Strip away what is so very up to the minute about Mad Max and at heart we have a very old narrative filtered through centuries of cultural layers and pulsating with past rhythms of Rome, and maybe a bit of Greece, on film.
The analysis has different layers too. In 1949 Joseph Campbell wrote the epic tome: Hero with a Thousand Faces; in 1973 Christopher Vogler reduced it to a seven page memo for movie makers, and in 2013 critic John Yorke pointed out how often Vogler’s recipe has been followed. In Mad Max Vogler’s five act structure reasserts itself, as the conflicted hero finds himself forced into a quest, draws back, goes on, gets tested, dices with death and then achieves redemption and sometimes a homecoming (and saves the world along the way.) This is how the theory of the hero (distilled from classical models) has driven the plot and characterisation of epic cinema although the type of hero moulded in the movies is not always easy to pair up with a Greek or Roman figure from myth or history.
For instance in Mad Max we have a hero and heroine in equal parts with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron (coincidentally, Theron is Greek for ‘of wild beasts’!) demonstrating strength and ultimately honour, while helpless female breeders (and Amazonian older women) turn out to be brave and resourceful and the hardly human and brainwashed Nux falls in love and finds his own path to glory. Archetypical tropes are screened through the lens of modern sensibilities, along with progressive messages about gender and age equality and the inclusion of the damaged and disfigured.
Embracing the chains of reception
The fascinating thing about this movie for those of us interested in the reception of classical themes on film is that it references features from Greek and Roman conflicts and battles (from ancient history and ancient fantasy) but also doubles back on itself into imitating movies about Rome – which is what the original Mad Max trilogy did with its own Amazonian women, Roman emperor style psychotic rulers, arena games, weird Latin tags and titles. At the same time the movie is having a conversation with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, itself influenced by the Mad Max franchise first time around! This is the slippery aspect of that facet of Classics known as Reception Studies. In 2004 Martin Winkler wrote about the resemblances to Mad Max mark one to three (1979, 1981, 1985) in Gladiator in terms of narrative, set pieces, main character and even casting choices (Mel Gibson being first choice to play Max-imus in Scott’s movie).
So what is specifically classical in the current Mad Max? Apart from its being a relentless road or quest movie sporting crazily choreographed scenes of slaughter which can just about be traced back to the battles around the siege of Troy. -- whether this is Wolfgang Peterson’s 2004 movie vision or the Homeric Iliad, the Greek epic poem that goes into gory detail about ways of dying and the heroic aristeia or high points of fighting prowess the greatest warriors display. As ever, the references are more Roman than Greek; the battle-hardened enemies stand aloft their wonderfully cobbled together trucks, trailers and lorries (we worship cars with wings of flame!) like epic warriors or historical figures in their chariots at the Circus Maximus; they also play dirty with spoked wheels. The chariot race of Ben Hur is surely getting a nod here.
The female lead (Theron) is Imperator Furiosa (Raging Commander) just one of several Latin names in the cast list, some verging on the silly, (they sound as if they could be inspired by characters in Carry on Cleo or maybe the Dickus Maximus of Pornutopia movies) So we have Rictus Erectus (this defeats me but it could mean Stretched out Jaws!) and Corpus Colossus (big body), alongside group titles and promises of paradise that owe more to Norse mythology, in a truly eclectic mix of past worlds that gives the lawless fantasy future its form and familiarity.
I suppose one very Roman aspect of Mad Max is the pleasure it gives us as spectators in a safe place. Like the amphitheatre audiences we can cheer on the courage (Latin virtus) and skill of the fighters and the way they face death: because for us it is all pretend play, smoke and mirrors. Or maybe we see ourselves as the gods who watch the battles from the sidelines? In the Homeric epic which covers only weeks in a ten year long war at Troy, Athena, Zeus and supporting divine cast occasionally take on the guise of birds of prey to witness the life and death struggle of heroes (and they have a special relationship with some of these celebrity warriors.)
Unlike the Olympians, whether we are vultures or voyeurs, the modern audience is supposed to be edified and entertained by the spectacle the cinema creates – you pay your money, you take your choice and in my case you play a part in the Reception research industry. On which note, comments and criticisms on this rather wayward response to Mad Max will be gratefully received!
Want to explore this topic further?
You can go into more depth on this if you want to via Paul Mason’s article in the Guardian, or a number of books: Nisbet’s article on ‘Pornutopia’ in Reworking Antiquity in Mass Culture (Cambridge Scholars 2009), which was edited by Lowe and Shahabudin; Winkler’s Gladiator: Film and History (Blackwell 2004); and Yorke’s Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story (Penguin 2013).