Road Warrior might be punk’s Sistine chapel, but it is not without problems.
To be punk at all it has to have problems.
Many of them come from its dependence on colonial adventure narratives, particularly Westerns. There is an enclave of ‘white’ civilisation in the wilderness – a fortress, circled wagons – surrounded by aggressive and highly mobile ‘savages’, who are darker and more ‘tribal’ (some even sport Mohicans), and who rape and murder one of the ‘white’ women.
And as if this racial othering is not enough, many of them also dress as sexual dissidents.
To be honest, I am not sure whether it is because I have cherished this movie since adolescence that I tend to overlook these problems, or whether it is genuinely more complex than this reductive account suggests. Certainly such colonial imagery can be used in different ways. For example, when Starship Troopers (1997) uses the fort under siege scenario, it does so to parody imperialist military aggression. Unlike, say, Zulu (1964), in which post-imperial melancholy works hard to mythologise yet another shabby episode in the history of British imperialism. And unlike the final section of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), in which Brett Ratner, once more putting the idiot into idiot savant, slanders San Francisco’s queer counterculture.
And Road Warrior does do some interesting things with its colonial set-up.
Three of the key ‘white’ people are so white as to become parodic, including their bleached blond leader Pappagallo (Mike Preston, who back in the late 50s recorded ‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘Whispering Grass’, long before The Pogues and Windsor Davis/Don Estelle). This excess at least suggests a self-consciousness at work, and although it might not be very articulate, it is far more convincing than the post-hoc claims that the Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty (in that film from the following year about the police flying around over Los Angeles deciding who counts as human) is some kind of ‘ironic Aryan’. (The absence of any actual Aboriginal people helps deracinate the situation, I guess.)
Related to this is the transition from Mad Max’s Tom of Finland coppers to the accoutrements of sexual dissidence worn by the ‘natives’: the studded leather pants, wristbands and harness of The Humugus (Kjell Nilsson), and his Jason Voorhees take on an enclosure mask; the buttocks-flashing chaps of Wez (Vernon Wells) and the cutaway bondage gear of his bleached boytoy, etc, etc. However, I think this works a little differently to Toecutter’s stereotypically jealous (but, come to think of it, not really demonised) blond second-in-command in Mad Max.
Yes, the ‘natives’ are queer (except perhaps for the misleadingly credited ‘Tent Lovers’), but they are also charismatic and alive in a way the ‘white’ folks are not.
In Doomsday, the natives’ Glaswegian equivalents – and who would have thought that thirty years after the zombie apocalypse there would be quite so much pristine bondage gear stockpiled in Glasgow? – bear a very specific resonance, as evidenced by the music Sol (Craig Conway) plays to the crowd before they cook and eat Sean Pertwee. Adam and the Ants’ ‘Dog Eat Dog’, the Fine Young Cannibals ‘Good Thing’, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Spellbound’ and Areil Rechtshaid’s knock-off of Bad Manners’ ‘The Can-Can’ are all part of the anti-Thatcher eighties, and so it comes as no surprise that during the Road Warrior-like climactic chase, we get Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’. Displaced into the future, this is a culture of political and sexual dissidence being celebrated.
In Road Warrior, the celebration is perhaps less clear, but the film does not despise its ‘natives’. Miller, like Milton, is secretly of Satan’s camp.
And the opposition between the ‘civilisation’ and ‘natives’ is not as secure as one might think. Max lives in the wilderness and only crosses into ‘civilisation’ so he can leave again. The same is true of the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence). He eventually chooses to stay, but only as ‘civilisation’ begins its long trek through the wilderness. The Feral Kid (Emil Minty) is raised in ‘civilisation’ but looks like one of the ‘natives’, grunts and growls a lot and behaves like some kind of monkey-dog; his finger-slicing boomerang is as close as we get to Aboriginal culture. And of course the opening narration turns out to have been spoken by him in his old age, long after the events of the movie, when he has become the chief of the Great Northern Tribe – a rank and social structure that suggests some retreat from ‘civilisation’.
The bondage gear also provides Humungus’s motivation for besieging the fortified refinery. Clearly, from the way his crew race around everywhere, they are not short of fuel. But in that dry hot sandy environment, leather and rubber are gonna get uncomfortable. They’re gonna chafe. So it is not gasoline Humungus is after. It is some other petroleum-based product. Like, I dunno, vaseline.
Mad Max’s key cinematic innovation was setting the racing cameras so close to the ground. Road Warrior added a couple more things to the language of contemporary cinema.
First, is the long final action sequence. Films did not used to do that, and now they do. Without Road Warrior, the runway during the climax of Fast and Furious 6 (2013) – a runway so long you begin to suspect they are just gonna drive all the way to the destination airport – would have been a whole lot shorter and much less would have happened on it.
Second, is the radical electro-surgery George Miller performed on the muscles under Mel Gibson’s face, so that in this film it actually moves. Sadly, this experimental procedure was not entirely successful, dooming Gibson to decades of shit-eating glibness and peculiar gurning.
One time it even turned his face blue.