ON THE ORIGINAL MAD MAX TRILOGY
by John David Ebert
Mad Max is entirely post-urban. Whereas, with Captain Nemo we had seen a complete hostility to civilization of any kind (to such a degree that Nemo refused ever to set foot on land), and with Tarzan there was an oscillation between the city and the jungle, although Tarzan much preferred the jungle and its less evolved apes as his companions. With Zorro, the superhero was captured into the orbit of a pueblo-style proto-Los Angeles to become part of its immune system, just as Sam Spade, meanwhile, in San Francisco was already functioning as the immune system of that city, for it was his job to keep the Titans and Fomorians out of it. Conan’s hostility to cities was thorough, but not so thorough that we didn’t occasionally find him in the role of a king, as in the very first Conan tale, “The Phoenix on the Sword” or in the later Conan novel “The Hour of the Dragon.” And with the comic book superheroes, we saw a full-fledged functioning immune system at work in the city of New York.
But with the Mad Max films, civilization is now a thing of the past. Max Rockatansky has come unplugged from all cities and become a rogue element, a loner who drifts through the waste land in search of, precisely, Nothing. He has no goals and sees no Vision. What befalls him is whatever situation he just happens to be thrust in at the moment. A postmodern hero, in other words.
The original trilogy, though, does have an arc that tells a story, namely how a celluloid hero who comes unplugged from civilization and who is a contemporary equivalent of the ancient dying and reviving god (specifically embodying the powers of the snake to shed its skin: Max is “killed” in each film and then revived, as it were) is slowly transformed into the savior of civilization, growing wings in the process. Max moves from slithering on the ground like a snake, to a transformation in which the serpent grows wings like Qetzalcoatl and ascends into the heavens.
In the first film Mad Max (1979), Max is a police officer, although of a special type, the Main Force Police, which governs the roads. He is immediately connected, therefore, to the dromosphere, which it is his job to govern and control. Indeed, whereas the opening shot of the typical Western in its high period was always of the sky, Mad Max opens with a shot of the highway stretching like a black ribbon out across the infinitely smooth space of the Australian outback. Max’s job as a cop is to act as an “Interceptor,” or force of obstruction for stepping down the speeds of the dromosphere, that realm of speed which the conveyance of all vehicles constitutes (and named as such by Paul Virilio).[i] As Michel Foucault remarks, the police in the sixteenth century came into being precisely to regulate the flow of goods and services as the newly emerging bourgeoisie channeled them across roads, canals and rivers.[ii] The police are a force of obstruction for stepping down the speeds of the dromospheric activity that takes place out beyond the walls of the city and begins to approach it with incoming commerce (or else sieges), in the flow of camels, donkeys, horses, chariots, and most recently, automobiles.
Civilization, in the first film, is crumbling, but it has not yet collapsed completely. The roads, however, are terrorized by an external proletariat in the form of motorcycle gangs—and in this respect, the film hybridizes the classic Western with the 1953 classic The Wild One (Max’s leather outfit refers to Brando’s)—a gang led by a villain known as Toecutter (who survives, almost miraculously, into the 2015 sequel Mad Max 4: Fury Road). When Max, at the start of the film, chases one of their gang off the road—a man named Night Rider–Max becomes marked for death. The motorcycle gang avenge the death of Night Rider by killing Max’s best friend “Goose” and then they run down his wife and infant child on the highway.
This is the first “death” of Max in the trilogy, for he responds by shedding the skin of his former identity as a cop and goes rogue, exchanging his yellow and blue police car for a souped-up version known as the “last of the V8 Interceptors,” a slick black hot rod that he uses to track down and overpower the villains (all except their leader Toecutter). He is, however, emotionally numbed by the film’s conclusion, and drives off into the outback to an uncertain destination. The city as environment for the Hero as immune cell is now but a memory.
In The Road Warrior (1981), which resumes perhaps ten years later (and takes place, chronologically, after Fury Road), Max is still driving a worn down version of the very same V8 Interceptor, and he is now living only for one thing: the gasoline that will power his car across the smooth spaces of the endless waste land. Early on in the film, he meets the so-called “Gyro captain,” a man who pilots a single-unit gyrocopter and with whom he forms a reluctant partnership. The Gyro captain represents a mechanized version of the powers of the bird, just as Max, with his constant deaths and resurrections (or what the theoretician Catherine Malabou would call “destructive plasticity”)[iii] incarnates the power of the snake to shed its skin, time after time. Max and the Gyro captain must combine forces, bird and snake, to help deliver a besieged group of nomads who are living in a temporary encampment surrounded by rubber tires, where they have managed to create their own fuel. They have formed a fortress around the pumpjack and are storing its fuel inside of a tanker, but do not have the rig to drive the tanker. Thus, the fortress becomes what theoretician Paul Virilio terms a weapon of obstruction—i.e. ditches, ramparts, bastions—against dromospheric weapons of destruction—i.e. lances, bows, cannons, missiles.[iv] It is an ancient conflict, as old as the first cities, compressed and miniaturized by the film’s director George Miller for mass consumption.
Hence, Max’s job: he must fetch a rig that he had seen out on the highway in exchange for getting his car back and more fuel, the only thing he cares about anymore. When the job is done, and he attempts to leave the nomadic encampment, however, the barbarians of the waste land nearly kill him: they shoot his dog and blow up his beloved V8 Interceptor (this is his second “death”). Upon his resurrection—for the serpent god cannot be killed but only temporarily—he agrees to drive the rig and haul the tanker across the highway as a decoy while the rest of the nomads of the “encampment” drive north to new horizons. Thus, in the second film, driving vehicles is Max’s only function. He refuses to take any paternal responsibilities for a young feral boy with a boomerang who stows away on the truck, insisting on Max as the Lord of the Dromosphere to become his “father.”
Everything that had been inceptual in the second film grows, magnifies and expands in the third film of the original trilogy, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). There is some devolution to be sure: the V8 Interceptor is gone, and at the film’s opening Max has been reduced to riding in a vehicle pulled not by his beloved gasoline but by a chain of camels. However, the Gyro captain’s tiny one man gyrocopter has in the intervening years magnified into a small airplane, which, at the film’s opening, he and his ten year old son pilot by hi-jacking Max’s caravan and riding it to the nearest market village, a place called Barter Town, a sort of primitive Viking-like trading post with aspirations of becoming a city. Max traverses the desert on foot to go there because he wants his camels back. Motion across the smooth spaces of the desert has become his only raison d’etre. He must be kept in motion at all times, at all costs.
Barter Town, however, is now operating on the axial plane of organization: whereas The Road Warrior had been one vast gigantic smooth space across which nomads could slide, completely deterritorialized on an entirely horizontal surface—Barter Town is a vertical structure which trades out The Road Warrior’s horizontality for a stratified axis. It is organized, in the manner of all ancient cosmic cartographies, in three strata: that is to say, it has a middle world or mesocosm where the merchants do their business, but it also has an upper world of the aristocracy ruled by a matriarch named “Auntie,” who is perpetually at war with the denizens of the city’s underworld, a place where pigs are used to generate the methane that powers the city’s electricity. Max, who has come unplugged from all city structures and is antipathetic to them all, finds himself caught in between this difference engine of conflict between the Powers Below and the Powers Above: he is tasked with descending downward to pick a fight with Master-Blaster, a giant who carries a dwarf on his shoulders, a dwarf who happens to be the only man who understands the formulae for creating the machines that power the city’s electricity. He is forever undermining Auntie’s authority by shutting off the electricity with periodic embargoes, and she wants his body guard, Blaster, dead. It is the ancient war of the aristocracy against the priesthood, or in this case, the priest of the machines.
The dispute must be settled within a domical structure known as Thunderdome, a neo-Medieval restructuring of a gladiatorial arena, or what Heiner Muhlmann would call a space set aside within the city-as-zone-of-cooperation for a zone of maximal stress.[v] The results of the battle against Master-Blaster involves the death of the giant, but his braniac Master, the dwarf, survives. And Max, once again—this time for his refusal to kill the giant himself (Auntie’s Praetorian guard does it for him)–must endure yet another death (his third in the series): exile into the desert, to die of thirst among the dunes.
But he is resurrected this time by a tribe of feral children (hence, the single feral child with the boomerang of The Road Warrior has, in the third film, expanded and multiplied into an entire tribe). Since he has refused to play the paternal role for the feral child, now he is forced to play Father to an entire tribe of children. Be careful what task you refuse: it may come back upon you tenfold.
This time, he is resurrected by the children, who nurse him back to health after his ordeal in the sand dune desert. They tell him that he is the awaited Messiah, a man named Captain Walker who, their tale goes, piloted the 747 that crashed into the desert and from which, somehow, the children have descended from the survivors. The petroglyphic image they show him looks exactly like him: Max with leather jacket and gray winged hair, with arms spread wide like he is flying, and all the little children lined up in rows on his arms. Indeed, they even place an airline pilot’s cap on his head which they have adorned with the wings of a bird.
When they take him out to the desert to show him the immense ruins of the crashed 747, we realize that the Gyro Captain’s single seat helicopter, which had grown at the opening of the third film into a small airplane, has now grown further as a signifier into a dinosauric flying apparatus. But it is an apparatus that no longer belongs to the Gryo Captain, for the children, in their mythology, have specifically (re)assigned it to Max. They want him, in other words, to transform from a snake into a gigantic bird who will carry them all on his back to Tomorrow-morrow-land, that is to say, to the ruins of the great cities. They want him to become a mythical savior being—one who, like Prometheus or Romulus, becomes a founder of civilizations by teaching their inhabitants the various arts and crafts. He demurs, of course, but they refuse to see him in any other role.
Thus, Max’s persona in this film shifts not only from that of serpent to bird, but from the Lord of the Highways to the Lord of the Airways. When he finally does lead the children back to Barter Town, from which they escape aboard a tiny train, the Gyro captain’s services are called upon once again, and Max insists that he fly the children away to wherever they want to go. The plane is too heavy to bear Max’s weight along with all the children, but he agrees to sacrifice himself on their behalf and drives a truck that crashes into the opposing forces of Auntie’s Praetorian Guard from Barter Town who want their dwarf, with all his equations, returned to them.
So, in a sense, the film does end with Max transforming into a bird and carrying the children on his back, flying them away like Garuda out of ancient Indian myth, back to the ruins of the cities, which they intend to repopulate and light back up again.
Thus, Max as the figure who had come unplugged from the city-as-apparatus-of-capture, ends by effectuating the means of its reanimation. He shifts from playing the role of outcaste to that of Founding God of Civilization, like Osiris or Cain.
But the film’s final image of campfires burning in the windows of the abandoned skyscrapers of Sydney suggests the possibility of a new civilization without a dromosphere. A civilization in which the internal combustion engine, with its four-stroke cycle, simply no longer exists, and where roads no longer function to convey anything but faded markers of a previous age, like the ruins of Roman roads in modern Britain. Roads of transport, that is, must shift to become neuronal highways that light up new pathways in the brain whereby new Visions of sustainable societies may emerge. Cars must give way to neurotransmitters as the task of Saint Christopher, patron of roads, is handed over to Gabriel, the angel who presides over communications.
Hence, the irony of Max as god of the highways becoming the civilizational founder of a society without roads. And perhaps it is a telling fact that the sequel to the trilogy, Mad Max 4: Fury Road (2015) is not so much a sequel that occurs chronologically after the trilogy but in between the first and second films.
Back in the days before the transformation, in other words, when he was still the patron god of roads and highways.
This has been excerpted from the new book by John David Ebert entitled “Gods & Heroes of the Media Age,” which is available for purchase on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Gods-Heroes-Media-Age-Captain/dp/0985480297/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1424410739&sr=8-1&keywords=gods+%26+heroes+of+the+media+age