My favorite movie of the last couple of years is not The Road Warrior. Nonetheless it's high on the list: crowding Tootsie and La Traviata at the top; edging out small attractive films like Diner and Local Hero; easily besting anything in its own category of action film. I hesitate to write about The Road Warrior for one reason only. Every time I see it, I feel like Marinetti, the abominable Italian futurist, expostulating on the beauties of warfare. The Road Warrior celebrates fighting. One could sense the unease in many favorable notices of the film, and even more in Pauline Kael's strained put-down (The New Yorker, September 6, 1982). Kael, she who had sung the glories of The Warriors, turned from The Road Warrior in faint disgust. The movie was pretentious. The director, unfortunate autodidact, had perused the works of Jung and Joseph Campbell. The result was a "sappy" and "sentimental" work. Thus argued Kael, but she must have seen another movie. No one since Homer has done fights so well and given us so much reason to wonder at them.
Homer? The Iliad? Has your reviewer gone mad? To find out, let us start at the beginning. Before The Road Warrior George Miller made Mad Max, a movie which is indeed sappy and sentimental. Place: Australia, presumably. Time: the near future. Motorcycle gangs roam the highways, terrorizing unwary travellers. Only an effective police force stands between civilization and anarchy. Our hero Max (Mel Gibson) is one of the brave cops who risk their lives cruising the roads, pursuing evil marauders. Max is married to a beautiful woman (who worries about his moods) and is father to a beautiful child. Before the movie is over, his family will be slaughtered by the worst motorcyclist on a raunchy continent. After taking his revenge, Max becomes an alienated wanderer.
Mad Max serves its purpose. It attempts to answer the eternal adolescent question, "Why do I feel so sorry for myself?" It comes up with an appropriate fable, culled from the movies of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and the other military/vigilante heroes fantasized by Hollywood. The movie is not much fun, though. It alternates between miscalculated sentiment—Max's rambling love speeches to his wife—and miscalculated attempts to evoke male camaraderie on the highway patrol. The action sequences are so sparse that we start to wonder what happened. Did Miller literally run out of gas?
He still had a movie to make. Mad Max was a big hit with youthful audiences, so he got the chance and also the money to make it. Running out of gas is the fear but not the fate of the wonderful characters who populate The Road Warrior. The place is still Australia, the time a little further in the future. World War III has come and gone. All that seems to be left of the universe are a few well-paved highways, where desperate drivers cruise in search of fuel. The premise seems to be satirical, but Miller does not present it that way. For the movie's duration this is the world we live in. Fighting and gasoline count, not much else. Enter Mad Max, at a hundred and ten miles an hour. He travels in a souped-up wreck of a car, his dog at his side. Glancing out the window, Max can't help but notice a couple of sports on a motorcycle pulling up next to him. The big one in front (Vernon Wells) wears a Mohawk hairdo. He is attired in leather and metal. Behind him sits his albino boyfriend. As Paul Newman once said, "Who are these guys, anyway?" Hostilities commence. Max shoots the big guy with a formidable dart. A little later, while he drains the gas from a truck full of corpses, the cyclists show up once more. They don't attack. The big guy rears up on the motorcycle, screaming defiance. He tears the dart from his arm, then turns the cycle around and races away.
The big guy is Achilles. No, the film doesn't call him that, but he's Achilles all the same, the unreflective, unstoppable warrior with his inevitable companion Patrocles. We will see more of Achilles and Patrocles later. In the meantime Max goes on to the next stop. He investigates a seemingly abandoned flying machine—a sort of go-cart helicopter—and is surprised by a gangly fellow with bad teeth who jumps out of the sand where he had buried himself. The ambusher (Bruce Spence) has laid a trap for passersby. With the help of his dog, Max outsmarts him. What will the unfortunate aviator bid for his freedom? He will take Max to a magical place where the last refinery in the world is operating.
Now the film begins to take shape. The refinery turns out to be protected by a fortress. Flame-throwing guns guard not only the oil but a besieged community living over it. Outside the walls are camped the warriors of the Humungus, a strong man with an executioner's mask. Inside the gates is a relatively peaceable community. There are warriors among them: an Amazon, a few gunners, the Feral Kid (a near-infant who wields a deadly boomerang). For the rest of it, the refinery people are punk in style but bourgeois in aspiration. Everyone wants to get to the beach, hundreds of miles away, where the Heavy Metal types have not penetrated. The community is prevented from going anywhere by the Humungus and his forces.
The movie gets a kind of rhythm going. One absurdity follows on another. Each absurdity makes sense in its particular context. Seldom has a tall tale been narrated with just this mixture of humor and intensity. From the moment when the Humungus struts in front of the refinery, we know pretty much where the story is headed. Max will charm the refinery people by his invincible sullenness and driving skills. They will plead that he save them. He will reluctantly agree to do so. There will be a chase where Max, the Humungus, Achilles (maddened, of course, by the death of Patrocles), and the Feral Kid all have it out together. These events are preordained, yet each successive scene produces its own surprise, its own pleasure.
One revealing moment in The Road Warrior comes during an early assault on the refinery. Achilles fights in the army of the Humungus. He is the best and most courageous warrior of the bunch. When he comes vaulting on to the walls of the fortress, he kills people with a wonderful lyric enthusiasm. This is his life: he gets caught up in it, inspired. We have just been watching the defenders of the fortress enjoy burning cyclists with flamethrowers. Faced by Achilles, everybody panics. Achilles finishes off one of his opponents after a spectacular triple back-flip, accompanied, if I recall, by a magnificent war cry. Two different styles of slaughter are set against each other. Incinerating thugs is acknowledged to have its pleasures, but it can't compare—it can't keep up—with the primitive warrior's complete engagement.
This kind of distinction matters. It raises the question of what is possible from violence, of how the experience of fighting might matter in different cultures. Miller sets up other dramas of combat in much the same way. Each killing has its point; each contributes to a larger clash of assumptions. Max, the aviator, the Feral Kid, Achilles, the Amazon, and the gunners all contribute to the mixture. Because everyone risks—or suffers—an appropriate kind of death, The Road Warrior becomes an action movie with an unusual sense of proportion. The movie shares with epic the premise that physical struggle has an internal logic revealed by narration, evident to the reader or spectator if not to the combatants.
Of recent American movies, the one that comes nearest in mood and material to The Road Warrior is Raiders of the Lost Ark. The difference between the films is suggestive in several ways. The Spielberg/Lucas concoction has a complex mystery plot, but it comes off as a series of set-pieces, each—as it seems — distracting from the others. The Road Warrior is all set-pieces, yet it never leaves its one world of desert combat; it uses limitations of time and space to give the sense of a cumulative, evolving narrative that isn't really there. Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson are both plausible leading men. The former, however, must carry the story on his own and the weight is too great. He's not enough of a character. Gibson isn't either, but he inhabits a world where there are six or seven other memorable personalities, and just as he strengthens their presence so do they strengthen his. Raiders' best moments come in its first ten minutes. The Road Warrior builds to a genuine climax—a meeting of minds (or bodies) more exhilarating and alarming than anything I can remember from a movie of this kind.
A much-praised moment in Raiders summarizes the difference between this movie and The Road Warrior. After a series of hand-to-hand combats, Harrison Ford gets tired of fighting and shoots the last in a long series of opponents, a huge, turbaned villain flashing a scimitar. It is as though director and star have suddenly tired of their shenanigans. They reject one diversion to move to another—and who can blame them, given the repetitiveness of the material? In The Road Warrior, no episode could be halted by this jokey means. The movie's course—particularly its deaths—must follow a pattern less arbitrary, more readable. The movie is diverting in its avoidance of the arbitrary, whereas Raiders claims to amuse us through sheer will-power: this happened, and this, and this.
Since this is a peculiar time in American history—since the prospect of a Central American war is far from negligible—I hesitate about any film where the fun is in the violence. Bob Greene, the Chicago Tribune columnist, recently wrote that he wished he had fought in Vietnam. Greene feels that war is an invaluable educational experience, one no prospective soldier should reject. We fight in order to understand ourselves. This seems to me a foolish idea, the sort of perception that might be expected from a person with fewer years and fewer opportunities for knowing the world. You can make a case for fighting wars, but not on the basis of self-improvement.
Greene might be better off going to see The Road Warrior once every week or so. Few films can better satisfy the desire for significant violence, for death as a form of meaning. Can we satisfy this desire in real life? Before we try, we might think long on Miller's artistry—on the many adjustments necessary before even a movie can get such sensations over to us. Marinetti's glorification of war was an attempt to make life into art. It is better to keep art where it belongs: in this case, up on the screen. The Road Warrior succeeds brilliantly in doing this—always assuming that we know how to watch it.