The appearance in theaters this month of a new Mad Max movie made me aware for the first time of a cultural touchstone in most of my friends’ lives that I had completely missed. I’ve heard the question “You saw the original Mad Max right?” at least three times now, and each time I've had to shake my head no – a silent legacy of my parents’ strict embargo on all violent movies when my sister and I were growing up. Being an adult now and in charge of my own import restrictions, I decided I wanted to know what everyone was talking about and what I had been missing. I wish now I had left well enough alone. I came away from watching the 1979 Mad Max unsure of whether I’d seen a good film or a bad one – sure only of the fact that I couldn’t stop thinking about it – but, one way or the other, feeling a new respect for the strictures of my childhood. This is a disturbing film and a vehicle for a lot of the more pervasive and damaging moral delusions in our society-- not something I'd gladly show to young people.
Nor is it in any way "fun," though I'd been told it would be. True, the opening scenes, involving a chase with the "Nightrider," have the kind of lunatic high-spirits that seems to be the impression most people took with them of the film as a whole, but it quickly darkens after that point into a more characteristic reflection of its cultural moment. The film is a kind of Clockwork Orange meets Easy Rider, meaning that it takes place in roughly the same kind of dystopia that Burgess imagined and that Kubrick committed to celluloid, except translated to the empty stretches of Australia’s highway system. The droogs here are all sadistic biker gangs rather than urban terrorists, but otherwise they are very similar to the antihero of Burgess’s novel. They live in a society in which their violence is basically unchecked and they control the streets, protected by a skein of legal technicalities and by well-meaning liberal determinists who think that all young miscreants are just mentally ill.
Such a vision of the future must have seemed plausible to people in the ‘70s. It certainly seems to have informed a lot films and books of the era, all of them set in the same imagined land of unabashed youth violence and soft social democratic tyranny (we don’t learn much about Mad Max’s particular version of Big Brother, but it is there – it broadcasts regular memoranda through overhead speakers, for instance, informing the populace of the proper way to address police officers and of where to pick up their state-provided “medical vouchers.”)
Living as we do now in 2015, in what I suppose would seem the “not-too-distant future” to the people of 1979, we know that we ended up with quite a different kind of dystopia – thanks in part, I would suggest, to movies like this one – but still, such films evidently spoke to something deeply felt at the time.
Mad Max himself, played with surprising winsomeness by a young Mel Gibson when he still had his chirruping Aussie accent, is a successful police officer in this projected future, who lives in a beachfront idyll with his young wife and their infant son (we can safely assume that things will go downhill for Max from there). The plot in which he finds himself enmeshed is either a web of tired clichés, or else a series of original inventions created by this film that later went on to be recycled by thousands of derivative action movies -- I don’t know enough about the genre to judge. I will say, however, that the emotion behind the plot is unusually genuine in this film, which inclines me toward the second option. There is nothing contrived or artificial about the anger, disgust, and hatred breathed from this film, which is what makes it so much more genuinely disturbing than countless other schlock products that might tell the same basic story.
Max’s police department gets itself into a road war with the aforementioned biker gang, after the gang attacks and rapes two highway tourists. One of Max’s partners, “Goose,” manages to detain one of the gang members involved, but the latter is eventually allowed to walk free because the witnesses and victims of the crime were afraid to testify against the gang in court. Later, the gang takes its revenge on Goose by trapping him in an overturned car. The gang leader intimidates the member who had earlier been arrested by Goose into flinging a lit match into the car, while it is bleeding gasoline. The member hesitates, but the leader forces his hand, throwing the match and burning most of Goose’s body. After seeing Goose's mutilated form -- still barely alive-- in the hospital, Max tries to swear off the police force forever, saying that if he sticks around much longer he’ll become just like the people he chases. He returns to his idyll for a few scenes, but the gang tracks him down and eventually murders his son and maims his wife, leading the final twenty minutes of the film to devolve into a gruesome revenge plot in which Max hunts down and kills his enemies.
Much of the violence of this storyline is implied and happens off-screen, but this does not make it less effectively upsetting. I can’t believe that people apparently watched this movie as children, or that adults showed it to them. The film itself might be ambivalent about Max's final actions, but a child won’t mark such distinctions.
I also don’t think it is a defense in this case (or in any, for that matter) to say that it's all “just a movie.” I'm sure that cultural products like Mad Max have done far more to influence people’s deepest moral commitments than Amnesty International or the GOP – indeed, the political parties and organizations we choose to favor probably only reflect the stories we were exposed to as children, and the people in those stories with whom we identified, rather than forging any attitudes themselves. Instead of "distilling" our madness from political "scribblers," as John Maynard Keynes would have it, over the last few decades our own "madmen in authority" have mainly been distilling theirs from action movies. Ours is the kind of world you’d expect to get if it were run by a generation of would-be Mad Maxes, Charles Bronsons, Dirty Harrys and Chuck Norrises. If you don't yet believe me, let’s try to discern the moral compass displayed in Mad Max and see if I’m wrong.
The original idea for this film was apparently dreamt up by an Australian medical doctor, horrified by things he’d seen in the hospital and with an evident anger against the world of '70s- style social democracy that he believed made it possible. The political ideas that seem to have emerged from such a mind and made it into this film range from the inane, to the deadly, to the almost decent. To start with the first, you will recall that “medical voucher” line cited above. I know more than my share of doctors in this country who would likewise associate socialized medicine with the (to most of us apparently incompatible) evils of the Orwellian state and the rise of all-powerful lawless gangs. The movie goes on from there to take more direct pot-shots at liberals and humanitarians. The gang member bagged by Goose is enabled to walk the streets again, for instance, thanks to two pipsqueak defense attorneys with caricatured “effeminate” voices who conjure elaborate sophistries to free him. When this same gang member is later trussed and murdered by Mad Max during the latter’s revenge spree, he pleads with Max, saying, “I’m not a bad man – the courts say I’ve just got a personality disorder.”
Just like Dirty Harry, the Death Wish movies, and others of the Mad Max era, the film seems persuaded that people who commit violent crimes have been made untouchable in our modern societies by too many constitutional niceties, and that what we really need now are cops who “don’t go by the book” – who torture people with the third degree for information, say, or shoot them and then make it look like they acted in self-defense. Or else these films celebrate the supposed "ordinary" person who's “fed up” and decides to “take the law into his own hands.” It was a cultural moment not restricted to works of the imagination. If the late '60s produced a crop of movies romanticizing the sadism of outlaws, reflecting the characteristic excesses of the era (as Joan Didion memorably recounts in an essay in The White Album), the ‘70s and ‘80s produced films typical of the worst of their own reactive context: movies that romanticized the sadism of the moral majority, of the "man in the street," of Nixon’s and Spiro Agnew's “law-abiding citizens.”
Max, one of these late '70s action heroes who have “been pushed too far,” eventually fulfills his own prophecy of becoming just like the people he is trying to track down – “the only difference is that I have a bronze badge,” as he foretells. He tortures a civilian for information on the gang’s location by pushing him under a car and lowering the jack onto his chest. He handcuffs the gang member who had reluctantly burned Goose to another car, reenacting the earlier crime, and lights it on fire – giving the murder a further sadistic twist by throwing his victim a hack saw so he can futilely try to escape in the last moments of living. The movie leaves it unclear, as mentioned above, whether Max’s descent into revenge and violence is meant to be seen as the corruption of a good man or as the triumph of a rougher kind of justice, or both -- but I suspect a lot of viewers, especially young ones, assume he is a figure for positive self-identification. That at least would help to explain why our society seems run today by so many Mad Maxes. This film and the others like it helped bequeath to us the age of spiraling incarceration and “enhanced interrogation,” as well as a general deadening of our sensibilities toward the depiction of violence.
All that said, however, I can’t entirely regard this movie as a bad one, because I can’t deny its emotional force. It is animated by a feeling of disgust that would have been impossible to fake, and that in its own way is only a couple shades removed from a genuine compassion. This movie is not the kind of tripe created by people enamored of, or turned on by, violence, at least not in any simple way.
It makes sense in this regard to learn that Mad Max's creator was a doctor. Knowing that it was created in part by someone who actually knew what it meant to see a person with burns covering 90% of their body goes some way toward explaining why this movie is more than just a prurient exploitation flick, and portrays its scenes of violence as if putting someone's actual nightmares on screen. The film puts me in mind of the work of two other medical doctors, Céline and Gottfried Benn, who also began their careers in hospitals, and who saw there, as Max's creator did, the evidence of the worst of what human beings do to one another. Like the maker of this film, they came away from the experience with a depth of nihilism that was simultaneously a rough kind of humanity. These were men who saw that death makes living people into things, and who refused to accept this fact with equanimity.
I detect some of the same mixture of black disgust, fascination, and pity found in Benn’s early collection of poems on The Morgue in Mad Max as well -- transmitted perhaps with less literary sophistication, but with equivalent feeling. This is particularly true of the latter's hospital scenes. After Max’s wife is maimed by the biker gang, he overhears two doctors talking about her ruptured insides as if they were discussing machine parts – one of the doctors calls their conversation a “grocery list.” This was a film made by someone who too early in his life had been made aware of how thin the line of chance is that separates us from being happy and whole people one moment and becoming objects of horror and pity the next.
Yet we see already that this very pity and humanity contains -- or sits close to -- contempt and hatred. To feel horror at violence that renders people into “things” is to stand at the uneasy frontier of an adjacent feeling: that sick and maimed people are in fact things and objects of horror. When Max sees Goose’s charred body in the hospital, he insists right out, “that thing is not Goose.” Goose is presumably still living, but he never returns to the story after this point. Perhaps the filmmakers agree with Max's assessment. So too, Max’s wife is apparently still alive after being attacked, but Max does not stay with her in the hospital—she too is now a “thing” for the purposes of the filmmakers, and vanishes from this point onward, serving merely as the reason for Max’s revenge-taking.
None of this should surprise us. We note, after all, that both Céline and Benn, for all their strange kind of compassion, both became supporters of nihilistic fascist regimes—Benn indeed a loyal subject of the regime that turned more people into corpses than any other in history. Disgust with the “thingness” of human beings and human bodies may start out as a kind of compassionate protest against the universe, but it can end at the ultimate denial of humanity and compassion, as a deliberate turning of people into things.
Mad Max follows a similar kind of moral evolution, if not perhaps the same one. Calling it “Fascist” would be to inflate the currency of language, but it is certainly a movie that ends up, regardless where it started, as one deeply filled with hate.
Other words that might spring to mind in relation to Mad Max need similarly to be clarified. To describe it and the movies of its era as pure “power fantasies,” for instance, is tempting, but it gets us only part of the way to the truth. It is more accurate to say that they are power fantasies that arose out of an intense feeling of powerlessness. It is striking that Max, for instance, does not manage to save his wife and son from the gang in the last quarter of the movie, which we would expect to happen if it were simply a case of straightforward wish-fulfillment. Instead, by the time the gang descends on his family, Max is off tracking them in precisely the opposite direction, and he arrives too late on the scene to do anything. His revenge -- like all revenge -- is an expression of his powerlessness, not of any fantastically-magnified strength. This is plainly a genuine reflection of how people felt who lived in our great cities during the era of upwardly spiraling street crime; and these movies are, in their way, a sincere cry of the heart against this powerlessness and this constant fear. Whoever made Mad Max and Death Wish and the others plainly felt themselves to be at the mercy of ever-present and random violence that they could do nothing to prevent or predict.
The trouble is that revenge only changes the names of the people who have to live with powerlessness and fear – it can never do us any service in the quest to make for a world in which there is no terror, no murder or rape. The direction our society has taken since this film came out -- since, that is to say, it chose on a massive and collective scale to follow Max's individual model of revenge -- confirms this eternal truth.
Because people in our country responded so well to the revenge fantasy conveyed by Mad Max and similar movies, we live now in a society that is dystopian in precisely the opposite ways these films predicted. If the Max filmmakers thought society would soon become a place where all criminals were treated as mentally ill and morally innocent, instead we live in a society where mental illness is itself criminalized – where people with debilitating schizophrenia either mumble to themselves on street corners or end up in prison, because there is no care and shelter for them provided elsewhere. If Max thought criminal gangs enjoyed too many legal protections, we live now in a society that has the world’s largest prison population, where thousands upon thousands of people are tortured every day by means of solitary confinement, and people convicted of minor offenses spend decades of their lives locked away from the rest of humanity. If Max thought that too many cops were constrained to "go by the book,” and therefore could never get anything done, we live now in a country where it’s impossible to even find out precisely how many people are killed each year by police violence, and where a president okayed the official use of torture in secret prisons not so long ago.
And so the cycle of revenge repeats itself, and the world remains full of all the horrors that Mad Max at first seemed to be raging against. As Max was afraid might happen to him, we “law-abiding citizens” have ourselves become criminal. To one day break out of this cycle, we will need very different sorts of films than this one, with very different heroes.