“A whirlwind of looting, a firestorm of fear. Men began to feed on men. On the roads it was a white line nightmare. Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive. The gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice. And in this maelstrom of decay, ordinary men were battered and smashed. Men like Max. The warrior Max. In the roar of an engine, he lost everything. And became a shell of a man, a burnt out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland.” -Narrator
The Road Warrior, one of those rare sequels superior to the original, set the gold standard for post-apocalyptic film. Set in the deserts of Australia after a cataclysmic final war, civilization has disintegrated, leaving a scant few scavengers rummaging through the wreckage to eke out some modicum of survival. Whereas its predecessor Mad Max is set in a time and place in which some remnant of civilization strives to maintain order against the overwhelming wave of barbarism, The Road Warrior takes us to the edge of the precipice. The sort of world where men slurp from a can of dog chow, surviving off of the dregs of the old world, tossing it to their loyal helpers, the weakest licking the residue of spittle and being glad for it.
The film layers on symbols in the background imagery, skated over if you’re just watching for the admittedly brilliant action sequences. The gangs wear black, the besieged wear white. Max of course wears black as well. The gangs kill every animal that crosses their path: dog, rabbit, kangaroo, people. The besieged save them: pigs and chickens running underfoot, even wild birds roost in their fortress, the only place safe for life. The gangs treat people as dogs, chained and leashed for discipline, even as the besieged treat dogs like people. Justice is measured in how the helpless are treated.
At its heart, it is a simple story played out in a hundred stories in every genre yet invented. The civilized folk under siege, hanging by their fingernails, the barbarians pounding down the gates, the lone outsider appearing out of the dust, deliverer of salvation because he is as much an agent of violence as the barbarians.
There is so much hope in the eyes of the besieged, hope that this man is doing something because it’s good, not because it’s for survival. When he says he’s doing it for himself, he’s not lying and that’s the terrifying thing about him. The civilized ones look down on him, condemn him for exactly what he is. So you tried something good this time in hope of a reward. That doesn’t condone what you are: a vulture, not a creator. And in the end, they need him anyway, their own leashed monster to fight the monsters. They send him off as a decoy without even telling him, and he laughs.
A minimalist approach to sound lets the stretches of wasteland echo with silence, ripped by the sudden violence of roaring engines. Dialog is uttered only occasionally. Max himself speaks so rarely, even when directly spoken to, that it comes as a surprise when he does droll out a few words. Mel Gibson plays one of his best roles here, one that is easily dismissed due to the lack of dialogue and genre setting. He fills out a character through total lack of emotion, a walking poker face of smoldering intensity. His vacant expressions are deader than Ted Bundy’s, a smile here and there, but never one that touches his eyes. He isn’t insane though, he’s perhaps the most rational person left in the blasted desolation. Every decision turns on the cold calculation of personal survival rather than either descending into bloodlust or ascending to self sacrifice.
But the wasteland forces the reckoning of a dialectic, the sheer violence taking away any third alternative of retreat, indifference, or freeriding. Fight for civilization or fight for yourself. The wildcard characters fall one by one: Max, the gyro-captain, the feral boy. The latter is the key, the entire film a battle for his soul whether the other characters see it or not. The mute child is the perfect blank slate of non-society, little more than an animal, all violence and snarls. But he’s curious about this strange pack of humans who don’t seem to get what the state of nature is. When the world ends, it’s not the survivors that rebuild, it’s the next generation, the ones to whom the old world is a myth, no more real than the stories they tell over the fires. All they have is the present. Only they can build something new because the survivors try to rebuild instead. The feral child grows to be the narrator, the chieftain of the Great Northern Tribe, choosing to create rather than destroy.
The only thing that matters in a world that is dying are those who can build something.
“Tell me your story. What burned you out, huh? Kill one man too many? See too many people die? Lose some family? Oh, so that’s it, you lost your family? That makes you something special, does it?” -Pappagallo
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.