Let's get this out of the way: Mel Gibson is a horrible person. Nobody's disputing that. (Okay, Federale might.) Heaven knows Gibson doesn't like my people, judging from his vision of Satan in The Passion of the Christ.
During the height of the Gibson meltdown a few years back, a lefty-blowhard acquaintance of mine declared that he would never watch a Mel Gibson movie again, and more important, that nobody else should, either. I've always resented being told what I should and should not watch, which is why I eventually scheduled a Mel Gibson month at Bad Movie Night at The Dark Room. It's also not fair to hold his inherent horribleness against the movies he was in, particularly super-early films like George Miller's 1979 Mad Max, which Shout! Factory is releasing on Blu-ray on May 5.
[jump] Mad Max needs little introduction at this point, especially since the fourth film in the series is coming out next month, after a mere delay of 20 years. Mel Gibson is Max Rockatansky, a leather-clad loner of few words who battles armored marauders in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. That's the common perception of the film and the character, but in fact, that better describes the sequel, The Road Warrior, by which point Max has no need for a last name. This first film takes place before the nuclear wars of The Road Warrior, and is best described as “dystopian” rather than “apocalyptic,” post- or otherwise; civilization still sorta exists, albeit in as broken-down a way as Miller's limited budget would allow. Heck, after the big and very exciting car chase that opens the movie, Max returns to his lovely home where he lives with his wife and child.
Compared to The Road Warrior, the Australia in this film is practically verdant. An irradiated wasteland, it ain't. And that's not a knock against the movie at all, but rather that its reputation is confused with its sequel. Mad Max is arguably a much darker picture, ultimately more of a revenge flick than a rip-roarin' adventure like Warrior.
In a lot of ways, Mad Max is to The Road Warrior has The Evil Dead is to Evil Dead 2, a necessary, lower-budget first step that would ultimately be overshadowed by its far more popular, genre-defining sequel. (If you want to be a pretentious horror fan, say you prefer The Evil Dead to Evil Dead 2.) This is not to take anything away from the original Mad Max, but it can be a little jarring compared to what came after. The stuntwork and filmmaking are still impressive, but on nowhere near the scale of The Road Warrior — which, fun fact, was called Mad Max 2 everywhere but in America. Though the talking heads in the bonus features would have us believe otherwise, Mad Max was not really a hit in America.
Except for a new batch of interviews done for this release, the aforementioned extras are ported over from the MGM DVD from the early 2000s. (Come to think of it, Shout! Factory's Breakin' and Escape from New York Blu-rays also had extras from prior MGM releases. I feel like there's a pattern here that I'm missing.) Produced well before his fall from grace, Mel Gibson: Birth of a Superstar is a loving 16-minute look at Gibson's career before and after Mad Max, with an interesting emphasis on the Australian films he did around the same time, Summer City and Tim. Though it zooms on through the next couple decades of his career, it concludes that his his pivotal role will always be Max, while failing to mention the existence of The Road Warrior or Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which seems like they'd be relevant. Heck, American audiences didn't even hear Gibson's real voice until The Road Warrior, since he was overdubbed by a native English speaker in Mad Max's original domestic release. (Shout! Factory has included both the original Australian audio as well as the American dub, which is kinda awesome.)
Indeed, Mel Gibson: Birth of a Superstar and Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon go out of their way to avoid mentioning that the film had any sequels, sometimes to the point of absurdity. There's no question that the first film was an important milestone in both Australian cinema and action filmmaking overall — everything that happens onscreen was captured f'reals in front of a camera, and people did get hurt — but it did not, as the narrator suggests, directly inspire the Terminator, Die Hard, and Rambo series. It just didn't. The Road Warrior went on to inspire tons of ripoffs, and pretty much set the standard for post-apocalyptic wastelands roaming with mohawk'ed biker gangs, including the future Mystery Science Theater 3000 classic Warrior of the Lost World.
The closest reference to the existence of the sequels comes when Director of Photography David Eggby makes a passing reference to the original film as Mad Max 1, which implies a Mad Max 2. Indeed, America was so meh about the first film that it marked one of the few occasions that a domestic distributor tries to hide the fact that a movie is a sequel. Hence the international poster:
And the 'Murican:
Also, notice that even 1981, we had an unfortunate hard-on for oranges and blues in movie posters.
In any event, I suspect the reason that the MGM extras pretend none of the other films existed is because the studio didn't own the rights to them; The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome were released on video by Warner, so clearly those other two movies could go fuck themselves. That was in 2002, of course, and in a couple years ago Warner Home Video released all three films in a single Blu-ray set, because the last thing a studio's going to do is get worked up over physical media.
Absent from the other 2002 extras, Mel does talk about the film in what appears to be a very recent interview. He's definitely got the crazy eyes we know so well at this point…
…though that's not really fair, because anyone can be made to look goofy with a carefully-timed screengrab. Most of the time, he looks borderline sane.
Gibson comes across as understandably fond of the movie that put him on the map (in Australia, at least), and also provides an interesting counter to some of the myth-making. We're told in Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon that only Gibson got to wear real leather, because it was so expensive. (His fellow cops wore comparatively affordable vinyl). Gibson, however, says that even he wore the cost-effective vinyl. Mel is far from the world's most reliable narrator, but one gets the impression that he no longer gives a damn about his reputation, and which makes me want to hear him speak candidly about his other films as well. He's gotta have some great dirt on Hamlet.