When writer and director George Miller returned to the apocalyptic world of Max Rockatansky with 1982’s The Road Warrior, he came back with a vengeance. Compared to the microbudgeted Australian car cataclysm of the 1979 original, The Road Warrior is an apocalyptic epic that somehow feels simultaneously massive and microscopic. And while both the original and the sequel share a frantic, raw sensibility, Miller injects The Road Warrior with a dizzying array of themes that propel it to the next level.
It’s this strange blend of post-apocalyptic survival, Western frontier gunslinging, and fairy tale adventure that make The Road Warrior into something that could never quite be copied by its myriad imitators. And while that may seem like an odd mix of genres, Miller wisely filters it through a hardened and chaotic world where seemingly anything can happen.
Here, Miller catches up with former cop Max (Mel Gibson), who has abandoned humanity after the death of his wife and young boy at the hands of the villainous Toecutter and Max’s subsequent rampage of revenge. But unlike the broken civilization of the original, the world of The Road Warrior is a wasteland. Barren outback stretches as far as the eye can see. Pockets of humanity are divided into survivors, gangs, and lone scavengers. Fuel is the most precious and scarce commodity, with retrofitted vehicles now the dominant means of survival and war. And within this wasteland is an oil refinery controlled by a band of survivors who are besieged by a brutal roving gang led by the massive Lord Humongous.
How did the world become this way? An elderly narrator provides us with the history of this desolate world and the larger scope that Max’s story fits into, which immediately sets the story in a folklore-like context. In addition, the narrator’s later-revealed identity as the much older Feral Child, a young boy who is protected by Max throughout the film, means that his knowledge of Max’s tragic past and even the details of The Road Warrior’s story could be apocryphal. As such, the heightened elements of the narrative (cartoonishly fast cars, snakes used as weapons, the exaggerated S&M-like attire of The Lord Humongous and his gang) are almost given a subconscious excuse to be as big and brash as they are here. The Lord Humongous himself, covered in muscles, wearing very little, speaking eloquently, and covering his burned face with a hockey mask, is like a fantasy villain. A lord of an invading army who would feel natural invading a castle or riding on the back of a dragon, yet his punk rock aesthetic (he is the Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla, after all) plants him firmly in this post-apocalyptic setting.
It’s the type of silliness that would break the tone and stakes of most other apocalyptic action films, but The Road Warrior manages to make its exaggerated style a natural part of its storytelling sensibilities. There’s something odd and almost goofy to many aspects of the story here, like Max’s dog being entrusted with a shotgun pointed at a captive, but this is meant to be a world that has almost lost its mind as society irrevocably collapsed, excusing some of these strange happenings. Then again, the original Mad Max had its fair share of purposeful silliness to match its blood-splattering vehicular mayhem, like the reveal of Max’s wife playing the saxophone or the wackiness of Toecutter himself. It’s just a much more integrated part of The Road Warrior as a whole, meaning that both story structure and moments within scenes have that heightened folklore style on a much more consistent basis.
If fairy tales shape the way in which the story is told, then Westerns form the basis for the story structure of The Road Warrior.
Using a classic Western theme seen in countless films including Shane and A Fistful of Dollars, Miller’s sequel revolves around Max wandering into a battle between good and evil and being forced to decide if he will abandon his selfish, survival-centric ways in order to make a difference in the world he had previously abandoned. Like countless Western anti-heroes before him, Max’s character arc sees him change from disinterested third party to world-changing hero, even if Max never quite reaches the same morally upright levels as past Western white hat heroes. This setup, with Max being a disinterested third party within a main narrative focused on someone else, would be the groundwork for follow-ups Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (with scavenger Max interfering in Bartertown and saving the lives of a child tribe) and Mad Max: Fury Road (where Max goes from animalistic survivalist to hope-driven revolutionary for Furiosa’s cause).
Complete with a trusty steed in the form of the V8 Interceptor, Max is very much the wandering stranger at the center of many Western tales. Except that The Road Warrior is filmed from his perspective, rather than the perspective of the people he saves, which is a much more common take in classic Westerns. It’s just another way that Miller upends the genres that he is playing in while still incorporating their strongest elements.
At its core, The Road Warrior is the narrative opposite of Mad Max. If the original is about a man losing his humanity when everything has been violently ripped away from him, then the sequel is about a man who awakens from an almost death-like exile. Max Rockatansky is propelled by meager survival and lacks human connection. It’s established early on that his only companion is an Australian cattle dog and that his only reason for becoming involved in the battle between the oil refinery and the forces of Lord Humongous is to get as much gas as he can. Again and again, Max shirks the idea of joining with the survivors for a better life and reiterates that his involvement is only for the sake of gas. Simply put, Max is too broken to allow himself to be attached to anyone again.
That morally disinterested stance has less in common with the classic Hollywood Westerns of the Golden Era and much more in common with the Spaghetti Westerns and revivalist takes of the ‘60s an onward, where antiheroes were the more common focus and moral ambiguity informed much more of the action.
In The Road Warrior, Max only reembraces humanity due to a near-death experience, which comes when his beloved V8 Interceptor is wrecked by the rage-filled Wez and his gang in a high speed chase. With his dog killed and the Interceptor destroyed, it’s only through the intervening of The Gyro Captain, a far more human man whose friendship Max denies time and time again, that Max survives. Yet the incident places him on a bed next to a long-dead oil refinery survivor. The meaning is clear – Max is as good as dead should he continue on his current path. That moment shocks him into action, taking on the duty of driving an oil tanker that will be pursued by the attacking gang in order to allow the rest of the survivors to escape. A suicidal move? Yes. But one that has meaning. And it’s in that tanker chase where Max fully commits to protecting someone other than himself due to The Feral Child stowing away on the tanker. The climactic scene quickly becomes focused on protecting the child, not killing the gang or saving the tanker, and in that decision comes Max’s redemption.
As a character, The Feral Child is an encapsulation of the many themes of The Road Warrior. Unable to verbally communicate, the boy is a product of the destroyed world that he lives in, yet his skills with a deadly boomerang show him to have the capabilities of a character more often seen in fairy tales. And as a young boy in need of protection (most specifically in the tanker chase), The Feral Child echoes the young son that Max lost in Mad Max, which is wisely left up to audience inference, rather than clearly spelling it out in the text of the film.
By caring about other people once again, Max saves The Feral Child, protects the oil refinery survivors, kills Lord Humongous and his gang, and secures hope for the future of humanity, which is implied by the elder Feral Child stating that he became Chief of The Great Northern Tribe. In the end, we find that Max’s return to humanity is not for his own sake, but for the greater sake of the world. And while Max’s story would continue in future films, his unknown fate in The Road Warrior means that his life echoes through the oral folklore passed down in the generations that owe him their life, solidifying the timeless, almost mythical nature of The Road Warrior’s narrative.