1979’s Mad Max is a film which, for all it has been visually inspirational to the post-apocalyptic genre with its iconic fast junker cars, biker gangs and knots of people clinging to the shards of traditional first-world mod cons, serves mostly to show up the traditional post-apocalyptic ideal. The genre now – in games like Fallout 3 or films like 28 Days Later – picks up on aspects of Mad Max but never quite engages with it in the same way, perhaps in part because of the changes in society that the last decades of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries have seen. As modern society – with its reliance on the capitalist, materialist ideal of high consumption – begins to be proven untenable by an economic slide away from prosperity, the nature of what might bring about an “apocalypse” changes and the values that society may fight for post-apocalypse also change.
Mad Max is cagey about the causes of its apocalypse; it begins “A few years from now” with a world that is clearly changed but not destroyed; society continues in a diminished form. There are towns, shops and police forces, and – and this is perhaps the image that endures – there is crime. The film’s entire premise is about a powerful gang of violent criminals who terrorise a swathe of the countryside, directing their anger at anyone they do not like and ultimately crossing the police force. Indeed, it presents throughout that these criminals are unexpectedly powerful; there is not the assumption that there will be armed gangs out only to kill and steal for personal gain, and they are in fact a disruption of what seems to be a self-sufficient norm. Compare this with something like the post-apocalyptic video games which in their need for conflict make banditry and mistrust the status quo. It is only Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where the protagonist is distrustful of everything and this proves self-destructive that the self-preservation ideal is properly challenged in the way Mad Max does. Yet the populist understanding remains, for the most part, that society is one crisis from utter disintegration – that the base state of a post-apocalypse world is roving savages inherently opposed to attempts to preserve any kind of co-operation. What this allows is for a protagonist who stands up for universally accepted “good things” (not going around on motorbikes with crowbars beating up citizens, maintaining a family and fighting to save it), opposed to and justified in killing people who embody “bad things”. Indeed, it almost feels at times that these values – the nuclear family, parental relationships etc are iconoclastic in post-crisis worlds. Yet if these villains are taken as the post-crisis norm and their existence in anarchic or fascistic communities widespread, it is presenting a worldview that is quite opposed to any kind of precedent.
Mad Max focuses on the destructive effects of a close-knit, post-crisis society being attacked by outsiders; Max certainly begins the story as a policeman, but a policeman who does his job and most importantly obeys the laws of his society. He is an idealised policeman, one who protects his community from criminals because it is a duty to the people, not a personal, rugged-idealist stand for values. Indeed, the concept of idealised justice and law and order – a police force that in Max strives for accountability – presents quite the opposite view of post-crisis life to modern stories. Modern apocalypses are predicated on the idea that without the structures of modern capitalist democratic society there is only anarchy and looting – an unremitting negativity about human nature that runs quite contrary to real stories of selflessness in the wake of disaster.
What this brings us to, thus, is the climax of Mad Max – and the point where it reveals its hand as a tragedy. For well over half the film the rivalry between Max and the biker gang has been a professional one – they the criminals versus he the policeman. He is framed as putting his duty to the community ahead of his personal feelings – when his partner is mutilated by the criminals, he withdraws from the force and returns to his family rather than giving in to vengeance. The recurring theme thus far has been the power of co-operation and community in a world where there is the risk of falling to lawlessness; “values”, whatever they are, will not be preserved by individualists but by entire towns and districts working together to make the best of this new world. There is no iconoclasm in Max’s belief in family and justice, he is not – at first – the sole embodiment of The Right Thing in a lawless world. An iconoclastic protagonist, one discrete from the new world in their belief in something above it, can be projected on and presented as a hero. They are possessed of superior judgment and are more deserving to survive and impart their wisdom on others. By the end of Mad Max, Max is that iconoclast. The crisis point in the film for him is when his family are attacked by the gang; he responds with dignity to his partner’s torture but as soon as his moral compass – his touchpoint to the community he serves – is challenged, he becomes the individualist. The remainder of the film has him lose, in the basest of visual terms, all his ties to society. He takes a sports-car similar to that of the first criminal killed in the film, he rejects his ties to the police force, and he drives off into the wilderness to enact vengeance. It is a very plain descent of a character from civilisation to what is ultimately savagery, but at the same time it is a descent that in modern stories may seem heroic. Max is ultimately doing what he considers the right thing, trying to save his family – that is an act that could be seen as heroic. Yet to do it, he severs all his ties to the recovering society he is a part of and the film’s abrupt ending – with no real catharsis, just Max mimicking the method by which his partner was mutilated to kill one of the bikers – makes this quite plain. There is no reconciliation, no hope of rehabilitation. By choosing selfish iconoclasm and personal values over selflessness (shown as an ideal before), one rejects the best method of restoring society.
Thus Mad Max is a tragedy, much like The Road, about how losing one’s capacity for trust and rationality, and selfishly pursuing a misanthropic view, is ultimately counterproductive to society’s recovery from a crisis and doomed to a kind of damnation. It is a challenging counterpoint to the more modern post-apocalypse genre’s framing of the iconoclast prepared to go to any length as the hero, and the association inherent to this that any kind of society has a dark undertone. Consider something like 28 Days Later, where the apparently idyllic community is actually home to insane, violent soldiers. It sells an image that seems thematically popular – that without holding on to very specific pre-fall values, post-fall society will never regain its former glory and will be simply varying degrees of savagery. What makes Max’s fall even more tragic is that it is understandable; he is a man at rock bottom, in the depths of grief at losing both his friend and his family, and so his taking revenge seems justified to a viewer expecting the usual morality of fiction. That Mad Max does not provide that cosy reinforcement that one can hold onto humanity while dabbling in evil for a good cause is what makes it a post-apocalypse story that has rarely been bettered.