nilsson) pathetic court jester, who, in his ridiculous effort to catch the metal boomerang, loses several fingers. The roaring laughter throughout the ranks of Lord Humungus's men serves as a prudent drawing of the historic role of the court jester, and how expendable he is in the grand scheme of history.

Viewed through the prism of economics, of the issues of energy and industry, of self-sufficiency and the undeniably important role gasoline plays in the functionality and networking of modern society—afforded paradoxical weight by Max's vehicle being a super-charged car—The Road Warrior is altogether arresting. The Mad Max series, made in a post-'70s energy crisis time period, posits the shattering but familiar future reality of nuclear annihilation, cinematically pervasive from Chris Marker's La Jetee to James Cameron's The Terminator, as a testing-ground for man, his machines and the fuel without which those machines are useless. With the building blocks kicked over by irrationality, man must revert to sheer basics in all existential matters.

Dean Semler (whose latest work can be found in Appaloosa) aids Miller in providing splendid cinematography, aligning Miller's compositional genius with a vibrancy of light that is quintessential in the making of the director's expansive vision. The sun, and the gradations of the light it bestows upon the earth, is made a character itself, hovering above the action. Miller's handling of the action, however, the robust technique of his prodigious filmmaking, is what makes The Road Warrior a uniquely sensational work, its excitedly humming filmic engine capable of taking the viewer to places at almost peerless speeds. It is in the conflict between the perdurable forces of good and evil that this film finds its sparkling soul. Art, no matter how wonderful, cannot stand as the justification for history: from Homer and Euripides through Tolstoy and Hemingway, art could only meagerly attempt to reconcile and record the tragedy, depravity and horror so prevalent at different times. The future, fertile though it may be, can only cohere to such an elucidation, something many Road Warrior knock-offs such as the bloated wet '90s version, Water World, failed to understand. As the rebellious American colonist Patrick Henry noted in his speech to the Virginia convention of 1775, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.” The picture's title, The Road Warrior, describes the title of this tale's heroic figure, mythically impenetrable and distant. As the heroes celebrated, for instance, in Plutarch's Lives were endowed with awesome monikers, so too have people throughout all of time given their precious heroes momentous titles.

32 comments:

christian said...

Great piece. Strangely, I just watched this again last month and I'll be seeing it hi-def tonight. I saw TRW opening day and it's still one of the great movie experiences of my life. The film just rawks all the way through and the car chase at the end is arguably the greatest ever captured on film. I also adore Brian May's mythic theme...

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Christian.

Yes, I watched this again this weekend and was entirely taken by it, just as I always am.

That's terrific that you're seeing it tonight in hi-def. How appropriate for my review to come out today!

I would have loved to have been there on opening day. What a film to see on opening day; I'm sure it would be one of the great movie experiences of any lover of cinema. Damn it, I was born too late.

Brian May's "mythic theme," as you point out, is tremendous.

christian said...

My brother and sister tried to get me to see POLTERGEIST playing in the theater next door. I could hear the audience scream.

Damn, the Summer of 1982...

Alexander Coleman said...

Amazing. Will we ever have a summer like that again? Like you said at the outset of this last one, it seemed like it almost could have happened, but there was just too much dross.

Christopher said...

Freaking brilliant review, man. I love it for the action but you hit on many subtler points.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Christopher.

Sam Juliano said...

George Miller's THE ROAD WARRIOR is the a fascinating choice for the full kitchen, I mean Coleman-sink-treatment. And that's just what it gets here is this no-holds-barred examination.

First off, I love this:

"ROAD WARRIOR is represented in purely cinematic terms such as movement, image, sound, all invaluably linked to one another through breathtaking choreography and geographical mastery."

And the analysis of the "mythologizing of the hero" is quite perceptive and dead-on.
That was a real nice touch to include that lengthy 'narrator's piece,' which I do remember well.
The screenplay by Miller and two others certainly deserves being singled out for its imagination, and again this section of the review is outstanding.
The comparison of the lead character to Ethan Edwards and Sanjuro is superb in the context you are arguing here, and your rightly site the sun-seared cinematography by Dean Semler, which provides the film with its stunning visual design.

And this is really awesome:

"Viewed through the prism of economics, or the issues of energy and industry, of self-sufficiency and the undeniably important role gasoline plays in the functionality and net-working of modern society."

Yes, for sure it was appropriate to discuss the elements of good and evil cognizant in the film, and the literary line from Homer to Tolstoy and Hemingway was also superlative.

And yes, WATERWORLD deserved to be trashed.

A painstaking, ever-so-thoughtful and incisive piece of writing. Kudos to you.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the kind words and greatly thoughtful response, Sam. Always happy to hear your thoughts.

Tony D'Ambra said...

As an Aussie, it is heartening to see such enthusiasm for this movie Alexander, though the movie is largely forgotten over here.

'Australia' premieres here in Sydney tonight. Early reports from some who watched a media preview describe it as too melodramatic and corny in places. And Nicole Kidman is not everyone's cup of tea. But the non-professional Aboriginal boy in the movie, who is from the country town where the film was shot, is said to have stolen the picture.

Also, we suffer a cultural cringe over here, where a lot of local movie-goers are not interested in Australian films, and will watch only Hollywood products. We ARE a weird mob :)

Great review btw.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for that invaluable contribution "as an 'Aussie'," Tony. I was hoping to hear your thoughts on this film for that and many other reasons. :)

You do have me convinced that you are "a WEIRD mob"--haha. Yes, it's been interesting to listen to Australia reviews and reactions trickle in. When was the last time Nicole Kidman was in a good picture?

Thank you again for your very fecund thoughts.

kenji said...

A review of THE ROAD WARRIOR that brings up Plutarch.

Great job. I saw this a long time ago. I remember it being very exciting in a way most action movies never become.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Kenji. It is a visceral experience, but it's more than what it may superficially appear to be. It is in many ways a "deep shallow" picture, and one worth revisiting repeatedly.

christian said...

Just watched this on Blu-ray. The best I've seen it look since opening weekend. Awesome.

I'm always impressed that Gibson has about 10 lines of dialogue through the whole film. It's pure cinema and performance.

Alexander Coleman said...

That is awesome, isn't it, Christian? You're right, of course, this is unadulterated, pure cinema. The lack of dialogue (and particularly from Max) only enhances the "projection" of the hero. Love this film.

brandt splartch said...

you should see the things i know, the things i can do

Alexander Coleman said...

Okay, Brandt.

Sergei Smirnov said...

Another fiercely erudite cinematic essay Alexander. A man could spend the rest of his free time just reading your archived reviews.

I always loved this movie for its visceral qualities, and for the postapocalyptic vision in which it takes place. A definitive treatment of the film's themes.

W.T.R. said...

alexander you are so erudite and your reviews are brilliant. you are the most amazing film reviewer i have ever read and you should be teaching classes at college or leading the united nations because you can't possibly be a twenty something with all your knowledge and understanding. you truly deserve to be writing in all the newspapers and important websites across the internet world. no one comes close to the quality of your analysis and it is a crime that you are not published everywhere and paid millions for it. everbody needs to hear the great alexander coleman and i can't wait to see the movies directed and written by you my good man.

Alexander Coleman said...

Sergei and W.T.R., I most sincerely thank you both very much for the honestly extremely effusive and humbling compliments. They are uncalled for but appreciated nevertheless.

W.T.R. said...

you are most welcome alexander. keep up the magnificent work.

mc said...

Tremendous.

mc said...

Tremendous movie and review I mean.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, MC.

Anonymous said...

I love this movie! This is a great review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you kindly, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I see a review of this film or any other of Miller's, I have to then suggest Happy Feet - it's like an imperative. It's one of the director's best, without doubt, and as mythic and well-constructed in its elements as "The Road Warrior."

Perhaps the best description I heard of it was on Roger Ebert's blog, a while back:" - a true fable, in every sense of the word, much akin to 'Watership Down,' with just a hint of Golden Age Disney."

To add to that, you have John Powell's similarly powerful and mythic theme, which shares several stylistic similarities with May's score, here - the opening piece from "The Road Warrior" in particular.

The central conceit is the dancing, though - and, it's what Miller does with it that is so interesting. It is recognizably tap-dancing, but it's also recognizably 'penguin;' if there's a better, more concise way to put it, I don't know what that would be.

Give it a look, I say. Cheers!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for that recommendation, Anonymous. Quite appreciated.

The Filmist said...

Interesting stuff. I particularly like your description of the film as a 'deep shallow picture.' It's a lot like Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," in that way, and that both were intentionally designed as 'montage films,' and pure cinema, coincidentally. To my mind, there's none better than these two.

I actually did a roundtable piece on Miller just recently, at the site link above, and I have to agree with anonymous, two posts up, in regards to Happy Feet - it's a real piece of work, that film.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, The Filmist. We both entirely agree about the "pure cinema" of the "montage" of The Road Warrior and its evident relationship with other works such as Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Thank you for contributing to the points Anonymous made earlier as well. Also--thank you for the quoting at your website regarding Moon! I'm honored to be on your blogroll with such legends as Roger Ebert and Jim Emerson, and I will reciprocate by placing you on mine.

The Filmist said...

Well, thank'ee and you're welcome, good sir!

Barnaby said...

There's no doubt, the dude is absolutely right.
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Agent Lawrence said...

Superb analysis and The Road Warrior warrants this level of serious critical examination. It is, indeed, a classic of its era, or perhaps any era.

What strikes me about The Road Warrior, first, is the extent to which this film towers over projects with similar content and aspirations. Even more glaring is the fact that no film in this genre has been made in the passed thirty years that comes close to accomplishing the same feats that Miller's does. Case in point, the most recent Terminator movie wanted to be the Road Warrior, in various ways, but falls tragically short.

Miller understood that powerful cinema starts with strong, simple story-telling. That's why the kinetic ballet of violence that unfolds out of his clean narrative is so riveting. The Road Warrior is so alive on screen it's like a force of nature, being viewed. Its events feel inevitable. It's showy and subtle emotions feel genuine.

The episode examined in your article, where the "Court Jester" loses his fingers trying to catch the Feral Kid's sharpened boomerang, produces a layered effect on the viewer. First and foremost, it demonstrates the utter inhumanity and unfeeling sensibilities of the marauders. They laugh with amusement at one of their own losing his digits in such a cruel graphic fashion. Even the Jester, himself, manages a strained smile. In other words, the victim cannot find sympathy for himself, the culture he inhabits being so barbaric. In away, this scene is as disturbing as the rape scene viewed from a distance through the gyro-pilot's telescope.

Thank you for this probing thoughtful essay. Film enthusiasts like myself can never get enough of these.