Set in a post-apocalyptic world, The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max II) follows anti-hero Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) as he’s caught between two tribes warring over gasoline. Because mobility means survival, gasoline has become the only resource of any value; at one point, Max even tries to soak it up off the road with a cloth. It’s a simple premise, but co-writer/director George Miller’s goal is to strip The Road Warrior down to film’s most distinctive elements: cinematography and editing.Likea silent movie, this Action-Science Fiction-Western is very much about images and motion, a storywell-suited to its medium.
The first noticeable thing about Miller’s minimalist approach is the lack of sets. Except for a fuel refining plant, there isn’t a single building in the film. There aren’t even ruins left over from the vaguely-described disaster that befell civilization. Everything takes place along the deserted highways of New South Wales‘ outback. Into this wasteland, Miller places his characters and they, too, are reductions, given only the barest development. Instead, Miller relies on Western archetypes to speed up identification for the audience.
On one side are the settlers, the good guys who dress literally all in white. These settlers value community; they support each other and wish to rebuild civilization. There is also an innocence about them, as the locale of their future village (“Two thousand miles from here. Fresh water. Plenty of sunshine.”) is actually based on postcards left over from before the Fall. In the meantime, they guard the refining plant, a compound surrounded by walls of tires and automobile husks in what could only be described as a circling of the wagons. It is the fuel contained within that will eventually take them to their desired paradise.
On the other side are the marauders, bad guys dressed in black leather, the hard, cold texture of their straps, vests, and leggings a combination of fetishist S&M and anti-social Punk. They circle the compound looking for a way in, their motorcycles and Mohawk hairstyles recalling old-Hollywood Indians on horseback. They lack the value system of the settlers. Working together only out of self-interest, they have little regard for each other. When Toadie (Max Phipps) tries to catch a razor-edged boomerang and has his fingers sliced off, the only reaction from the others is one of mocking laughter.
In the middle of these two tribes appears Max, the lone gunfighter, complete with pistol slung low on his hip. A man with a painful past he refuses to discuss, Max prefers to remain detached. When the Feral Kid–Emil Minty in the Brandon de Wilde role–tries to accompany him, Max dismissively shoos him away without explanation. Max agrees to procure a truck to haul an oil tanker for the settlers, but does it only as a form of trade. He has no desire to join them in the long run. He remains “out there with the garbage," as leader Pappagallo (Mike Preston) puts it. It’s no coincidence that Max, the internally conflicted character, is clad entirely in black leather, the uniform of the marauders. In the end, Max’s humanity is rekindled, but he still refuses to join the settlers. Like Shane and Kambei Shimada before him, he’s a warrior who knows that a rebuilt civilization has no place for the likes of him.
Having stripped down the content, Miller relies on cinematic techniques to tell his story. Once the opening narration sets the scene, all exposition is dispensed with. There is little dialogue throughout the rest of the movie, and even much of that is extraneous. It’s not only the numerous action scenes, but the quieter moments that are often carried by expressions and gestures instead of dialogue. Except for the narration, The Feral Kid never speaks in the movie, while Max’s nemesis, Wez (Vernon Wells), relies on screams as often as actual words. Even character’s names are used fleetingly, or not all; it isn’t until the end credits that Warrior Woman (Virginia Hey) is even identified as such.
Released only one year after Kubrick’s Steadicam work in The Shining, Miller’s camera is astonishingly kinetic. Not satisfied to simply film cars as they speed by, he straps his camera to the vehicles themselves, as well as to a helicopter, resulting in an a virtuoso series of tracking shots. (Miller wisely avoids any mechanical-looking zooms). But unlike many films of today, this is not hyperactivity for its own sake. The camera mimics the movements of the automobiles that figure so prominently in the film in a perfect symbiosis of form and content. This is best exemplified by the climax in which the camera swoops and dives in and around the maunder-driven motorcycles, dune buggies, and trucks as they pursue Max’s oil tanker. It isn’t so much a car chase as a war on wheels. It could easily have been a visual mess, but the fast, tight editing helps turn it into an intricately choreographed sequence that puts any car-related scenes, including those in Bullitt and The French Connection, to shame.
The Road Warrior is part of a trilogy, sandwiched between the mediocre Mad Max and the substandard Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Fortunately, it’s self-contained and can be enjoyed on its own. Relying mostly on image and motion to tell its story, it’sa classic action film representative of cinema at its purest.