"Well, ain't we a pair… raggedy man?"
Back in 1979, a then-little known actor named Mel Gibson did a pretty cheap little action flick, in which a policeman in an Australia suffering slow social breakdown falls afoul of local motorcycle gangs who, after several encounters, kill his wife and child, thereby sending him on a classic Roaring Rampage of Revenge. The name of this movie was Mad Max.
The movie, with dramatic combat sequences despite low budget, did astoundingly well (making over ninety-nine million Australian dollars on a four hundred thousand dollar budget!), becoming the top-grossing Australian film ever to that point, and a sequel, Mad Max: The Road Warrior, was released in 1981. This one went straight into postapocalyptica and featured Max becoming a reluctant anti-hero, assisting the escape of the relatively peaceful runners of a small refinery from a completely savage gang of maruaders.
Then, in 1985, came Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
This was a far more lavish production than the prior two, and fully embraced the postapocalyptic world, including clear statements of nuclear exchanges that had contaminated large portions of the world and a total collapse of normal civilization. Twenty years after the events of the first movie, Max is ambushed and robbed, left for dead. But he recovers and makes his way to "Bartertown" – a strange assemblage of ramshackle houses and buildings made from wreckage of various sorts, but startling in that it shows signs of functioning technology, including electric lights.
Max spots some of his stolen gear, but quickly realizes he's not just going to walk in and take it back. He is granted an audience with "Auntie Entity", the leader of Bartertown. Played magnificently by Tina Turner, Auntie Entity is a strong, intelligent, driven woman who is doing the best she can to rebuild some form of civilization – even if she has to be damned ruthless to do so.
She does, however, have a problem: the only person in Bartertown who really has the technological knowledge to build and keep running the generators and other technology on which Bartertown relies is a dwarf genius known only as "Master", who is protected by a huge warrior named "Blaster", in combination referred to as "Master-Blaster". Recognizing the necessity of his knowledge, Master has started to use his power to put pressure on Auntie, and almost certainly will be trying to displace her as ruler of Bartertown.
But Auntie Entity has a plan: if someone as experienced and dangerous as Max were to challenge Master-Blaster, they would face off in the arena known as Thunderdome. Thunderdome, where the only law is this: "Two men enter. One man leaves." Killing Blaster will leave Master physically at almost anyone's mercy, and give Auntie Entity control again.
Max reluctantly agrees to this, but when he finally succeeds in defeating Blaster, he discovers that the hulking giant is a childlike, mentally handicapped man who has been protecting and serving Master because the dwarf was the only person with the patience to be kind to him. Max refuses to kill Blaster, but that means he is breaking his deal – and breaking a deal in Bartertown is about the worst crime you can commit. Though the fact that Auntie Entity had planned this confrontation nearly causes a riot, she manages to regain control of the crowd by focusing them on this crime (solely by her own tremendously powerful personality), and gets Max sentenced to "Gulag" – exile into the desert.
But Auntie is about to learn what a terrible mistake it is to make Max mad…
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is one of the most flamboyantly iconic films of the 1980s. Its influence in pop culture extended much farther than might have been thought, and resurfaces in peculiar ways. People of my generation confronted by two squabbling children have been known to mutter "Thunderdome!" as a possible solution to the problem, for instance.
In many ways Beyond Thunderdome and to a lesser extent its predecessor The Road Warrior defined much of the modern vision of the postapocalyptic world, in its desert-brown tones and dusty, corroded glory, with maruading gangs wielding improvised weapons and wearing strange assemblages of leather, cloth, punk spiky collars, and other peculiar accoutrements. The world of Fallout certainly owes a considerable debt to Beyond Thunderdome, and the town of Megaton in Fallout 3 calls Bartertown very strongly to mind every time I enter it. The stark, decaying, dry imagery pervading Beyond Thunderdome is both pathetic and, at times, beautiful in a strange way.
But scenery can only take you so far; what made Beyond Thunderdome really WORK was the conflict between Mad Max and Auntie Entity. Gibson proved in many later films that he was an excellent actor, and he used those skills well, often in an understated fashion, in this movie. Against Max' quiet implacable man is pitted the spectacular and charismatic Auntie Entity, and it is this character that truly makes the film.
Tina Turner dominates the screen whenever she is shown, with a magnetic presence that does not shy away from sex appeal – in fact, a presence that insists you notice her -- but which is fantastically strong as well. This woman belongs to no one but herself, and is the ruling force over the only trace of modern civilization in the wasteland. She rules her people with law, with charisma, and with indomitable will that never fails her even when it seems she has lost it all. Her power does not come from her body, but from her mind and her clear focus on a future she wants to rebuild from the ashes of the past.
Even in defeat, she is not broken. She is a ruthless organizer who knows you must be ruthless to survive and succeed… yet she retains a core of civilization that she refuses to let go. She forgoes the chance to kill Max with the line quoted at the beginning of this review, and walks away, laughing, because she realizes that, in the end, it was a fair fight, a more than fair fight on her side, and she lost, and she accepts it with grace and humor. I think Auntie Entity is one of the great characters of action movie history, and in a way it's a shame more couldn't have been done with her. But she served her purpose and more in this film.
Tina Turner can also be credited with two iconic songs that were part of the soundtrack: "We Don’t Need Another Hero (Beyond Thunderdome)" and "One of the Living". Those, plus the actual background music, helped give the supporting musical backdrop that any great movie needs.
Beyond Thunderdome is, of course, far from perfect. In a lot of ways it's a complete schlockfest and much of it does not bear close examination (where are they getting all the food to feed such herds of pigs in the middle of a wasteland? If the kids were left alone at the "Pockyclips" which was 15+ years ago, how'd they survive, let alone have what appears to be a nicely distributed set of other kids there of all ages? And so on), but, as with many action films, that's rather missing the point, which is to watch Max unleash hell after being betrayed and left for dead yet again, while managing to save a bunch of innocent children and, just possibly, begin the rebirth of a real civilization with their release.
If you've never watched Beyond Thunderdome, it might be worth your while to pay Bartertown a visit…