“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air”
From the poem, “Darkness” by Lord Byron (1-5).
A world war devastates the earth and reduces the people to their basest selves. They loot and riot and kill leaving only nomadic scavengers traveling alone or in packs. Those who thrive on chaos, have a chance. Lord Byron’s poem speaks of darkness. The blinding, incessant sun of Australia’s desert belies a darkness of a different sort that has descended on those left alive after the firestorm. As the narrator says at the beginning of the film, “Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive.”
“And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d”
From the poem, “Darkness” (10-13).
In the film, civilization and order fall apart in the aftermath of war. There are no cities. Max (Mel Gibson) drives endlessly through the vast Australian desert searching for food, water, and gasoline. Gas, necessary for the modern Bedouin lifestyle, now holds more value than diamonds or gold. Without it, there’s no relief from the harsh climate. Without fuel, to paraphrase the narrator at the start of the film, they’re nothing. On foot, a man could fall prey to the sun, starvation, or animals, often the two-legged kind.
“the wild birds shriek’d
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d
And twin’d themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.”
From the poem, “Darkness” (32-37).
With so many souls living only to find food and fuel, the world, in this case, the Australian bush, becomes a mechanized LORD OF THE FLIES, in which everyone else is Piggy. What keeps THE ROAD WARRIOR from becoming a series of car crashes and bloody melees is the humanity director and co-writer George Miller allows to seep through the twisted wreckage.
THE ROAD WARRIOR has great action sequences which must have kept every Australian stunt man employed for months. The film has convincingly evil villains who deserve their violent ends, but it’s the virtue in many of the other characters that we remember. THE ROAD WARRIOR is not just relentless, pounding action with occasional bon mots. All right, it is relentless, pounding action without many mots at all, bon or otherwise. Miller doesn’t need them. He lets us know the characters using minimal dialogue and screen time. He even allows the bad guys to have some depth before killing them off in spectacular ways. Because we’ve met these people, we’re drawn into their world. Their lives matter to us. In the midst of this chaotic, desolate scenario, we care about a feral child, a quirky pilot in need of dental work, and a fiercely loyal mongrel dog.
“The meagre by the meagre were devour’d,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay”
From the poem, “Darkness” (45-49).
Why do we care? George Miller, along with fellow writers Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant, shows us little glimpses of goodness in his bleak version of the future. He demonstrates this goodness using a musical toy and a child, an expression of horror while witnessing a senseless murder, a dog’s loyalty, and a leader who keeps his word.
Oddly, that decency in the face of tragedy brought to mind another film about desperate people on a road trip from hell. As I watched Mohawk-sporting cretins in assless chaps run amok in the Australian desert, I thought of THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Yes, I mean John Ford’s sweeping chronicle of the Joad family’s trek from their Oklahoma farm to the promised land of California. The film shows a family forced to scrounge for food and a place to live surviving despite constant assaults by evil brutes and cruel circumstance. All through their discouraging journey, Ford allows small rays of light to pierce his dark tale. The nobility of John Carradine’s homespun preacher, Ma Joad’s treatment of starving children in the run down camp, Al’s longing for a girl, and Tom’s dance with Ma as he sings Red River Valley all prove the clan has lost everything but what makes them human.
Miller could have been reading Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness” when he wrote THE ROAD WARRIOR. The poem’s post-apocalyptic tone fits Miller’s vision of a dark future. He could also have been reading Steinbeck or Golding. The point is, despite its reputation as a rollicking action film, THE ROAD WARRIOR is much more. It’s an uplifting tale full of heroes and villains and hope and enough car wrecks to keep a claims adjuster busy for months.
This article appeared originally in The Brattle Film Notes. Brattle Theatre