Action Junkie: Mad Max (1979)

When George Miller’s first feature film, Mad Max was released to audiences worldwide in 1979, the genre of the Action film did not exist as a genre like it does today. This is in part because films like Mad Max helped to define and establish such a genre. Taking a story idea and boiling its’ narrative down to a simple spectacle driven element gave Miller room to impose the aspects of typical film storytelling conventions, like character development and setting, and compress and infuse them into the action. With the films’ use of imagery, symbolism and metaphor account for most of the dramatic elements that would otherwise be found in dialogue and exposition in broader, more conventional films. Instead, that time is spent forwarding the plot with brilliantly crafted stunts, using innovative techniques. In this way George Miller was able to direct the visual narrative of the film into an experience as well as a story. This was the beginning of the modern day Action genre and few films could present a finer example of its burgeoning viability.

In my opinion the first twelve minutes of Mad Max presents some of the hardest evidence in film of character, setting and plot compacted into sheer spectacle. From the opening shot we are being fed images of information that are never spoken of in the rest of the film. We fade in on, accompanied with the score’s triumphant anthem, the entrance to the Halls of Justice. The shot comes from street level, tilting slightly up, presenting the building as one of importance. It will come to be the film’s only physical structure representing the establishment. When we look closer at this shot though, we can see the minute complexities that litter the film. Framing the right side of the building’s entrance, yet obviously existing in the space before it, on the street corner, is a Stop Sign. Presented in this way it acts not as just a direction for the traffic, but a sign of caution in relation to the building. This begins a theme of intimidation that will run through all the films in the trilogy, to survive there must be the appearance of toughness, but underneath is just frailty mixed with hope, weaknesses in a lawless world. Looking at the words that hang above the entrance, Halls of Justice we notice that the letter U in Justice hangs a bit, and looks as if it has been that way for some time. Behind the entrance, examining the building itself, we see it looks rather in disrepair. Its physical appearance is rundown and used. The brick around the entrance is dirty and decaying. For a building representing the establishment’s form of order it is not paid much, or any, attention to at all, esthetically. More tellingly, perhaps upkeep is a luxury not afforded in this world. Such signs and vagary leave us wondering, what is the rest of the world like? What brought it this way? These are question the film never answers.

The opening shot quickly fades into an image of a desolate road lined with telephone poles. Across the screen appears to the sound of a typewriter, the words, “A Few Years from Now…” indicating to us that this is an undetermined point in the future. The shot quickly continues to fade to an image of a Skull and Crossbones painted with a stencil, in the middle of the road. That image fades out and we then fade in on a road sign that reads, “Anarchie Road 3 km“, panning to the left of the sign we see a yellow, blue, and red police cruiser parked on the side of the road. The road sign of course plays an integral part in the film’s hyper imagery. The word Anarchy, in this case misspelled, means a lack of order, and then there is the fact it is the name of a road, indicating the, what and where, at the core of the film. Order and chaos are going to fight for the right to dominantly exist and they will do it on the road.

The final bit of exposition the introduction gives us comes when the camera sweeps across another road sign. This one reads: “Highway 9 Sector 26, High Fatality Road – Deaths This Year: 57, Monitored By Main Force Patrol” The letter O in Force is crossed out and written above it in red is the letter A, spelling out, Farce. The camera continues to pan from the sign to another yellow, blue, and red police cruiser, parked on the side of the road, this one is under repair. Our introduction to the film’s protagonist, Max Rockatansky is one, like the setting, shrouded in mystery. As he works to repair his vehicle we are only given low, close shots of Max, nothing that reveals his full features, face or otherwise, and continues throughout the opening action sequence until its climax when Max emerges from his vehicle and removes his sunglasses, giving us a full introduction shot.


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Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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