Mad Max turns 40: 5 films that influenced George Miller's action classic

Forty years after Mad Max pulled up to nitro-charge the action film and propel Mel Gibson to superstardom, we glance in the rear-view mirror to find the influences it left for dust.

12 April 2019

By Martyn Conterio

Mad Max (1979)

On 12 April 1979, the directorial debut of George Miller premiered at the Village East End 1-3 theatre in Melbourne. A privately financed low-budget movie, and the very definition of a guerrilla undertaking, Mad Max’s chaotic and stressful production almost put Miller off movie-making for life.

It was chaotic and stressful, because the former doctor turned filmmaker, along with producing partner Byron Kennedy, was making the film by the seat of his pants. Roads were closed and dangerous stunts mounted with no official permits or permission from local authorities. The crew had zero respect for their mild-mannered, softly-spoken leader. Camera equipment (specifically the Todd-AO lenses) needed constant recalibration. The original lead actress, Rosie Bailey, was involved in a motorbike crash (along with the film’s stunt coordinator, Grant Page), forcing a recasting of the role.

Critical reaction was mixed between the few who championed it (David Stratton, Derek Malcolm, Richard Corliss) and the many lining up to stick the boot in. Detractors were appalled at what they saw as a mindless enthusiasm for high-octane thrills and a disturbing anti-authoritarian streak. They accused Mad Max of being nothing but a pale imitation of superior American movies and an embarrassment to a resurgent industry then being lauded globally for its string of arthouse productions (such as 1975’s Picnic at Hanging Rock).

In Mad Max’s dystopian nightmare, biker gangs have taken over interstate highways and are locked in tit-for-tat skirmishes with Main Force Patrol units, one of whom will arise as a vengeance-seeking ‘road warrior’. Played by NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts) grad Mel Gibson, who was just 21 when filming began, the part of rogue law enforcer Max Rockatansky pole-vaulted the American-born actor into virtual overnight superstardom.

Nitro-charged by Miller’s idea of film montage as “visual rock’n’roll”, Mad Max became a benchmark in Aussie genre cinema and a box-office smash. It also birthed one of the most singular movie franchises in screen history, often imitated but never bettered.

Here are five films that fed into Miller’s inspiration.

Sergio Leone westerns (1964-68)

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

When Miller and Kennedy decided on filming Mad Max in the anamorphic widescreen format, their creative touchstone was Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and their successor, Once upon a Time in the West (all filmed in Techniscope, a cheaper alternative to CinemaScope). The pair told cinematographer David Eggby that shooting anamorphic would crucially enhance landscapes. Cars driving in packs would look especially potent. But filming in Panavision or Techniscope proved financially unviable and logistically prohibitive, so they opted to use a set of knackered but still beautiful Todd-AO 35mm lenses, which had been located at a Sydney rental house. Previously used on Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972), only one of them in fact worked.

While Max isn’t as laconic in the original as he’d become in later Mad Max films, there is also a distinct flavour of Leone’s antihero, The Man with No Name (played by Clint Eastwood), in the rogue cop’s overall genetic makeup. 

Bullitt (1968)

Director: Peter Yates

Bullitt (1968)

Peter Yates’s police thriller laid down the gauntlet. The film’s car chase was praised for attention to realism and dangerous-looking choreography (the cars travelled at maximum speed in certain shots). Steve McQueen putting pedal to the metal through the streets of San Francisco, in the iconic Ford Mustang, remains an exhilarating sequence, and left others like Miller itching to top it.

More crucially, perhaps, Bullitt introduced to movies the cool cop with the cooler car. Mad Max’s black-on-black V8 Interceptor (a remodelled 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT) became a totem of Max’s masculinity and among the most iconic vehicles in cinema. 

MASH (1970)

Director: Robert Altman

MASH (1970)

George Miller loved Robert Altman’s MASH so much that he left the theatre and immediately bought another ticket for the next showing. Altman’s Korean war satire would influence Mad Max in a big way – specifically in its anarchic spirit and satirical send-up of authority figures. Mad Max, after all, begins with an overweight cop, belly hanging out from under his T-shirt, perving through the scope of his rifle on a couple having sex in a field. Throughout the film there are countless examples of subversive humour (note the pig wind chime hanging on Max’s veranda), adding to the anti-authoritarian gesturing that critics found so troubling.  

Stone (1974)

Director: Sandy Harbutt

Stone (1974)

Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of this early Ozploitationer. A biker flick set in Sydney, it not only features a bunch of actors who’d later crop up in Mad Max (Hugh Keays-ByrneDavid BracksReg EvansRoger Ward, Vincent Gil), but there’s even a gang member named Bad Max. All Miller had to do was make an alliterative adjustment, and the rest is history.

Director Sandy Harbutt clearly doesn’t have Miller’s eye for action or cutting, but Stone is a scuzzy charmer with a genuinely shocking ending, while Keays-Byrne’s grumpy and menacing Toad foreshadows his memorable turn as Mad Max baddie, The Toecutter.

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

Director: Peter Weir

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

Like Mad Max, Peter Weir’s horror-tinged oddity rests on a depiction of corrupt and decaying western life reigning triumphant over ancient indigenous lands. Environmental and colonialist anxieties in both films are amplified by the uniqueness of the Australian countryside and magnitude of landscapes in widescreen (The Cars That Ate Paris was filmed using Panavision cameras). From this combination of photography and themes, a distinct gothic ambience emerged on screen.

Miller directly addressed the influence of Weir’s first feature in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). The ‘Plymouth Rock’ dune buggies are directly inspired by the modified VW Beetles covered with razor-sharp spikes seen in The Cars That Ate Paris.

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