Saturday Movie Review: The Road Warrior

Saturday, November 18, 2006

I got all I need here.

You don't have a future. I could offer you that.

Before Nicolas Roeg came to Australia in 1969, other British and American directors occasionally came to Australia to film. There are, for instance, On The Beach (1959) and The Sundowners (1960). Both were produced, at least in part, at various locations in Australia. Post-production (e.g., film and sound editing, music scoring, etc.) though was done on other continents. The movie Roeg was directing, Walkabout, was no different in this respect, but there was one necessary difference which began, in a small way, to introduce the inhabitants of the land down under to the moviegoers of the rest of the world. That difference is that one of the principal characters is a male aboriginal Australian on rite-of-passage walkabout. Roeg cast a 17-year-old ceremonial dancer named David Gulpilil (Gumpilil in the Walkabout credits) to play the role.

I don't know that I've ever seen a movie released prior to 1975 which was made (as opposed to being partially or wholly filmed/produced) in Australia and it wasn't until 1979 that I began seeing movies that had been post-produced there during the years 1975 to 1978. It began with a double-bill, at the local repertory theater, of movies directed by Aussie-born Peter Weir. David Gulpilil has a part in The Last Wave, released in Australia in 1977. This is the movie that brought Weir to the world's attention, perhaps because Richard Chamberlain stars, but more likely because Colleen McCullough's novel, The Thorn Birds, was a best-seller in 1977. [The mini-series, none of which was filmed in Australia, aired in 1983.] Picnic at Hanging Rock, tagged as "Australia's First International Hit" (it played at many international film festivals after its 1975 release,) was the other movie on the bill that evening.

One year later, in 1980, a number of movies made in Australia during the previous three years got art house and better releases in the United States and since then movies made in Australia have appeared on general admission screens worldwide on a regular basis. Peter Weir went on to direct Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously before coming to America where he's directed Witness, Dead Poets Society, Fearless, The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World among others. Among my twenty favorite domestic releases of 1980 are Aussie director Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Aussie director Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career and Aussie director Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant, which opened in mid-May in Australia and in the last week in December in the United States. [It got its better release because United Artists withdrew Heaven's Gate to try to salvage it.] Schepisi later directed Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark and Six Degrees of Separation. Armstrong later directed High Tide, The Last Days of Chez Nous and Little Women. Beresford later directed Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy.

And then there are the actors who were born or raised in Australia: Mel Gibson, Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, Paul Hogan, Kerry Fox, Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor, Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, Russell Crowe, Toni Collette, Rachell Griffiths, Cate Blanchett, Guy Pearce, Simon Baker, Heath Ledger and Hugh Jackman in particular. A short list of known Australian-born actors prior to 1980: Errol Flynn, Dame Judith Anderson and Leo McKern. And whatever happened to David Gulpilil? He turned up, in the outback, in the most successful (at least in terms of U.S. box office) Australian movie, Crocodile Dundee, and a few years ago he played the tracker in a movie about Australia's "Stolen Generations", Rabbit-Proof Fence. In other words, he's had a long, but limited, career.

Two Australian movies have topped my yearly list of favorites. Breaker Morant, my favorite 1980 release, is an adaptation of a 1978 stage play about a real 1902 court martial which took place during the final phase of the Second Boer War. Three Australians were tried for, among other things, shooting Boer prisoners. The movie swept the Australian Film Institute Awards in 1980. The only nominees who didn't win were the three actors who lost to the two actors who did. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar. It's a new kind of war, George. It's a new war for a new century. The issues involved in deciding how to wage war and in how to secure peace when one side is using guerilla tactics are of even more moment today than they were in 1980. It is a movie I cannot recommend highly enough to those who like crisp writing, brauva acting and inducements to think in their movie entertainment. The other movie that tops one of my lists has little of any of that and, of course, is, in my view, the slightly better movie.

Two days ago, I saw a vehicle that would haul that tanker. You want to get out of here? You talk to me.

It's the sequel to a movie that grossed more than $100 million worldwide, but was little seen in the United States in 1979. I was a bit surprised that I had no memory of having even heard of Mad Max when I lined up to see The Road Warrior on opening night in Berkeley, at the same repertory theater, in May of 1982, but then in 1979 the American distribution rights to Mad Max, a low-budget revenge movie with great road stunts and superb editing, were purchased by a studio which was taken over by another three months later. The new owners didn't think much of it. They had the dialogue dubbed by Americans. Yes, that's right. Even many years later some other voice was coming out of Mel Gibson's mouth when Mad Max played in the United States. It was dumped into cheap theaters here and there and many of those who saw it, critics included, thought it good, but most of its potential audience weren't aware they'd missed it until a few years later. Warner Brothers, who did the distribution for The Road Warrior worldwide, called it Mad Max 2 everywhere but in the USA.

In addition to having a lot more money to work with on a second "Mad Max" movie, the director-producer team of George Miller and the late Byron Kennedy had been reading their Joseph "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" Campbell. This time around they placed their hero alone and on the roads of a wasteland. Max is in his trial phase and if and how he will find a way to reintegrate into human society is the subject of the story. There are no subplots to speak of. The future is post-apocalyptic. There is narration to set the stage and to sum up and in between there is violence, violence and more violence, terse dialogue, fantastic road stunts, colorful characters, even better editing except for one glaring error late in the movie, and an iconic performance by Mel Gibson, a wonderfully complex actor, as the hero, Max. Casual, brutal, graphic violence in the service of an engaging story has never been much of a hinderance to my ability to enjoy a movie. On the whole, I find it more distracting that the wounded in classic code movies aren't seen to bleed.

...and the Road Warrior. He Lives now, only in my memories.

They made a third Mad Max movie, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a couple of years later, but like many sequels it was too self-referential and audience-expansion and future-sequels minded and it pales in comparison to the other two movies. They'd decided to make a fourth and in 2003 the pre-production was rather far along when the United States took out Saddam Hussein and Mel Gibson, from what I can tell, decided that that created too many potential security problems given where (Namibia) they'd decided to film. Mad Max: Fury Road died and, to date, has not been resurrected.

Another movie on my 1982 favorites list, Smash Palace, was directed by Aussie director Roger Donaldson. He filmed it in New Zealand in 1980. In 1990, Jane Champion, resident Australian born in New Zealand, went there to film parts of An Angel at My Table and a couple of years later went again with Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill and Anna Paquin in tow. The result was The Piano. A year later a Kiwi director named Peter Jackson had his first international hit with Heavenly Creatures, a movie about an infamous 1952 New Zealand murder case. A 17-year-old British actress named Kate Winslet got what turned out to be her big break when she was cast to play one of the teenage murderesses. When, at the end of the last century, a live-action adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy was greenlighted, everyone not already there came to New Zealand to make it and when, in 2003, the third movie had its world premiere, that premiere was in Wellington. Its worldwide theatrical gross came to $2,916,544,743.00 or thereabouts. The two big box office movies from last December, King Kong and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were made, in whole or in part, in New Zealand.

And now that we've seen what the Kiwis have to offer? Hollywood?

...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. And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again.

While we wait...and wait...and wait...moviegoers are embracing, or not, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan? What other fictional future does this call to mind?

Why is the Deliverator so equipped? Because people rely on him. He is a roll model. This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world. When it gets down to it—talking trade balances here—once we've brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they're making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikiistan and selling them here—once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel—once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity—y'know what? There's only four things we do better than anyone else

microcode (software)
high-speed pizza delivery

—Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

Make that three things.


loner said...

Well, now I've done it. Feel free any of you "real" contributors to edit it if the language at the end is a problem or if you want to tuck part of it in behind the "Click here to read more" link.


Barry Dauphin said...

Is this the movie where Mel Gibson gets pulled over for drunk driving and spews antisemetic insults?

terrye said...

Man, this movie was a big deal when it came out.

People who believe the world is bleak today just need to watch this movie and see where people were coming from back then.