The other night my local popcorn house screened one of those holy of holies, 1979’s Mad Max. I live in a town of cinema lovers and a good twelve of us made the pilgrimage through the new climate’s perpetual rain to pay our respects to feverish visions of collapse. It was a glorious night of scratchy popping images and sound that rivals that of those doohickeys you hung off your car door at the drive-in.
Remember drive-ins: we loved our cars so very much we didn’t even want to get out of them when we went to the movies. That sentiment is significant to the version of Mad Max that got off the ground.
Mad Max opens with the cryptic words “A few years from now” printed on the screen as we pan back from the arches of a really dilapidated Halls Of Justice swaying in a drought plagued wind. With that we are introduced to a failing industrial town limping along in the early days of financial collapse. The town population idle about in diners and trailers, pretending the world is normal. It’s not unlike a scenario a “few years from now” where folk drink weak tea and wait patiently for the recession to end.
The film focuses on two kinds of disenfranchised youth. The first are marauding bands of unemployed young men who carouse and ride the roads on stolen gas. They are like ghosts who mime the things they knew from previous life: looping through endless commutes between town centres and distant factory jobs.
Because we have all studied a little sociology, we know things can’t go well from here. A society is in peril when it cannot employ its youth. Men without a function quickly regress into an aggressive antagonistic state, and men without paychecks cannot secure wives and even more quickly regress into leather pants, motorcycles and bizarre homoerotic theatrical rituals. I know it is true because I have seen it in Mad Max.
The other kind of disenfranchised youth, and I will say here, it takes a subtle film goers eye to differentiate them as they also parade about the highway in defiant leather using mayhem as a desperate stopgap to keep the immense despair of civilization’s collapse from pouring down onto them, are the local police. They recall Little Alex’s colleagues from A Clockwork Orange who trade in their gang colours for a civil servant paycheck(or at least a vehicle) in one of those professions that truly blossom when the shit hits the fan. See, if you had spent your vacations in South America, India or Russia instead of some disney resort island, you would already have a template for crumbling societies where the wealthy retract every limb they can and employ as much of the riffraff as possible as security enforcers to keep regular folk away from the canned tuna and the soda pop. Perhaps that is why the lead villain was named Toecutter—he sought to nibble away at the edges of what power remained.
You might be inclined, in these first few minutes, to think that perhaps you are about to watch a film about the last of the heroes holding civil society together and at bay from nefarious barbarous haters of law, order and good hygiene. But again, this is a film of subtlety and nuance—it’s not just guns and macked out cars. The action sequence that opens the film has virtually the entire town’s police force running down a villain until they kill him in a fiery explosion of overkill. We know he is a villain because we witness him . . . speeding. Not only does he speed, but he goes by a pseudonym(as only super villains do), The Night Rider, and he spouts nihilist poetry right into the radio. This is an instructive part of the film. If you are trying to hang tightly to the remnants of society, you don’t invest in schools or civic projects, you hammer down on the citizens who have nothing left to lose, the ones who've gone a little batshit because they were on the edges that fell apart first.
I won’t give away the rest of the film for those who haven’t seen it, but in between the Village People antics of the Last Police and some bizarrely idyllic moments of Max’s family life, we get to bear witness to the final crumblings of civilization, which of course open the doorways to the apocalypse and a spectacular film franchise.
It’s almost sad to note that George Miller had virtually no budget for his fantasy film and had to resort to filming reality. So, the dusty dying towns are real, the boarded up buildings are real, the deserted industrial plants are very real. Inadvertently, Mr. Miller struck a chord in the film goer by basically filming a documentary and punctuating it with exploding cars.
What is less familiar to people is his original script, the one before even his meagre financial backers got their sticky fingers into it.
George Miller was an emergency room doctor, that is to say the sort of person with an enormous will to work long and hard and face ugliness with optimism and determination. Not the sort of man who makes depressing end of the world films. I have it on good authority from the internet that his original script was much more uplifting.
In it, the film opens on the same scenario, only our cast responded differently.
Being the last formal social institution standing, and inspired by the same “the people need a hero” speeches that made it to the final cut, our heroes throw out the rules they knew from the dominant economy. They sell off most of the town’s cars and motorcycles to a nearby city that isn’t yet so badly degraded as the periphery. They cannibalize and sell off great chunks of the various industrial plants too. With the seed money, Max starts a horse ranch. Miller depicts him as the kind of visionary hero who invests for the long haul: Horses, of course are self-fuelling, self-reproducing labour and transportation machines that also manufacture fertilizer. Goose, in an inspired fit of pragmatism, uses his share of the seed money to start an ostrich farm. The hearty plains birds do well in the outback and provide a steady food supply to the town that the world forgot. Yes, in the original, we don’t have to watch vibrant life-affirming Goose get barbecued. Soon everyone is gainfully employed in the busy pursuit of keeping the community alive and well.
Initially, before they retire the last of the cars, they form road crews who, with pickaxes, tear up segments of the highways at intervals, to make their little oasis less inviting to those who would just pillage their way to the end. The recently unemployed chemical engineers from the plant immediately start repurposing the asphalt for more constructive uses.
The mechanical engineers, relieved from the odious and underemployed duty of keeping the cars running set themselves to building windmills and other equipment that can generate electricity from the surrounding environment. With very little formal education, many of the towns people get in on these endevours. It was to be filmed as a montage to BTO's "Taking Care Of Business"
The until now perpetually unemployed post grads from various humanities programs form the ambassador league and build ties with nomadic indigenous tribes who are developing a loose trading web with other towns. There is a glorious scene where, once the cancerous growth economy is abandoned, it becomes clear how easy it is to forge alliances with the aboriginals. Had it been filmed, the audience could have thrilled in the tension of watching tribes who might have essentially taken control of the economy as pedestrian railway barons--overseers of all trade, but instead form mutually beneficial trade schemes, as had been their wont for millennia.
the third act opens a year later and a majority of the biker gangs have come asking to trade labour for food and are accepted into the town and it turns out there was nothing especially villainous about them.
The final scenes, had they been filmed would undoubtedly have earned Mel an Oscar. George’s script was, even in this benevolent version, still called Mad Max. Just for very different reasons. The film was to close many years down the road. An aging Max has become one of the town story tellers. He entertains and educates the children with frightening tales of how things were before. He speaks of poisonous smoke billowing into the sky, of faceless men in the castles called “banks” who decreed when people could work, and whether they were allowed shelter. We, as the audience, can see his stories for what they are, cautionary tales, designed in a “lest we forget” fashion. There is a perversion of these scenes in the third Mad Max movie, so all was not lost.
The great ending warmth that was to bring the audience to tears comes from Max saying these are his tales of the Mad World that came before, and the children laugh merrily at Max, unable to believe any of his stories because they are just too far fetched, and they dub him “Mad Max”.
The screen fades with max looking up into the clear starlit sky with a never-lost relieved look. Wind turbines tilt lazily in the background, and just before the screen goes dark, we see the soft loving look of Max’s wife pushing some grey hair behind her ear as she watches the children cavorting about over top of Max in their glee.
Well, anyway, that version of the script never got made, but we still got a pretty nifty Mad Max Trilogy, revolving around violence and a lust for fuel. Pure fantasy, I know(it's not like the whole world will go to war over gas), but not every movie can be a social drama.