In many ways, it’s entirely appropriate to describe George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy as Australia’s equivalent to Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns are innovative reworkings of the American Western that permanently changed the landscape of the genre. But Leone’s films were also a surprising and positive result of an Italian industry largely focused on producing cheap imitations of American genre films in order to exploit a perceived gap in the global market. Meanwhile, Miller’s films were part of a similar trend. Much like Italy, but at a far lesser rate, Australia’s cinematic output in the 1970s and early 80s was partially made up of low-budget films designed specifically to tap into international markets. They were commonly loaded with violence, car-crashes and/or sex, and they are all retrospectively now referred to as Ozploitation films. Most were awful, some were decent, and at least one was great – Mad Max.
Below, I’ve decided to briefly reflect on this comparison between Miller’s Mad Max films and Leone’s trilogy, if only to point out how their commonalities also highlight the eccentricities of Miller’s own work.
Mad Max (1979)
Let’s get the plot out of the way: Mad Max is a cop and family man in a kind of dystopian future. There are insane criminals out on the road killing everything they see. Something terrible happens, and it all becomes very personal.
Like Leone’s first entry into the Western genre, A Fistful of Dollars, Mad Max is a frugal work, designed to extract the greatest possible amount of drama out of each and every frame, with a sense of excess that might previously have been frowned upon. The bad guys are dialled up to eleven in a high-camp post-apocalyptic punk-infused vision of chaotic evil. Cars are given the kind of fetishistic love and attention that could only exist within the Australian car culture of the time – much like guns would be given in a Leone film. And indeed, like many great gunslingers, Max is defined by his own unique weapon of choice, the V8 Interceptor.
For Miller, like Leone, cinematography is key to driving a sense of nihilism, but his is based less on landscapes than on a terrifying vision of endless roads being traversed at almost unfathomable speeds. At some points, Miller’s coverage of car chases verges on the petrifying. His camera, often strapped to the side of a speeding car, gets closer to the road’s surface than one might have thought possible.
But it is in the editing of such scenes that Miller’s true genius shines through. If for Leone the duel is to be preceded by long and ritualistic periods involving operatic scores and extreme close-ups of hard-faced men, then for Miller it is preceded by the wailing of car engines, extreme close-ups of hard-faced men, and a hysterical sense of speed culminating in explosions and death.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
If the original Mad Max was set in a dystopian future, then the second film reveals that things have gotten a whole lot worse. Any sense of law and order is now completely a thing of the past, with insane killers roaming the roads unchallenged in their search for fuel. And Max, whose loss of his family in the first film has resulted in him assuming a persona not dissimilar from Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in the Dollars trilogy, roams aimlessly looking for the petrol, food and water he needs to survive. That is until he discovers a community of people who have managed to maintain their humanity, and now live within the confines of a functioning oil refinery. But in the tradition of the Seven Samurai, their resources makes them a target for outlaws, and the community is on the brink of being destroyed by a homicidal maniac, Lord Humungus, whose gang of rev-head cutthroats need to be seen to be believed.
When Leone made the second film in his Dollars trilogy, For A Few Dollars More, he was given the opportunity to access a far more significant budget, and as a result escalated his vision to a grander scale – more locations, larger set pieces, longer length and more characters. Miller, confronted with the same opportunity, makes similar decisions. While Miller’s second film is in fact more geographically distilled than the first (he essentially focuses on the refinery and its surrounds for most of the film) the magnitude of this set piece becomes quite striking. And while Max was a human being with multiple facets in the first film, here he is purified down to being the loner who knows how to drive (as opposed to shoot), and must rediscover some semblance of humanity in order to save the simple townsfolk from the monsters of the world.
Both Miller and Leone also elect to elevate the camp sensibilities of their psychotic villains, pushing them beyond any semblance of realism. But perhaps most importantly, it is in the moments of actual violence that permeate from these characters that the greatest sense of escalation occurs. In For A Few Dollars More, Leone takes the operatic nature of his duels to another level, asking us to sit within the moment preceding violence for exceptionally long amounts of time, studying the faces of those involved as they anticipate the coming of death. Miller, on the other hand, perfects his technique via the combination of screaming car engines, speed and explosions, but raises the stakes to levels higher than anything achieved up to that point in cinema.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
The third film in Miller’s trilogy is far more narratively complex than it’s predecessors, but in short it runs a little something like this. Max finds himself in a seedy gambling city, Bartertown, in need of equipment to get his vehicle up and running. A series of escalating concerns see him in a clash with the city’s matriarch, Aunt Entity (Tina Turner). Escaping certain death, Max traverses the wilderness where he encounters a tribe of children, the ancestors of survivors of a plane crash many years earlier. Max takes stock, then returns to Bartertown to take care of business.
Is there any possible way to correlate Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly? Is there any value in such a comparison? Yes and no. While they differ in a hundred ways, there are a handful of rather significant points of confluence. Consider for a moment the way in which both films are conclusions to trilogies that seem to radically distinguish themselves from their predecessors….
Both films do away with the clear delineation between good and bad that defined the earlier films. Indeed, the title of Leone’s film seems to contrast heavily with the ethically problematic behaviour of Eastwood and the loveable sensitivity of the “ugly” Tucco. While in Beyond Thunderdome, Max’s nemeses, Master Blaster and Aunt Entity (Tina Turner) are dynamic characters driven by understandable motivating forces. The sense of simple binaries is now long gone.
As Leone did on separate occasions with Gian Maria Volonte and Lee Van Cleef, Miller reuses an actor that has appeared in a previous Mad Max film, while asking us to accept that they are an entirely new entity unknown to the protagonist. The actor is Bruce Spence, who plays a pilot in both films, despite apparently not being recognised by Max in Beyond Thunderdome. The subtextual suggestion here is that, like the Man With No Name in the Dollars trilogy, this may not actually be the same “Max”. Instead, we may be seeing a unique iteration on the Mad Max character, as might be expected with a James Bond film.
Finally, like Leone’s film, Miller here opens up his canvas to a broader depiction of his constructed world – in this case a post-apocalyptic vision of Australia. In Miller’s film, Max traverses a great distance between the ragged city of Bartertown, a tribe of forest-dwelling orphans, and ultimately the wreckage of a decimated Sydney.
There are many more differences than similarities between these two trilogies, no doubt. After all, Mad Max films are ultimately powered by the contrast between groups that represent chaotic nihilism and those that represent hope for the future. Leone is far more concerned with the earlier half of that equation. But, on this lazy afternoon, before I head off to attend Mad Max: Fury Road, there seems to be something worthwhile in pondering the comparison. Which begs the question… is Fury Road to be George Miller’s equivalent to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West? I’ll let you know…