The Man We Called Max

I honestly can’t remember whether I saw Mad Max before or after I saw The Road Warrior.  I know I saw Mad Max at a drive-in, an incredibly appropriate setting considering the tone of the film, and that it was the awful Americanized dub that was the only version available here for decades.  But beyond that, I’m drawing a blank on which order I saw the two films in.  I want to say I saw it after The Road Warrior, because I recall being somewhat disappointed by it, which seems like a reasonable reaction to seeing it after its sequel.  But it also could have been because, to a kid in his mid-teens, it wasn’t exactly the slam-bang action fest it was promoted to be.  Which is something that works in its favor now that I watch it with adult eyes.

I can tell you with certainty my dad and I saw The Road Warrior in our local second-run theater in the middle of the summer of 1982, and we ate up every dusty, gasoline-soaked moment of it.  A year earlier we’d been blown away by the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and now here was a film that was basically all truck chase, and which sort of made Spielberg’s little jaunt through the desert look like a Sunday drive.  It’s a good thing I wasn’t driving at this point, or there’s a good chance I would have rolled whatever I got behind the wheel of next.  The film quickly cemented itself in my mental cinematic pantheon, and became one of those “OMG you saw that too?” touchstones that were a gateway to being one of the cool kids, in the days before everything was immediately available.

When I saw the title Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in my newest issue of Starlog a few years later, I was torn.  Yay new Mad Max movie!  Boo that title!  But that didn’t keep me out of theater that summer of 1985.  What we got was a sort of mix of the first two films, the social commentary of Mad Max mixed with the revving apocalyptic engines of The Road Warrior.  For those expecting a ramped up version of the second film, it was bound to be a let-down, but I found myself drawn in by the world-building, and by the hopeful message at the end.  Did we want Max doomed to wander the wasteland forever, or did we want his journey to eventually end with him belonging somewhere again?  Besides, the film still left room for more Max adventures before he set his sights on those lights on the horizon.

Only we never got them.  Mel Gibson became MEL GIBSON, and director George Miller seemed to lose his passion for the series after his longtime producer Bryon Kennedy died before the production of Thunderdome.  Gibson became a superstar, Miller went on to find mainstream success with pigs and penguins, and it felt like we’d seen the last of Max.

Not like we weren’t teased.  There were rumblings of a new film, with Gibson co-starring with Heath Ledger.  Then there was talk that Ledger would be a young Max with Gibson bookending the film.  Pre-production for a new film actually got underway in 2003, but then security concerns stemming from 9/11 and the Iraq War scuttled plans for filming in Namibia.  Then Ledger died, and the project morphed into a planned animated film.  Then Miller decided to go back to live action, and was ready to begin shooting when heavy rains turned the Australian desert into a decidedly un-apocalyptic sea of wildflowers.  It seemed as if Mad Max 4 was cursed, and I think most fans just put it out of their minds with an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude towards the whole thing.

Tomorrow (or later tonight for some of us), we’ll believe it.


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