George Miller: The Mad Max Films

Despite not exactly being a household name outside of most film circles and cinephiles and a relatively small body of work, the Australian film director George Miller has proven to be one of the most influential directors, not just in film but in culture in general. Let’s face it, the only reason post-apocalyptic costumes and themes in movies are a thing is because of Miller’s input into the genre with his classic Mad Max films, for which he is probably most famous for still. But Miller is by no means a one-trick pony, having directed family-friendly animated films Happy Feet and the CGI-infused Babe films, alongside the supernatural comedy The Witches of Eastwick and the true-story drama Lorenzo’s Oil. Turning 75 today, I decided to cover his most famous works, namely the Mad Max films in chronological order and give my thoughts on each of them.

Mad Max (1979) Directed by George Miller Shown: Mel Gibson

Mad Max (1979)

The movie that not only launched a franchise but also launched Miller’s filmmaking career since this was his feature directorial debut. Miller had developed the script for Mad Max with his producer and creative partner Byron Kennedy whilst working as a doctor, and the film was completely independently financed on a shoestring budget of $400,000. So when the film made over $100 million at the international box office, it was named the most profitable film at the time by Guinness World Record. Despite this the film was banned in several countries, including my very own Sweden (it wasn’t released theatrically here until last year, so I can proudly say that I saw Mad Max on its initial theatrical run) because of the violence. This is surprising considering the actual on-screen violence is actually pretty tame, even for 70s standards. Nevertheless the film is energetic and features plenty of scenes of chaos and violence, which are the films strong points. The film also builds a believable dystopia that stands in contrast to the more fantastical futures of the later films, not that that’s a bad thing however. It lends the film a sense of realism and believability one, well, doesn’t have in the same way with say Fury Road (there are no flamethrowing guitars for instance) The film is far from perfect however. Even though I have seen it twice, I was still slightly confused by the opening car chase because it is in general quite unclear as far as screen direction goes, something Miller would improve as he went on in his career. The same goes for the performances somewhat. Whilst not bad, Miller would improve as an actor’s director as his career went on. Mel Gibson is clearly the standout, and he is quite effective in his first appearance as Max Rockatansky. So overall, something of a rough start, but still an accomplished film with plenty of things to like. But Miller would simply go to another level with his next film, and his next installment in the franchise.

The Road Warrior (1981)

Miller initially didn’t have any intentions of returning to the world of Mad Max, but upon reflection and getting in touch with Joseph Campbell’s highly influential book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (which also inspired a tiny sci-fi franchise called Star Wars), Miller went back and delivered one of the greatest sequels of all time, and before 2015, the best film in the franchise, but maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Miller strips the narrative to its bare minimum, featuring very little dialogue and exposition in favor of visual storytelling, not unlike the films of Hitchcock or the films of the silent era. What ultimately drives the film isn’t necessarily the story, but rather the actions of the characters, all of which are communicated visually. As Hitchcock once said “if it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on,” and Miller brings that philosophy to the cinematic language of The Road Warrior. The energy, the action and the editing combined provide you with a sense of excitement because you feel like you have just witnessed something that could be called “pure cinema.” Gibson’s silence has never worked better, and despite only having sixteen lines in the whole film, he oozes with charisma and completely embodies the character through his body language. As much as I love Tom Hardy’s portrayal in Fury Road, Gibson in this film is a hard one to beat in what is the definitive portrayal of the character. The film is also packed with wonderful surreal and macabre weirdness and violence, all of which make the world alive and the film itself more unique amongst other post-apocalyptic genre films. So until Fury Road, this was the definitive Mad Max film, and possibly Miller’s best film. So the fact that Miller managed to outdo himself is quite extraordinary, but we’ll get there eventually.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

I’m gonna say it right upfront; Beyond Thunderdome is the worst Mad Max movie. There’s no question about it and it can’t be argued. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad movie, it’s a good movie, but not a very good Mad Max movie. Gibson is still convincing as an older Max, and we also get to see a different side of the Mad Max universe than from what we’ve seen before in the shape of Bartertown and the Planet Erf, and the gladiator arena is a fun setting as well. Tina Turner does well in her role as Auntie Entity, and of course her song “We Don’t Need Another Hero” which accompanies the film is a wonderful 80s song. It also looks great, once again shot by Dean Semler on the widescreen format, capturing the vastness of the landscape. The problem is, kind of everything else. Miller was actually reluctant to make the film after Byron Kennedy died in a helicopter crash whilst scouting locations for Thunderdome, so therefore he handed over a portion of the direction to George Ogilvie, and I feel like that general reluctance affects the overall film. But even beyond that, what the film lacks is the surreal, macabre and violent weirdness that made the other Mad Max films so enjoyable and unique. This is a much more family-friendly affair, and it suffers from it. The kids, whilst semi-cute, don’t really fit in in a Mad Max world. It makes the film feel more conventional and safe, which the first two films most definitely weren’t. But all of that said, Beyond Thunderdome is by no means a bad film, merely an underwhelming one. So for a while, this was indeed the end of the Mad Max saga. But thirty years later, Miller graced us with a return so great the likes of which have never been seen.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

This is not only the best film in the Mad Max franchise, the best film of 2015 and one of the best films of the century, it’s also one of the my favorite films and one of the most important films in my life. I saw the film when I was fifteen with my dad. I was keen on getting into filmmaking, but my understanding of cinema was pretty surface level at best. I never really thought of film as an artform for visual storytelling. I thought dialogue was pretty much the only way of communicating information or further the story along and had no concept of specific angles and never thought about movies in terms of camera or editing or music or anything. Then, I was given a gift from the gods in the shape of George Miller’s magnum opus Mad Max: Fury Road. I had never seen a film like it before (never even seen a Mad Max movie prior to it), and I felt like my soul had transcended and I had been cleansed by this magical piece of cinema. I rewatched the film numerous times on blu-ray, and watching interviews with Miller where he talked about his approach to visual storytelling turned my attention towards that arena of filmmaking, and I have remained there ever since. So I really have Miller and Fury Road to thank for making me more aware of the use of camera, editing and music in movies, how to communicate story and/or emotions visually and be more critical to other filmmakers and how they construct their movies visually. Then in the summer of 2017 I saw Dunkirk (on 70mm no less) and 2001: A Space Odyssey, both on the big screen and those two films furthered my obsession with cinema as a visual artform. So this isn’t really a review of Fury Road, but more a thank-you note to George Miller, for showing me the possibility of cinema.

Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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