Forty years on, a look at Mad Max and its impact on Australia

The 40th anniversary of the release of the seminal Australian film Mad Max gave us a chance to see just how deeply ingrained George Miller’s first work has managed to insert itself into the Australian psyche.

Well, perhaps not the entire Australian psyche. Certainly there’s a demographic who find in the film’s violent, dystopian vision of a society starved of fuel and compassion something they recognise, and applaud.

The large number of re-enactors who attended an event marking the anniversary and the even more astonishing number of recreated vehicles from the film franchise, some 70 in number, shows the extent of people’s obsession with the 1979 movie, which had a budget of just under $400,000 and made multiple millions.

Recreated: MFP interceptors. One is an actual former Victoria Police car. Picture: Brendan McCarthy.

Recreated: MFP interceptors. One is an actual former Victoria Police car. Picture: Brendan McCarthy.

But it is the ethos of the film that resonates. Shot at a time when the first extensive drought of the 1980s was beginning, its wide-shot vistas of seemingly endless sunlit roads punctuated by a roaring vehicle exploding the silence struck a chord with a young Australian audience who were actually seeing the end of the muscle car era.

Ford was ending the Falcon GTHO experiment, the basis model of many of the police vehicles in Mad Max. Petrol was becoming too expensive to fuel the massive V8 engines for many, and the cars were criticised for being too powerful and unwieldy for many young drivers. At the same time Holden was moving away from the fabled Kingswoods and Toranas to the European-designed Commodore. While they retained powerful engines in some models, the cars were more nuanced and much safer.

Mad Max turned the concept of safety upside down. In the film vehicles became extensions of police brutality and gang sadism, modified to screaming machines of revenge. The Toecutter gang rode Kawasaki Z 1000s, the notoriously overpowered four-cylinder behemoths beloved of Australian police forces at the time. 

Those of us who saw the film on release are now heading into our mid-50s and 60s. Australia in the mid -1970s, when we were growing up and getting our driver’s licences, was a different culture. The road toll was peaking. It was common to refer to some models of cars, specifically the Torana XU1, as ‘widowmakers’. Seatbelts were mandatory but not taken seriously by all; drink-driving was still common.

We all knew people who died in horrendous crashes. I remember my father, a police officer, taking me to see a Torana lodged inside a house in the Sydney suburb of North Rocks, where the four passengers died. In the car yards of police stations were the shattered remains of vehicles involved in fatal accidents, twisted into awful shapes, some still coated in dried blood.

Mad Max spoke directly to this car culture. In the film 14 vehicles are destroyed, from Miller’s own Mazda Bongo van to motorcycles and cars including a vintage 1959 Chevrolet. The destruction is painstakingly filmed and resoundingly realistic, because the stunts were horrendously dangerous. The scene where four motorcyclists are mown down by Max Rockatansky on a remote bridge saw a stuntman struck in the head by a bike flying through behind him.

But more of that later, when we meet Grant Page, head stuntman on the film.

The 40th anniversary celebrations were held at the Maryborough Harness Club, an otherwise unremarkable example of any trotting track built in Australia between the end of World War Two and 1970: yellow brick, featureless. There are few trees; the track is composed of fine blue metal gravel which throws up gritty dust when driven over by dozens of throbbing vehicles. In the centre is an expanse of grass barely clinging to life in the onslaught of a blisteringly dry and hot summer.

And it was a hot day, pushing 40 degrees. Despite the heat, hats were in short supply, while black was the fashionable colour of choice. Motorcycle club leathers were also conspicuous, understandably as the event had been co-ordinated and managed by the South of Heaven MC, a club founded in 2013 as, curiously enough, a religious group based on Odinism. 

I arrived at 9am, long before the organisers who are making the run from Clunes, 30km south, bringing the members of the Mad Max cast and crew who are appearing at the event in a convoy of motorcycles and re-enactment vehicles. Even so, there’s a kind of organised precision and a courteous willingness to see the media accommodated, to a degree.

Concrete is being poured for the actors to impress their palm prints into; a semi-trailer stage is doing a soundcheck. It’s clear most of the few hundred people milling about have camped over night. Many seem to have hangovers of varying intensities; one describes in far too much detail how very unwell he was in the toilets the night before.

Suddenly there’s action as the convoy pours into the track. Waves of motorcycles and cars churn the dusty circle; a prime mover and hybrids from Mad Max 2 and and a score of other vaguely unrelated examples of automobile adoration. They do a couple of laps as the crowds start to build. At the end of the day over 1500 people will be attending, paying $70 for entry and $25 to meet the cast.

Back inside the harness racing complex, the actors have been unloaded and are unpacking their merchandise. The room is low on atmosphere, but no-one seems to mind.

It’s four decades since the film; no-one here is young. Roger Ward, who played the memorable captain of the Main Force Patrol (MFP) Fifi Macaffee, was born in 1936. Hugh Keays-Byrne (The Toecutter) is 72. Steve Bisley, the ill-fated Jim Goose, is 67. Head stuntman on the film Grant Page is 78. Vince Gil (the Nightrider who makes such an extraordinary opening to Mad Max) is a frail 80.

I am the Nightrider: Vincent Gil is now 80. Picture: Brendan McCarthy.

I am the Nightrider: Vincent Gil is now 80. Picture: Brendan McCarthy.

They actors greet each other with familiarity, and it’s clear the camaraderie on the original film has to a large extent persisted. It may be a coping mechanism as well; they’re about to undergo a gruelling seven hours of signing autographs and having their picture taken with fans. Keays-Byrne has a K1000 motorcycle wheeled in to pose with. Bisley has copies of his two books of autobiography for sale.

I’d spoken to Bisley on the day before about the guerilla nature of making Mad Max, how there was little margin for error in either shot-making or stunts.

“So many people were brand new, too – not only Mel Gibson and myself,” he told me.

“George Miller and Byron (Kennedy) … it was their first feature. You have Hugh Keays-Byrne who I think had toured with Peter Brook’s Shakespearean company, fell in love with Australia and stayed… I think it’s Hugh’s first film.

“Most of the other actors – it’s their first, you have all these sort of newbies; and I think there’s a wonderful naivete about Mad Max I, and a sort of sense of innocence in it that counters that sort of apocalyptic sense that we were trying to achieve, that there’s been some upheaval and society is in decay.

“No CGI, no computerised stuff. All the stuff that happens on screen, we did it or the stunt team did it, and I think the rawness of all those ingredients combined give it this great… freshness… There’s no blood and guts in Mad Max, but you think you’ve seen a lot when you come out of the film at the end of it.”

Unlike many others who had to screen test for Mad Max, Roger Ward was approached directly by George Miller on the strength of his already extensive stage and screen career.

Both Ward and Keays-Byrne had been the cult biker film Stone, made in 1974 on a similarly lean budget by Sandy Harbutt, and similarly successful, although not to the stratospheric levels of Miller’s film.

Ward is a big man, six-feet, three-inches tall. He appeared in Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando, he’s written screenplays and novels. He’s a formidable presence, forthright and direct, but also generous and candid.

The elegant and tough Fifi Macaffee: actor Roger Ward is still working well into his 80s. picture: Brendan McCarthy.

The elegant and tough Fifi Macaffee: actor Roger Ward is still working well into his 80s. picture: Brendan McCarthy.

He says George Miller knocked on his door to ask him to perform. Unfortunately, says Ward, there were two George Millers in the industry at the time; one of them was a friend of Ward’s. Expecting this person, Ward put on a spread.

“When the doorbell rang and I threw the door open, there was a stranger standing there,” Ward recalls.

“George was quite embarrassed and quite shy, actually. But we had lunch and drinks and he offered me the part. I said I’d love to do it, but we’ve got to talk money. He said he couldn’t offer me much. I suggested a certain figure and he said he couldn’t afford it. I told him I’d love to do the film, but I couldn’t lower my standards. I just can’t.

“For about 15 minutes he fiddled around with a pen and paper and then he said, ‘I can do it!’

“I said ‘Oh great, thank you!’

“He said, ‘I’ll cram all of your work into one week.’ The bastard.”

Miller and Ward later fell out over Mad Max 2, and became estranged for 11 years, before reconciling.

Of his performance in Mad Max, Ward says Miller directed everyone to play large except for Mel Gibson, who was supposed to act ‘as if he were reading a grocery list’, says Ward.

“As a theatre actor, when I read the script I felt that, what I did in the film. I just took over the character. it’s funny: Grant Page, the stuntman, just said to me he hadn’t seen Mad Max for 20 years, but he saw it last week and he said, ‘your performance was spot on.’

“I said mate, don’t you remember when we shot it, we were watching the rushes and you said, ‘OH COME ON, MATE, THAT IS OVER THE TOP!’. He did remember.”

Grant Page does remember a lot of the film. A spry 78, the former 220-yard hurdle champion (he was in contention for the 1956 Olympics) and Army commando has led one of the most eventful lives one could hope for.

Sixty years a stuntman: Grant Page began working in his teens. Picture: Brendan McCarthy.

Sixty years a stuntman: Grant Page began working in his teens. Picture: Brendan McCarthy.

He says he was travelling to teacher’s college (Page taught physics and physical education as well) when he saw people rappelling down a cliff near Sydney, and thought, ‘that’s what I want to do.’

Told by the rappellers they were Army, he promptly enlisted, and helped develop the practise of abseiling in the commandos. It became a lucrative career when he was approached to make adventure advertisements for Canadian Club whiskey in the late 1960s.

He met George Miller in Ballarat while making a film. Miller was making a documentary about the filmmaking, and liked the stunts Page was doing.

“He said to me, ‘I’m doing an action film later, would you like to read the script?’, and I said, ‘yeah sure’ – and I couldn’t put it down!,” Page says.

Page says he read the entire script twice in day.

“It was so inspiring, just the writing of it. And when everyone started doing their thing, and I started destroying a few vehicles, it began to build from there. It’s a masterful job by Miller.”

Grant page did most of the stunts in the film: the famous car through the caravan, and the scene where Max runs two of four bikies off a bridge.

“Chris Anderson and I were the two bikes that went off the bridge,” Page says.

“We took the rail of the bridge down, so we could hit the gutter and go straight off, but when you came down the hill you had to come down the others side of the road at speed to turn to go off – and you couldn’t see a thing. It looked like we were running into hills.

“The only way we could do it was we got a bit of chalk off the camera department, walked to the edge of the drop and said, ‘OK if you’re there and I’m here, and our bikes go in the middle, we have half a creek each to land in. But we couldn’t see were we were going until we hit the bridge, so we drew these lines in an arc from the take-off point up the road.

“So we came down the road, side-by-side, not being able to see a bloody thing, and turned on the chalk lines, and suddenly there was the creek! It was perfect. But it was NOT a two-take special.”

Later in the evening, there are still queues formed to meet the actors and crew of the film, while a latter-day stuntman, Rob ‘Rebel’ Sheean, prepares to recreate the car through the caravan stunt.

The stuntman: Rob 'Rebel' Sheean entertained the crowd driving through two caravans. Picture: Brendan McCarthy.

The stuntman: Rob 'Rebel' Sheean entertained the crowd driving through two caravans. Picture: Brendan McCarthy.

He’s man of few words. I ask him when he’s planning to do his stunt; he looks at his wrist. There’s no watch there. He stares at it for a second or two.

“Half past five,” he intones.

At six pm the crowd is impatient: well-lubricated, sun-struck, they encircle the two caravans scheduled to be demolished by Sheean’s recreated Interceptor. The car has a front end made of railway spikes; it’s going to run up ramps largely made of besser bricks and metal planks.

The organisers struggle to move the crowd back to somewhere approaching safety. South of Heaven members in leathers use their persuasive tones to shift resistant punters off the track and back to the pavilion. They’re not entirely successful, and while Rebel Sheean makes his final approach people and a white 4WD are still close to the caravans. It makes no difference as the Ford suddenly hurtles up the straight, onto the ramp and destroys the caravans as though they were tissue.

Watch the video below:

Debris floats everywhere as Sheean skid to an abrupt halt. There’s silence, and no movement. Is Sheean (and his passenger, who is inexplicably wearing no shirt and a pair of shorts – and a helmet) safe?

Ambulances and a CFA tanker wail their sirens and join the circle of organisers and onlookers circling the car. Suddenly there’s a roar of approval. Rebel and his mate stand, fists raised in the air in the stultifying heat, triumphant. Everyone is cheering, laughing. It smells of testosterone and petrol. In the background, a blues band is belting out some track about driving on a highway, going to a show.

This story Reflections on a film that changed how we see ourselves first appeared on The Courier.