A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.
1981: He’s a Reasonable Man!
THE ROAD WARRIOR (dir. George Miller)
Around 1940, a kid from central Iowa named Art Pille became a baseball phenomenon. He—according to family legend, at least—was invited to try out for the Cubs, but got a Luke Skywalker-style kibosh from his father, who needed him to stick around on the hog farm and help out for another season or two. Later events would make it clear that his fire for baseball didn’t go away, but any future he might have had with the Cubs got scotched by Pearl Harbor and the United States’ subsequent entry into World War II.
Pille was drafted into the Army and trained as an aircraft mechanic for the Army Air Corps. He was posted to Australia as a small part of the massive organization Douglas MacArthur was assembling to retake the Western Pacific. Stationed in Brisbane in a logistical support role, Pille had time to meet a local girl. They got married; he stuck around for a while after demobilization and played some baseball in Australia (I still have a Sydney Truck and Tractor replica hat somewhere in my basement) before they moved back to the US and started a very large family, creating a small but fervent pocket of Australian national pride in eastern Nebraska.
It’s 1983. I’m sitting in Mrs. Gardner’s 3rd grade class in Blair, Nebraska, about 25 miles north of Offutt Air Force Base, which sits on the south side of Omaha. Mrs. Gardner is, for some goddamned reason, telling a room full of third graders that Offutt is the headquarters of something called the Strategic Air Command and that, if there was a war, it would be a big target for the Soviets and everything around us would get blown up. That’s a scary thing, she acknowledges, but we should also be proud to live next to such an important place. Speaking subjectively, sitting there at my desk I feel more of the scary side of that than the proud side of that.
So, with all of that established, maybe you can see why I was primed for The Road Warrior to smash into my brain as the Most Important Thing Ever when I first saw it during its run of endless screenings on HBO.* An Australian movie!!! About life after nuclear war!!! Holy shit!!! Plus, and this is important, it’s the result of one of the greatest filmmakers in history fully hitting his stride. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I saw it—stop me if you’ve heard this one—way too young, and I’ve never stopped loving it. Between The Road Warrior and INXS, the mid 80s were a great time to have a lot of Australian pride, and I don’t care how many Crocodiles Dundee you wave in my face.
*There’s gonna be a point, of course, where I stop talking about how young I was when I saw these movies, and how central they were to my developing brain; but right now we’re in the period where the movies that dominated cable when I was young were coming out. We’ll crawl out of this before too long!
George Miller is a filmmaker par excellence, but in some important ways he seems to think like a cartoonist (it’s not an accident that one of his key collaborators for Fury Road was the cartoonist Brendan McCarthy). His work is stunningly visual in a way that not a lot of filmmakers’ are; his characters are larger-than-life and exaggerated in ways that instantly communicate volumes about them, while somehow remaining grounded in the heightened realities of his films. You can look at this still and immediately know what kind of guys you’re dealing with (very bad) and what kind of movie you’re watching (awesome).
Or consider how much of Max’s life and world are communicated purely through visuals in the early going:
Even if this movie didn’t have an affecting story with a lean script and some of the most amazing action sequences ever put to film, the raw look of it would be enough to fix it into your brain. I can’t prove this, but I’ve long thought that mid-80s middle America’s notion of the punk aesthetic came more from The Road Warrior than from any punks they’d seen in person.
Miller’s movies are kinetic and visceral; in his best stuff, character is expressed more through action than speech.** Mel Gibson famously has only sixteen lines in the entire movie, which is handy because it helps balance the fact that he’s undeniably magnetic in this role despite being an absolute piece of shit in the real world. Maybe he’s easier to handle if he’s not talking much. Oddly, the bad guys do a lot more talking; the Humungus’ best, most menacing scene is his “just walk away” ultimatum, and the Toadie is more or less defined by constant empty talk. Wez, on the other hand, barely talks, which I guess furthers the idea that he and Max are reflections of each other.
**This—and just about everything else that rules about The Road Warrior—gets amped up even further in Fury Road, which for my money is about as close as you can get to a perfect movie. Another movie I love for similar reasons, by the way, is Cuaron’s Gravity, a visually stunning action-is-character piece without a ton of dialogue.
There’s just so much to love about this movie, much of it tied into Miller’s ability to pair the trenchant and the faintly silly. The old man in the refinery town who, after hearing the Humungus’ transparently menacing ultimatum, says there’s nothing left to do but for him to go out and have a talk with the “reasonable man” in a harness and hockey mask leading a horde of marauders! The visual where the Gyro Captain is being held prisoner in the back of Max’s car by a dog holding a bone tied to the trigger of a shotgun! The insane automotive ballet of the movie’s many kickass car-chase scenes!
Miller’s work is deep enough that you can hang deeper significance onto just about everything on the screen. The aforementioned old man who wants to bargain with the Humungus, for instance, turns out to be a useful metaphor for a lot of American political situations; and really, all of Miller’s Mad Max movies are ultimately about what “civilization” really is, if you zoom out enough. Or you can just watch it to see rad stuff. It’s great when a movie lets you do both.
What a great movie; I just wish the dog made it. At least that happens offscreen. Anyway: those Australians know how to make a movie.
One last thing real quick! If you’re enjoying these, and have some change rattling around in your pocket, I’ve got one of them thar ko-fi things set up. I’m also considering starting a Patreon with extra movie writeups for each year; let me know if that’s a thing you’d be interested in!