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Race, Ethnicity and Nuclear WarRepresentations of Nuclear Weapons and Post-Apocalyptic Worlds$

Paul Williams

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9781846317088

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846319792

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Soft Places and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Soft Places and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

(p.85) 3 Soft Places and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
Race, Ethnicity and Nuclear War
Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

A recurrent motif of post-nuclear-war fiction is the use of Australia and the South Pacific as the location of human survivors. This chapter traces the cultural history that has given this motif its potency. On the level of visual representation, there are profound continuities between the colonial past, speculated post-apocalyptic futures and certain (supposedly) barren and featureless geographical areas of the world, of which the Australian desert is a paradigmatic example. All three cultural spaces are connected by the notion of the ‘soft place’, which refers to the way that post-apocalyptic space and precolonized territory are traditionally visualized as a flat, unmapped, bare canvas, on which heroic exploits can be acted out. The chapter analyzes the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), arguing that its representation of the Outback is evidence that narratives of colonial settlement continue to inform late-twentieth-century Western culture.

Keywords:   post-nuclear-war fiction, Australia, human survivors, colonial settlement, Western culture, cultural history

It is the West that is responsible […] for violence, terror and permanent aggression directed against life. It has generalized and globalized violence – and forged the global level itself through that violence. Space […] is both the weapon and the sign of this struggle.

Henri Lefebvre1

Atomic energy is to us what the Atlantic Ocean was to Columbus when he sailed from Spain. […] Who can tell where our voyages into this unknown realm will lead?

Harold Wolfe2

Several depictions of the world after nuclear war are situated in Australia and the Pacific, and this chapter closely analyses the colonial and postcolonial politics of one such depiction in detail. Seminal post-nuclear-war text On the Beach (novel 1957; film 1959) is set in the region, as are short stories by Martin Amis and J. G. Ballard, the comic Tank Girl (1990; film 1995), and a section of Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989) (in some of these texts the psychosis of focalizing characters makes actual locations and historical events uncertain). Novels such as Aldous Huxley's Ape and Essence (1949) and Philip Wylie's Triumph (1963) see Australia and New Zealand as privileged sites of survival – their location is deemed to offer a greater chance of avoiding the fallout generated by a Third World War. Another factor influencing this tradition of representation is that nuclear bomb tests took place in Australia and the Pacific, including American tests in the Marshall Islands and British tests at Maralinga in the Australian Western Desert.3

More pertinently, this chapter argues that this recurrent feature of nuclear representations is also determined by a specific image of the Outback emerging from a colonial tradition of representation, an image of recalcitrant emptiness foreshadowing the ordering of cartography. The trope of seeing the Australian desert as an empty and indecipherable ‘soft place’ is a feature of the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985; also known as Mad Max III), directed by George Ogilvie and George Miller; this (p.86) chapter unpicks the complex relationship between post-nuclear-war landscape and colonial settlement in this American-Australian co-production.

The post-nuclear-war landscape and narrative of the film is influenced by at least two cultural forces, namely the history of colonial representation and the pleasure that SF and related genres offer in fulfilling expectations of character development. Further, the traditional mode of representing lands pre-existent to settlement carries ambivalence at its heart, and Beyond Thunderdome, drawing on the colonial tradition to visualize the post-nuclear-war world, reproduces this ambivalence. The film's vision of the Outback stimulates a terrifying contemplation of its uncertain depths and nothingness as well as a sense of exhilaration that this blank canvas is the stage for feats of adventure where the hero masters the landscape. Significantly, the film confuses traditional colonial roles of gender and race, and in doing so it registers how contradictory and mutated those narratives of colonization have become. The final section of this chapter considers the generic factors that subdue the film's play with the colonial tradition, namely the importance of seeing Beyond Thunderdome as the final instalment in a trilogy across which Max's heroic persona evolves. This last section sees in the film the culmination of a popular archetypal trajectory developed in the first two films. This context goes some way to explain why the ambivalent postcolonial politics of Beyond Thunderdome slips into the background as the narrative builds to a conclusion: the completion of Max's reluctant heroic status requires the film's ambivalence towards the colonial tradition to disappear into the desert sand.

Theorizing Soft Places

In the graphic novel The Sandman: Fables and Reflections (1994), the writer Neil Gaiman describes the phenomenon of ‘nothing’ spaces resistant to cartographic inscription. These are called ‘soft places’ in the story of the same name, in which three characters from different points in history, lost in the deserts of Northwest China, meet in their dreams. The character from 1992 tells the other two,

Time at the edge of the Dreaming is softer than elsewhere, and here in the soft places it loops and whorls on itself. In the soft places where the border between dreams and reality is eroded, or has not yet formed […] Here. In the soft places, where the geographies of dream intrude upon the real […] There aren't many left in my time – this place is still soft. That's how come we can all be here together. In my day – that's 1992 – this part of the desert is known as Takiamakan. That's Turkik for ‘If you go in, you won't come out again.’

(p.87) One of the other characters, Marco Polo, lost in the Desert of Lop, asks, ‘This is…the soft place?’ The 1992 character replies, ‘Not the only one. There's a few thousand square miles of central Australia, a couple of Pacific Islands.’ The location of the soft places at the end of the twentieth century connects them to nuclear-devastated landscapes: Taklamakan in Northwest China, the Australian desert and islands in the Pacific have all been sites of nuclear testing because of their isolation and relatively low populations. We learnt immediately earlier in Gaiman's story that the disappearance of the soft places is attributable to people like Marco Polo, since ‘The explorers, and the ones who came after you […] froze the world into rigid patterns.’4 This equates the idea of soft places to the space preceding colonization. If ‘explorers, and the ones who came after you’ are the vanguard of imperialism, then soft places are what necessarily precede the arrival of empire.

It is often in the interests of empires for the lands they covet to hover in an intermediary realm of reality. The ideology of a civilizing mission calls forth a suitable space in which it can unfold, and therefore soft places are desirable to colonizing nations as ideas and as locations in the world that are unmapped and thus unclaimed in European eyes. Soft places represent ‘unsettled’ land in two ways: not yet calm or stable, and uninhabited by people who are recognized as people in Eurocentric eyes - in other words, Europeans and their descendants. In this imperial mode, the inhabitants of soft places are unable to contribute to the body of European geographical knowledge that Marco Polo's exploration represents. The notion of soft places, while acknowledging and valuing the space that exists before its ‘discovery’ by colonists, offers a sentimentalized space where past and present meet in a site outside colonial history. Gaiman's informal theory of the soft place is the starting point to flesh out the colonial tradition's construction of unsettled territory and its influence on the re-establishment of civilization in Beyond Thunderdome.

Australia's ‘unknown’ interior facilitated the projection of many imagined alternative societies onto the country and its neighbours in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These include Henry Neville's The Isle of Pines, or, A Late Discovery of a Fourth Island near Terra Australis Incognita (1668), Denis Vairasse's The History of the Sevarambians (1675–79), Gabriel de Foigny's A New Discovery of Terra Incognita Australis (1693) and Ambrose Philips's The Fortunate Shipwreck, or A Description of New Athens (1720).5 Thomas Burnet's The Theory of the Earth (1684) proposed Paradise was to be found in the Antipodes.6 Filling in the ‘huge blanks on the Australian map’ was the first priority of the British expeditions conducting the inland exploration of the continent.7 ‘Mapmaking’ and exploration served ‘colonial (p.88) plunder, for the vision and knowledge constituted by the map both preceded and legitimized the appropriation of territory.’8 Mapping undiscovered territory is privileged in narratives of colonization as an act of bravery (daring to explore unfamiliar space) and a contribution to knowledge (recording what is supposedly unknown).9

The soft places that precede colonization are brought into being by the colonizing process, which must assume the lands it civilizes are empty, and that history begins there with the arrival of Europeans:

From the Eurocentric view of the world, to which most Australians adhere, Australia was ‘empty’ until 1788 […] Terra Incognita […] For the first settlers the Aborigines did not count […] in European eyes, the land lay open for the taking, and like the Aborigine it needed redeeming, civilising and colonizing.10

The European empires understood being-in-time as differentiated across race and place, with Western Europe privileged as the place where humankind's journey through history was furthest advanced. For the nations and peoples in the world yet to be incorporated into the trajectory of European modernity, entry into history had not commenced.11 The ethnocentrism of such historical models is confirmed by the absence of a sensibility of being-in-history amongst the Australian Aboriginal peoples whom the European empires considered belonging to a primordial past.12 Another reason to read the Outback as a soft place exiled from the course of history is the irreconcilable epistemological gap between the conceptual mapping of Aboriginal song-lines and their notion of a fluid creation-time (the Dreaming), and European habits of temporal and spatial being. In his book Experiences of a Colonist Forty Years Ago (1880), Australian George Hamilton proclaims, ‘Here was a country without a geography, and a race of men without a history.’13

This chapter began by listing some nuclear representations staged in Oceania, and this can be related to the region's perceived status as the last discovered area of the world, geographically and temporally marginal to modernity and yet to enter world history until European explorers arrive. ‘The expansive energies of nineteenth-century capitalism brought about encounters between western powers and their “archaic” others, encounters which were managed by the theory of universally evolving time’, writes Steven Connor:

Spatial distance was correlated regularly with temporal remoteness (thus the regular claim that the most geographically remote people of all, taking London and Greenwich Mean Time as a starting-point, (p.89) the Australian aboriginals, were the most primitive, and therefore temporally as well as geographically antipodean).14

The New Oxford Dictionary of English records that the word ‘Antipodes’, which inhabitants of the northern hemisphere use in reference to Australia and New Zealand, has etymological roots in the late-Middle-English denotation ‘inhabitants of opposite sides of the earth’; in the early seventeenth century, the word ‘antipode’ starts to be used to describe ‘the direct opposite of something’. In Moby Dick (1851), the US novelist Herman Melville draws comparisons between America and Australia (both discovered relatively late by the ‘enlightened world’), yet Australia remains more geographically distant: ‘That great America on the other side of the sphere’.15 This oppositional status can be read in late-twentieth-century filmmaking, too. Imagining the Outback as a soft place was repeated in several Australian movies after the release of British director Nic Roeg's coming-of-age narrative Walkabout (1970), which presented Australia's national landscape as ‘the ultimate blank slate’. Walkabout used the supposed backwardness of the Outback to critique the blandness of Western urban modernity by way of juxtaposition, positing the Australian desert as civilization's polar opposite.16

During the history of white settlement, this sense of Australia constituting the polarized other of early modern Europe infused the perception of the continent. Australia was meant to represent the state white Europeans had grown out of, a ‘“natural” pre-European environment’)17 By corollary, cultural texts could easily slide the landscape into what the world will look like when humanity has almost wiped itself out. The title of Wim Wenders's millennial film Until the End of the World (1991) simultaneously suggests Australia's geographical marginality and the threat of World War Three that hovers over the actions of the characters. The film's dramatic crux depends upon the isolation of the characters, working in a laboratory inside the caves of the Australian Aboriginal Mbantuan people. With the radio giving ‘nothing but static’, the characters have no way of knowing whether or not nuclear war has broken out. This scenario only seems possible in the isolation of the Australian desert, with the Outback so peripheral to the rest of the world that one cannot be certain what is happening elsewhere. One could also speculate this location has been chosen for characters waiting to discover if nuclear war has started because it is already fitted out topographically for the post-nuclear-war world. At one point in Until the End of the World the desert horizon flattens into an absolute plateau, embodying the ‘horizontality’ Paul Carter identifies in The Road to Botany Bay (1987) as the ‘distinguishing quality of Australian (p.90) settlement’.18 This horizontality applies readily to recurrent images of the post-nuclear-war environment. The treacherousness of the desert in Beyond Thunderdome might be specifically related to the disenchantment experienced during the period of interior exploration. The very ‘openness’ and undifferentiated expanse of the soft place disrupted the colonizers' ability to write imperial settlement upon it. For the early Australian settlers, ‘the endlessly receding natural boundary of the horizon’ defied their ability ‘to differentiate, to delimit and name in order to possess’.19

So, traditions of colonial representation, with specific reference to the production of images of Australia during exploration and settlement, lend themselves to cultural producers imagining a world after nuclear war. The uncharted spaces lying in wait for European cartographers and the space of the world after nuclear war are positioned outside human civilization, either awaiting its imprint or the result of its self-destruction.20 I am not intending to oversimplify the diversity of narratives and representations that make up the colonial tradition into a homogeneous monolith. I am referring to a colonial tradition of representation as a dynamic process, geographically and historically inflected, of generating certain icons and models of storytelling in the depiction of colonial exploration and imperial encounters. These icons and models are not universal and eternal but they are regularly repeated and, as I hope this chapter has started to illustrate, their repetition constructs the self-image of modern European imperialism as bringing colonized peoples into civilization and world history.

Apocalyptic future wars are a convenient narrative device in many Anglophone SF texts: having eradicated itself, the project of rebuilding white Western civilization borrows a hue of adventurism from frontier and colonial narratives. Like their influences, narratives of resettlement after nuclear war regularly privileged white male heroes; through their authority, resourcefulness and self-sufficiency the survival of their families and communities are made possible.21 This collusion between imperial adventure, heroism and white masculine authority is reorganized in Beyond Thunderdome.

Post-Nuclear-War Colonization in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

On first glance, there is much to connect the representation of the environment in Beyond Thunderdome to the colonial tradition. At one point the protagonist Max is bound and exiled into the desert on a donkey. The screen is filled by utter whiteness, and during a sandstorm, the donkey is sucked into a sand ridge. The Outback is projected as a place of shifting (p.91) sands where the distinction between sky and sand is impossible, a treacherous place threatening to engulf wanderers, a paradigmatic soft place. The tribe of children that rescue Max call the Outback ‘the nothing’, and they rarely venture into it for fear of being ‘swallowed by the sand’. In articulating their ‘dread that the unknown might literally rise up and devour the intruder whole’, the children repeat the imperial fear of ‘blank spaces on colonial maps’.22

Landscape writer and cinema critic Ross Gibson suggests a complex relationship between the Mad Max trilogy, the Outback and the colonial tradition. On one level, the trilogy uses a future setting to rework a historical story of heroism and Australian national pride, the story of how the settlers' success in colonizing an extraordinary, inhuman landscape demanded and produced a remarkable people. However, the overriding impression from Gibson is that the environment in the trilogy is working ‘fantastically’ because by the 1980s Australian cinema audiences were no longer defining their national identity by the landscape. Filmmakers were free to take liberties with its history of representation and adopted a self-deprecating view of Australia's environment and the myths it had generated.23 The colonial tradition remains a potent influence on Beyond Thunderdome, and it is not only being used in a distanced way. Australian cinema audiences in the 1980s may have stopped embedding their collective identity in the landscape, but as commodities to be sold to audiences around the world these films continue to solicit an international perception of Australia in which natural habitat informs perception of its inhabitants. The success of Crocodile Dundee (1986) would suggest that a global audience for unreconstructed Australian stereotypes of place and people still existed and were extremely popular. Accordingly, several cultural influences jostle each other in Beyond Thunderdome's depiction of the Outback, from Australia and other national traditions.

With these qualifications, Gibson's reading of the trilogy as mocking the history of depicting the Australian landscape leads to some productive readings of Beyond Thunderdome, which exploits the rhetoric and imagery of nineteenth-century imperialism while inverting its racial dynamics. In an early scene, Bartertown is described by its creator, Aunty Entity, with the aggrandizing language of empire-building that effaces or denigrates the conditions it has overcome. She shows Max the city below and proclaims, ‘All this I built. Where there was desert, now there's a town. Where there was robbery, now there is trade […] civilization.’ Aunty has constructed civilization in the desert of the post-nuclear-war world, but unlike the European colonial project, the creator is a black female. The character of Aunty is played by the African-American singer Tina Turner, who is often (p.92) remembered for contributing the theme song ‘We Don't Need Another Hero’ to Beyond Thunderdome, which begins ‘Out of the ruins / Out of the wreckage / Can't make the same mistake this time.’

The Bartertown that Aunty has built is an outpost of trade, sustenance and community, although an undercurrent of violence remains present, threatening to rupture the civil order. The civilization above ground depends upon the Underworld below, where pigs are farmed to collect the faeces needed to make the methane fuel Bartertown runs on. The Underworld is controlled by a midget (Master) who rides on the back of a colossus (Blaster), known together as Master Blaster; they represent a skilled, colonized proletariat that has achieved consciousness of their central role to the workings of civilization. Master Blaster knows that despite their foul subterranean working conditions, where life expectancy is only two to three years, they possess ‘not shit, [but] energy!’ A repository of symbols from the nineteenth-century colonial era is observable in Bartertown's iconography, especially images of the Orient: Max travels in a camel-driven buggy, Aunty has an Asian saxophonist, and there appears to be a Bartertown Bazaar with people wearing conical hats. In this melange of imagery, the exoticism of empire is resurrected, although the encounters on Bartertown's crowded streets take place without racial or cultural segregation. Indeed, one might argue that the city's social hierarchies, where the racial codes of European imperialism seem meaningless, are as indebted to the multicultural centres of the postcolonial period as they are to nineteenthcentury colonialism.24 Contemporary Australian urban experience is characterized by the heterogeneousness Bartertown contains, and the conical hats and Asian saxophonist may reflect this unexceptional cultural and racial intermixture. In Beyond Thunderdome, the city that purports to represent civilization enshrines the coexistence of difference. Bartertown's streets enact the sense of multicultural conviviality celebrated by Paul Gilroy in After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (2004), ‘a mature response to diversity, plurality, and differentiation […] orientated by routine, everyday exposure to difference’.25 This touches on one of the issues facing ‘minor national cinemas like Australia's’: the perceived necessity to ‘reproduce “ossified” stereotypes’ as a way of exploiting Australia's international brand. Film scholar Tom O'Regan argues this strategy for promoting Australian film around the world elides the country's ‘urban multicultural society’ and serves ‘the Anglo-Celtic hegemony and a unitary and consensual version of the nation’.26 Arguably, Beyond Thunderdome defuses this opposition by bringing the stereotypical desert-crossing itinerant (Max) into the multicultural community (Bartertown). As we shall see, the survival of the stereotype at the expense of the ‘urban multicultural (p.93) society’ in the narrative is instructive about which cinematic brand was ultimately the stronger in 1985.

Despite Aunty's rule, her colonial project depends upon Master Blaster's labour power. The struggle between colonizing middle class and colonized working class is expressed in the film through the question, ‘Who runs Bartertown?’ When Max arrives, neither Aunty nor Master Blaster has asserted their authority over the other. Master Blaster enforces Aunty's reliance on their labour power by temporarily cutting off Bartertown's energy supply in order to coerce her into publicly stating, ‘Master Blaster runs Bartertown.’ Shapiro interprets Master Blaster as representing formerly colonized subjects coming to knowledge of their potential power by introducing the context of the 1973 oil crisis, when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) ‘cartel orchestrated its first embargo and dramatic price increase’. In the Mad Max trilogy, lack of petrol is the most significant factor contributing to social collapse, and fuel is the most valuable commodity in this post-apocalyptic future. Noting that ‘until at least the mid-1980s, the [Western] oil-consuming countries remained fearful of further oil embargoes’, Shapiro invites comparisons between OPEC's sanctions on oil and Master Blaster's demonstrative withdrawal of methane fuel. Because of their irreplaceable status in the production of Bartertown's energy, Master Blaster have become indispensable to the civilizing process. As they assert that centrality, potentially wresting control of Bartertown's civilization away from its architect, Aunty seeks to secure her leadership by reinforcing the restless subterranean workforce's subservience, but is handicapped by a seemingly typical dilemma for those who have assumed colonial authority. Aunty partly justifies the righteousness of her rule through her institution of criminal legislation (Aunty ‘wrote the law’), but the law prevents her from using bare force to retake ‘control of this new technocivilization’.27

Max supplies Aunty with the opportunity to break Master Blaster's power. Max arrives in Bartertown robbed of his transportation and belongings, and in return for Aunty's aid, Max agrees to challenge Blaster to a fight to the death in the gladiatorial arena called the Thunderdome. Max defeats Blaster, but because Max refuses to kill his opponent, Aunty punishes Max by exiling him to the desert on a donkey. Max is rescued by a tribe of white children who transport him by boat to their community built into the cliff face. The sanctuary offered by their village acts out the spatial dichotomy imagined during the nineteenth century, of the Australian bush divided between an inhabitable ‘fertile coastal crescent’ and ‘the outback of the great inland plains’.28 As in Russell Hoban's novel Riddley Walker (1980), the tribe's language has begun to deteriorate. In the (p.94) compression of socially degenerating whiteness and primitive imagery, the children reflect the cultural associations between convict and Aborigine:

Convicts who took to the woods […] relied on the good will of the Aborigines for their survival. More than this, leaving the pale of order behind, convicts behaved like savages. In Botany Bay […] convict and savage were fused into the figure of unreason.29

The children take the place of ‘native’ people: their records are the stories of their oral culture or cave paintings, they live in huts and they use spears as weapons. As with the Australian convicts, a preceding group of white inhabitants understood as savage, the children are exiled from the edifice of civilized order, although not by choice.

The children believe Max is the Captain Walker they have been waiting for to lead them to their homeland, although he refuses the role they want him to play. Frustrated by his aloofness, some of the children set out into the desert on their own, and Max feels obliged to retrieve them before they are consumed by the treacherous sands, or worse. When Max reaches them, they are close to Bartertown and without sufficient supplies for their journey back. Max leads the children in a covert raid into Bartertown's Underworld for provisions, where Aunty has had Master enslaved. In the course of their sortie, Max and the children kidnap Master, inadvertently sabotaging the Underworld so that Bartertown is destroyed in a series of explosions. Aunty pursues the rebels, and Max seemingly sacrifices himself so the children and Master can escape by aeroplane to the homeland the tribe have longed for, the ruins of one of Australia's bomb-ravaged cities.

It is certainly possible to read Beyond Thunderdome as a repellently racist film. By presenting whites as the subordinate colonized workers, their rebellion against the imperial overlord takes on a moral justification in a postcolonial era where European imperial dominions can no longer be celebrated as a source of pride. The film's triumph of colonized peoples against their oppressors strikes a politically acceptable note, while reversing the subjugated characters' expected gender and race means white masculine heroism can be valorized again. For Broderick, ‘Max's phallic prowess easily defeats Aunty's matriarchal cunning.’30 Brian McFarlane argues that co-director George Miller envisages this future through the eyes ‘of white men’, hence his neglect for the ‘country's Aboriginal population and its history and a playing up of the Australian male's engagement with a demanding natural environment’.31 Casting the film's primitive society as children confirms the immaturity of precolonial societies.32 The stagnating tribe lack a direction until Max arrives; Beyond Thunderdome effaces the Aborigine presence and repopulates the Outback with white children, (p.95) ready to make their way in the world and grow up (literally as individuals and metaphorically as a society) now their Captain has discovered them (a rank that invokes the seafaring figures of European exploration).

Such an interpretation would be overly reductionist, ignoring the him's ambiguous relation to colonial and postcolonial contexts. In terms of its representations of civilization, Aunty's own complex characterization, and its status within the Mad Max trilogy, the film Beyond Thunderdome undermines the claims of colonization, imperialism and the civilizing mission. After all, Bartertown is based – literally – on ‘pig shit’. The destruction of Bartertown as part of the film's narrative resolution reveals how precarious civilization is. The violence of the combat in the Thunderdome, and Max's refusal of the cruelty the dome demands, invites audiences to think about how Bartertown's civilization is inseparable from the violence at its foundation. Far from being the cornerstone of civilization, the law Aunty has written is not ‘justly administered’ but arbitrarily imposed, as embodied in the wheel of justice that randomly determines the nature of Max's punishment.33

Aunty Entity herself is a problematic figure, because her rule of Bartertown is not two-dimensional villainy, and she cannot be readily reduced to a simple colonial dominatrix. Film scholar Peter Fitting cautions against reading ‘Tina Turner's character […] as a breakthrough’,34 but Aunty's courage and tenacity captures the audience's attention and defies reducing her to a stock type. Her construction of Bartertown is not the transplanting of a pre-existing culture into the Outback, but an act of self-definition for someone marginalized by her race and gender in the pre-apocalyptic world: ‘Know who I was? Nobody? Except on the day after [World War Three]. I was still alive. This nobody had a chance to be somebody.’ The phonetic slippage between Aunty Entity and ‘Anti-Entity’ reinforces her posture as a figure refusing to be governed by a destiny embodied in physical essence. In the pre-nuclear-war world, social forces interpreted that destiny as ontological absence (‘Nobody’), but after the nuclear war Aunty's future is hers to shape alone. This tenacity is compelling to audiences, and her cultured appreciation of jazz contrasts favourably against Master Blaster's Underworld rule by terror. In its melange of peoples and colonial imagery, Aunty has constructed a town in which racial and cultural differences have become commonplace, redressing the structures of marginalization that subordinated her. At the film's end, with the children escaped and Max at her mercy, Aunty leaves him unharmed. She has learnt the worthy disinclination to kill a defenceless opponent that Max displayed in the Thunderdome. Her response to defeat is philosophical: ‘Well, ain't we a pair, raggedy man. [Laughs] Goodbye, soldier.’ Perhaps this reiterates (p.96) Aunty's appreciation of the historical construction of the self. In accepting that they form some sort of dyad, she seems to recognize their dependency on each other for identity in metaphysical terms – the nomad needs the metropolitan to be the nomad, the civilized need the barbarian to be civilized. A similar recognition can be found in Angela Carter's postnuclear-war novel Heroes and Villains (1969), which stages an opposition between the nomadic Barbarian tribe led by Jewel and the communities of Professors and Soldiers who stand for civilization and the preservation of learning. The novel indicates that the Professors' civilization and the Barbarians' pagan culture reciprocate the identity of the other. One of the characters sneers at Jewel, ‘You're not a human being at all, you're a metaphysical proposition.’35

The star persona of Tina Turner and the songs she contributes to the soundtrack extend the complexities of embedding Aunty into a straightforward imperial dynamic. ‘We Don't Need Another Hero’ seems to jettison the value of heroic masculinity in a post-nuclear-war world, yet it endorses the moral compulsion Max heroically exhibits when he saves the children at the film's end. Theodore F. Sheckels also sees the song as a rejection of heroism, but I disagree with his interpretation of the song and Aunty's last words to Max. In Sheckels's reading, Aunty's meaning is that only the will to survive is relevant in this future.36 This seems erroneous: the lyrics, ‘There's got to be something better out there / Love and compassion / That day is coming’, praise Max for risking his life to enable the children's escape. In other words, individual survival should not and cannot be the philosophical foundation of existence. Another disjunction is between Tina Turner singing about the desirability of ‘Love and compassion’ while Aunty enforces her authority with the absolute violence of the Thunderdome. The complexity of the film's relation to colonial representations is manifest in Aunty, and Turner's star persona further complicates the character's status as villain. Aunty's power, confidence, charisma and narrative centrality make her very attractive to audiences, and after Max, she is the character in the film with whom audiences are most likely to share their allegiances.

The Trajectory of Heroism in the Mad Max Trilogy

Newman observes that the post-apocalyptic action genre the Mad Max trilogy belongs to demands ‘colourful, larger-than-life Marvel Comics-style characters to strut their stuff in the ruins’37 (Gibson also notes the ‘comic-book aesthetic’;38 another reviewer described the second film in the trilogy as a ‘comic-book movie’39). The contradictory imperial attitudes of Beyond (p.97) Thunderdorne interact with the evolution of Max's character across the three films, hailed as a hero but initially reticent to embrace such a role, in a manner reminiscent of Marvel Comics's protagonists. In the first film, Mad Max (1979), Max is considered the best law enforcement officer in the country, described in terms of DC Comics's trademark superhero: ‘top superman’. Repeated claims are made on the lead character to fill the heroic role demanded by the lawless society of future Australia. As a lone antihero, at odds with both the enemies of order and the society he defends, Kim Newman compares Max to a ‘doomed Western hero’. With a nod towards the frontier motif discussed in the previous chapter, the Mad Max trilogy is central in Newman's contention that ‘the Western motif recurs throughout [the 1980s post-apocalyptic action] cycle’.40 Jonathan Rayner identifies the landscape in Mad Max as the same blank desert of the American West and sees elements of the Western, SF, the biker movie and the police thriller in the first film.41 As well as the landscape, another Western ingredient is the Screw Jockeys, an archetypal criminal band riding into small towns and intimidating and attacking the inhabitants. The Mad Max trilogy exists between a specific colonial tradition of representing the Australian desert and the gravitational pull of commercially successful American genres. Like Bartertown's uncertain status in relation to postcolonial politics, it is starting to seem erroneous to fix an interpretation of the trilogy to a single nation or continent's history of representation.

The film Mad Max begins with gang member Nightrider being killed as Max chases him at high speed, and the narrative follows the actions of the Screw Jockeys (Nightrider's gang) as they take revenge. After the Screw Jockeys, led by Toecutter, burn Max's friend Jim Goose alive, Max resigns from the force. Fifi, his superior officer, sees Max as the hero who can restore order and bring the gang to justice:


  • You're a winner, Max! […] They say people don't believe in heroes any more. Well, damn them! You and me, Max! We're going to give them back their heroes!
  • MAX:

  • Do you really expect me to go for that crap?
  • Max refuses to fight because it means irrevocably entering the savage world of the gangs: ‘Any longer on that road and I'm one of them.’ A sentimental orchestral soundtrack accompanies the ‘particularly soggy stretch in the middle when Max quits the force and settles down in soft focus with his wife and child’.42 The family buy a dog, run through fields of corn and caper about a waterhole. But the gang follows them, and Max's wife and child, Jessie and Sprog, are run down as they try to escape. With Sprog killed and Jessie in intensive care, Max returns to the role of lawman. Max (p.98) takes revenge on the gang and becomes the callous, vicious killer he stepped back from earlier. This is evident when Max faces the last gang member, Johnny the Boy. He cuffs Johnny's ankle to a wrecked car, sets the vehicle alight and hands him a hacksaw. If Johnny wants to escape before the car explodes, he only has enough time to cut through his leg, not the handcuffs. The film offers no evidence that Johnny survives Max's grim revenge. Mad Max concludes with a shot following the central road markings, presumably from Max's car as he speeds along the highway, suggesting that his journey has begun, not concluded, with the Screw Jockeys' violent end. Max has tentatively started the arc that will see him fulfil his status as hero, although his heroism is decisively antiheroic at this point. He eschewed the role Fifi outlined for him, preferring to retreat into an idyllic family set-up, but the shattering of that unit forced Max to resume his heroic evolution. Newman's Marvel Comics comparison could be extended to Spiderman as a particular precedent for the archetypal trajectory Max traces. Max and Peter Parker, Spiderman's alter ego, both shelter with an elderly female named May, and they cannot refuse the role of hero after criminals destroy their family units. As the second film in the Mad Max trilogy declares in its opening narrative, ‘He lost everything. Became a shell of a man […] haunted by the demons of his past. He wandered out into the wasteland […] learned to live again.’

    In Mad Max II (1981; also known as The Road Warrior), Max is again the reluctant hero, defending a fortified oil-refining community under siege from another gang of lawless barbarians. The community desires to break out of their containment and reach ‘paradise’ 2,000 miles away, on the coast of Northern Australia. This scenario repeats the European and American colonial tradition of lone frontiersmen rescuing embattled communities from the savage hordes surrounding them.43 Mad Max II also reproduces that tradition's visual codes of savagery and civilization. The townspeople are all white, often Aryan in appearance, with the whites and creams they predominantly wear drawing attention to their skin colour. Their adversaries, led by the monstrous Humungus, are shaggy maned, dressed in fur and feathers, and some have Mohican haircuts, the savage's coiffure of choice. Further, the townspeople are productive, entertain freedom of speech, and in their oil refinery, possess the most potent symbol in the film trilogy that they remain civilized. The savages are antisocial, nomadic and their prisoners are subjected to crucifixion and acts of sexual violence.

    Max does not automatically aid the beleaguered community, preferring to spy from afar on the siege. When one of the townspeople is attacked outside the compound, Max makes sure he returns him to the safety of (p.99) the fort, but only for fuel: ‘I'm just here for the gasoline.’ They refuse, but agree that Max can have his vehicle back, and as much fuel as he can carry, if he retrieves a truck that will pull the fort's oil tanker from outside the compound. When Max brings back a lorry cab, the character Warrior Woman shows she no longer considers him an opportunist thief: ‘I was wrong about you.’ The community assume Max will drive the tanker out of the fort and help them to escape, but as in the first film, Max refuses to be the hero and announces, ‘It's been a pleasure doing business with you, but I'm leaving.’ He intends to escape the besieged community alone, avoiding unnecessary conflict in the name of self-preservation. As Max makes final preparations to leave, he is once more interpolated as a brave hero, the Gyro Captain telling him ‘You're not a coward.’ When Max drives out of the fort, the savages force his car off the road, assuming he is killed when it explodes. However, Max is airlifted back to the fort and, hastily rehabilitated, informs the community he will drive the tanker while they escape in a school bus (he has no alternative if he wants to survive). The townspeople successfully make their way to freedom as Max draws the attention of the gang away from them, and the savages are wiped out as they chase the tanker. Max's mission, ensuring the community's safe passage, succeeds. The lorry cab, with the manufacturer's name (MACK) emblazoned on the bonnet, suggests through its phonetic similarity to ‘Max’ that he was destined to be the hero driving the tanker, protecting the townspeople by facilitating their escape to safety.

    Mad Max II confirms that Max may defend civilization but he cannot rejoin it. Fitting the lone frontier hero of the Western genre, Max has spent too long fighting the forces of savagery to be re-absorbed back into the camp of civilization, and he disappears into the wilderness.44 Moving easily between the settled white community and the desert wastes outside its walls allows Max to defend the townspeople much more effectively. A young boy, who moves in and out of the fort through tunnels, mirrors Max in that regard, and he treads behind Max within the compound. This Feral Kid does not share the Aryan looks of the townspeople, and instead wears furs and sports long hair. Feral Kid is depicted and treated like an animal, howling with laughter at Max's music box, or when Max kills a gang member. Just before Max drives out of the fort alone, he shoos Feral Kid away like a pet: ‘Scat! Ssss!’ However, whereas Max cannot rejoin civilization, the Feral Kid is part of the community and the Captain's Girl hugs him at a meeting. After the battle, Feral Kid can be seen sat on the back seats of the school bus on ‘the journey north to safety’ and the film's voiceover is revealed as his narration: ‘I grew to manhood. In the fullness of time I became the leader. The Chief of the Great North Tribe.’ This revelation (p.100) of the narrator's identity can read in several ways: the erosion of the oil-refining community into the ‘Great North Tribe’ may signify the degeneration of its social sophistication, that in its choice of leader the townspeople relinquish urban social codes for a crude hierarchy with a ‘Chief’ at its apex. Alternatively, it may signify the openness of the community, able to accept (as leader) one who is marked in the film as ethnically Other. Perhaps most appropriately, one can account for Feral Kid's chieftainship as a counterpoint to Max's heroic persona at this juncture in the trilogy. It underscores Max's distance in Mad Max II from the role of willing hero, but prefigures the unforced heroism Max performs in Beyond Thunderdome. If Feral Kid can transcend his youthful itinerancy – protecting the community but only provisionally within it – and grow into its leader, then how can the eponymous protagonist of the trilogy permanently resist the similar claims that are made on him?

    In Mad Max II, the community Max defends matches the colonial model of embattled, isolated fort. In the third film in the trilogy, civilization shifts into the community of Bartertown, which, while characterized by colonial signifiers, is far more racially and culturally mixed. The jazz music in Aunty's abode echoes Jessie's saxophone playing in Mad Max, highlighting Max's long passage from the domestic milieu that was once his home. This echo of the first film emphasizes that Bartertown, ordered by unmerciful self-interest, represents the only form of social organization into which Max is able to fit. But Max's lingering sense of morality, refusing to kill a defenceless opponent, renders him ineligible for Bartertown citizenship. This virtuousness is part of the development of Max's character from antihero to hero. By the film's end, as he chooses to sacrifice himself for the children, Max ‘isn't mad any more’.45 Completing his heroic trajectory, Beyond Thunderdome's narrative positions Max's entanglement with Aunty and Bartertown as an obstacle preventing Max from fulfilling his new role as redeemer to the children, returning them to their promised land. For this to happen Max must rescue the most adventurous children, first, from the soft place of the Australian desert, second, from Aunty's revenge after they raid Bartertown for supplies. In this raid, Master is freed and Bartertown toppled, completing the narrative threads left unresolved when Max was punished and sent into the desert. The narrative demands placed on Max as hero, demands established by the character's journey through the first two films, compel him to aid the children on their voyage. Rayner reads the ending somewhat differently, conceding ‘Max's heroic tasks grow in stature and destructiveness as the cycle progresses’, but arguing that his heroism is muted because he remains behind while the Gyro Captain flies the plane containing the children. The Gyro Captain assumes ‘the role of (p.101) the long-awaited pilot-saviour which Max had failed signally to fulfil’.46 This reading seems over-literal and can be usefully balanced by taking account of Max's requisite role in enabling the children's journey onwards and the symbolic importance he is invested with in their invented mythology. It seems to me that Max's fulfils his role as a hero, but still within the constraints of the Western genre – he defends civilization without ever joining it and returns, at the film's end, to itinerancy. What compounds his heroism at this point is that he does so voluntarily. Max restores the children to the sense of belonging he was exiled from in Mad Max by the murder of his wife and child: they are Max's symbolic substitutes, returning home because he cannot. The children's quest is articulated by Turner in the theme song – ‘all the children say […] all we want is life beyond the Thunderdome’. Thunderdome, and the community surrounding it, stand in the way of Max living up to his billing as hero – thus Bartertown must be eliminated. Max's masculine heroism is realized through the destruction of Aunty's civilization, removing the stubborn and ambivalent community that is at once an urban postcolonial celebration of difference and a brutal, inverted colonial outpost of trade. Max returns the soft place of the desert to its original, featureless state, permitting future narratives to be written or filmed on its blank canvas (press reports of a fourth Mad Max film periodically resurface47). Bartertown, and the ambivalence it represents, makes way so that Max can satisfy the role of hero he has been repeatedly addressed as, triumphing in his third cinematic appearance.

    Beyond Thunderdome offers a vision of the post-nuclear-war world as terra incognita, comparable to pre-explored, precolonized soft places. This landscape is overdetermined by the Eurocentric perception of the Outback's disorientating sands and Australia's spatial-temporal marginality to modernity. The film bears a complex relation to the colonial tradition, in which the soft place is itself an ambivalent space, terrifying in its unfathomed magnitude, pleasurable as the site of colonial adventures. In Beyond Thunderdome an African-American woman has resumed the project of building civilization on unoccupied land. Max, white and male, leads an uprising of people encoded as indigenous and working class against Aunty Entity, and the success of the uprising creates even greater ambiguity around the film's depiction of the colonial narrative. Audiences cheering the victory of Max, whose race and gender fit the ideological project of European imperialism, are also celebrating the collapse of civilization and colonial urbanization. Further, the Bartertown Max destroys represents an appropriation of imperial machinery by those deemed less human in the master narrative of white supremacism: the notion of civilization has (p.102) shifted away from the predominantly white community in Mad Max II. Audience allegiances are strained between Max and Aunty, the heroic central character at odds with civilization and civilization's ruler. Beyond Thunderdome does not resolve this ambivalence. The film removes it through spectacular destruction, necessitated by Max's evolution as a heroic figure. And even then closure remains tentative. One is left with the sense that after the film ends Aunty will rebuild her community, staging the civilizing mission once more in the shifting sands of the post-nuclear-war soft place.



    (1.) Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p. 109.

    (2.) Quoted in Boyer, By the Bomb's Early Light, p. 120.

    (3.) Elizabeth DeLoughrey, ‘Radiation Ecologies and the Wars of Light’, Modern Fiction Studies, 55.3 (Fall 2009), p. 470.

    (4.) Gaiman, Neil, and John Watkiss, ‘Soft Places’ (July 1992), in Neil Gaiman and John Watkiss, ‘Soft Places’ (July 1992), in The Sandman: Fables and Reflections, Titan, London (1994), pp. 140–41.

    (5.) See Carey (ed.), The Faber Book of Utopias, pp. 84–100, 120.

    (6.) Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History, Faber, London (1987), p. 56.

    (7.) J. M. Powell, ‘Conservation and Resource Management in Australia 1788–1860’, in J. M. Powell and M. Williams (eds), Australian Space, Australian Time: Geographical Perspectives, Oxford University Press, Oxford (1975), p. 26.

    (8.) Anne McClintock, ‘Maidens, Maps, and Mines: The Reinvention of Patriarchy in Colonial South Africa’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 87.1 (Winter 1988), p. 151.

    (9.) Shohat and Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism, p. 147.

    (10.) Powell, ‘Conservation and Resource Management in Australia 1788–1860’, p. 63.

    (11.) Gilroy, Against Race, pp. 56–57, 64; Steven Connor, ‘The Impossibility of the Present: or, From the Contemporary to the Contemporal’, in Roger Luckhurst and Peter Marks (eds), Literature and the Contemporary: Fictions and Theories of the Present, Longman, Harlow (1999), pp. 16–17.

    (12.) Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, p. 161.

    (13.) Quoted in Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, p. 70.

    (14.) Connor, ‘The Impossibility of the Present’, p. 29.

    (15.) Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851), Wordsworth Editions, Ware (1992), p. 112.

    (16.) Jonathan Rayner, Contemporary Australian Cinema: An Introduction, Manchester University Press, Manchester (2000), pp. 25–26.

    (17.) Powell, ‘Conservation and Resource Management in Australia 1788–1860’, pp. 18–19.

    (18.) Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, p. 284.

    (19.) Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, pp. 79, 87, 90–91, 111, 146–47.

    (p.103) (20.) One observes a version of this association in Mordecai Roshwald's novel Level 7 (1959), narrated by the character X-127 and set in a bunker below the Earth's surface. X-127 is charged with pressing the buttons that launch his nation's nuclear arsenal. His description of World War Three informs the reader the blank spaces of the map are areas that have yet to be bombed, ‘like a continent waiting for an explorer to map it’. With some satisfaction, X-127 sees the weapons he has launched colour the empty map to indicate destroyed regions: ‘The coloured “exploration” progressed into the heart of Zone B almost unchecked […] The “terra incognita” of the map was rapidly becoming nicely tinted.’ Mordecai Roshwald, Level 7, Signet Books, New York (1959), p. 95.

    (21.) Broderick, Nuclear Movies, p. xi.

    (22.) McClintock, ‘Maidens, Maps, and Mines’, p. 152.

    (23.) Ross Gibson, ‘Formative Landscapes’, in Scott Murray (ed.), Australian Cinema, Allen & Unwin and Australian Film Commission, St Leonard's, NSW (1994), pp. 52, 56.

    (24.) Peter Fitting also reads Bartertown as a vision of the urban present, but with the filmic city figuring ‘the scandalous images of a disaster that has already happened […] the collapsing inner cities of the great metropolises of the United States (Watts or the south Bronx)’; ‘You're History, Buddy: Postapocalyptic Visions in Recent Science Fiction Film’, in George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin (eds), Fights of Fancy: Armed Conflict in Science Fiction and Fantasy, The University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA (1993), p. 123. However, as my reading here suggests, the colonial tradition of representing Australia is an inescapable parameter on the depiction of the film's Outback city. I think Fitting is absolutely right to stress the transnational influence at work in Beyond Thunderdome, but in relation to his point here, Bartertown seems to offer too many sensory and narrative pleasures to the viewer to be described as a ‘disaster’.

    (25.) Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture?, Routledge, London (2004), pp. 108–109.

    (26.) Tom O'Regan, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London (1996), pp. 95, 323.

    (27.) Shapiro, Atomic Bomb Cinema, pp. 176, 178, 174. See also Fitting, ‘You're History, Buddy’, p. 116.

    (28.) Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, p. 284.

    (29.) Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, p. 320.

    (30.) Mick Broderick, ‘Heroic Apocalypse: Mad Max, Mythology, and the Millennium’, in Christopher Sharrett (ed.), Crisis Cinema: The Apocalyptic Idea in Postmodern Narrative Film, Maissoneuve, Washington, DC (1993), p. 272.

    (31.) Brian McFarlane, Australian Cinema 1970–1985, Secker & Warburg, London (1987), p. 48.

    (32.) Shohat and Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism, p. 140.

    (33.) Broderick, ‘Heroic Apocalypse’, p. 265.

    (34.) Fitting, ‘You're History, Buddy’, p. 126.

    (35.) Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains (1969), Pan and Picador, London (1972), p. 145.

    (36.) Theodore F. Sheckels, Celluloid Heroes Down Under: Australian Film, 1970–2000, Praeger, Westport, CT (2002), p. 182.

    (p.104) (37.) Newman, Apocalypse Movies, p. 184.

    (38.) Gibson, ‘Formative Landscapes’, p. 56.

    (39.) Quoted in Thomas P. Dunn, ‘The Road Warrior: Self and Society in the Rebuilding Process’, in Carl B. Yoke (ed.), Phoenix from the Ashes: The Literature of the Remade World, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT (1987), p. 202.

    (40.) Newman, Apocalypse Movies, pp. 185, 191.

    (41.) Rayner, Contemporary Australian Cinema, pp. 37–38.

    (42.) Newman, Apocalypse Movies, p. 184.

    (43.) Wheeler Winston Dixon, Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema, Wallflower, London (2003), pp. 75–77; Dunn, ‘The Road Warrior’, p. 202.

    (44.) Fitting, ‘You're History, Buddy’, p. 120.

    (45.) Newman, Apocalypse Movies, p. 186.

    (46.) Rayner, Contemporary Australian Cinema, pp. 38, 43.