Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Why I Think "Mad Max: Fury Road" is a Western

Scene from Mad Max: Fury Road
There is little doubt that by now, you have seen director George Miller's Mad Maxy: Fury Road, possibly even a few times. You have been overwhelmed by the beauty of each choreographed moment of anarchy. You remain on the edge of your seat as characters lunge from cars into uncertain safety. It's a spectacle made by a mad man. It definitely earns its place among the best films of 2015 and remains a controversial black sheep for the Best Picture race. However, there is one thing that I would like to plead with you that may not be abundantly clear: this film is largely a western. If that sounds a little baffling to you, allow me to explain.

There is a stubborn generalization when it comes to the genre of westerns. For starters, there's the iconography; the locations, the wardrobe, the speak. We expect the types like Henry Fonda, John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood who wear guns strapped to their sides and pick fights in between rickety wooden buildings. This is inherently what a classical western is. There's likely those that cannot even fathom a western taking place beyond the turn of the 20th century. Of course, the idea of the western is generally a genre that takes place during the discovery of the old west. However, there's more to it than that.

To fully understand a western, you have to go into the roots of what makes the best ones work. There have been hundreds of cowboys, but fewer classics. The appeal of the western is actually more basic than that. It is a story about survival and discovery. The famous cowboys and Indians motif in which one collective fought another collective is the strongest example. It was a masculine society in which women were mostly lovers. Guns were phallic symbols of pride. From there, icons were born with the likes of Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp, who were the basis for revenge stories in which murders and infidelity lead to heroic journeys to right the wrongs. As much as westerns could be about constructing society, they were also about trying to stay sane.

The more direct western style that applies to Miller is the apocalyptic western. This is most noteworthy in director Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and most of director Sergio Leone's films - most notably The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Where John Ford-era westerns were more directly about the good guy saving the day, Leone sought to make more of a brutal attack on the common man. His protagonists were despicable and only worthy of the lead because they were slightly less despicable. They had morals, but they were also nasty men. Clint Eastwood was the most prominent example as the man with no name. He fought evil, though he was also a crook. In the apocalyptic western, it wasn't so much about the construction of society, but the deconstruction of masculinity and the societal norms. In most cases in these films, our protagonists had massive body counts, including the hero we rode in with.

In reality, the western genre has adjusted to each passing era. Its story of reluctant hero saving the day is a concept so simple that one could easily apply it to other genres. There's the fantasy film Star Wars, in which protagonist Luke Skywalker loses his family and seeks revenge. It is classical, even taking place on a desert planet. Of course, this isn't noticeable compared to the fighter pilots, death stars, and "the force." This example may seem silly, but is evidence that the conceptual western is being done a disservice by only being discussed in relation to American history. It may the purest form, but revisionist westerns are far more fascinating to give a peek.

Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West
Continuing to explore Leone's work, there's his non-Eastwood film Once Upon a Time in the West. While audiences may be more familiar with the opening train stop scene, the film is one of the main proto-feminists westerns throughout history. There's films like My Darling Clementine, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and most recently with Meek's Cutoff. While women are their own minority in these western towns, there are few that have risen to the occasion. In the case of Once Upon a Time in the West, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) is a figure of power. While the men are often seen doing the battle, she is keeping the law in order and keeping society in order. She is confident and not a victim of peril, never sacrificing her sexuality for the sake of a man.

Jill McBain may be the immediate connection back to Mad Max: Fury Road. While the film has been praised for its feminist take on the action genre, it also shares plenty with Leone's general attitudes. The main figure Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is seen driving a truck full of guzzoline, even performing combat as she is being attacked by Immortan Joe and his army of War Boys. In a way, it is a more explicit attack on women with the main drive of Immortan Joe's quest being that Furiosa stole his pregnant wife, of whom he idolizes more than respects. It is the removal of female property that pushes the conflict into action, thus making for a familiar story of revenge. Furiosa is the strong, confident leader who saves the day while losing plenty in the process.

True, the general start of the movie is that women were treated like objects. However, it is the rebellion that creates the revelation that women are strong and confident. Their quest to find the Green Place is met with fraught and tension. They run into Max (Tom Hardy), who may actually be more of an exposition piece than a legitimate character to most. It only emphasizes what makes Furiosa one of pop culture's favorite women of the year. She may be less traditional in beauty than Jill McBain - including the greased forehead and missing arm - but she is her own hero. Max may be there to assist, but she calls most of the shots and inevitably saves the day in the end. The revenge story is subverted by making the villain the vengeance-seeker while not getting it.

Buster Keaton in The General
But this isn't exactly what makes it a western. There's revenge dramas that have all of this, but isn't a western. While many were quick to point out the influence of Chuck Jones and Buster Keaton's The General, I argue that those are only visual motifs. Yes, Keaton is seen in his classic film dealing with a train in motion, falling off and constantly inches from death. In a sense, Mad Max: Fury Road is a logical grandchild of Keaton. You can notice the insanity on display. However, I do think this is the perfect link as to why Miller's film is in fact a western. Maybe The General isn't a conventional western itself, more tied in with the comedy genre. However, it does have the one element that connects everything: the moving freight.

You see, while there isn't the immediate iconography of cowboys, Indians, or rickety wooden towns; there's the presence of the moving freight. Speaking as Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in the unforeseeable future, we cannot know if trains exist. While the Mad Max franchise has had trains before, it is hard to properly dictate how much time has passed between Beyond Thunderdome and now. In fact, there aren't really any familiar concepts of roads on display in the film. Beyond the mountainous Citadel that opens and closes the film, there's almost no visual cues of society. This is itself an apocalyptic western mainstay. However, it also provides room for where this film goes from illogically just being a car movie to being a true western.

Like most of the illogical corners of the film, it is best to not question things that don't make sense. We don't need to know how we got here. However, there's one human trait that is present throughout history: the need to transport. In westerns, it was the train. In Mad Max: Fury Road, that is the automobiles. It is one of the plot devices used to accelerate the story. The need to transport guzzoline is the equivalence of a train transporting goods from point A to point B. 

It may look different, especially with out train tracks, but the symbolism is all there. The "robbers" in westerns have always been those that jump onto the moving train - usually from the roof. Of course, their options were more limited and thus made the idea of jumping from moving cars or swinging poles a little less obvious. They still have "guns," which are now replaced by a variety of weapons that include bombs and spears. Even if Immortan Joe and the "villains" aren't explicitly Indians, they seem to take on the role. One could easily make parallels between various moments of attack between Furiosa and the War Boys to that from director John Ford's Stagecoach in which Indians on horses attack a stagecoach. The concept may be primitive, but both achieve similar results. The only difference is that the Indians, now War Boys, drive cars (with horse power).

The thing is that Mad Max: Fury Road is probably the adrenaline-fueled revisionist western that will fool audiences. Yes, there's so much more going on that makes it a far more compelling movie. You can even compare it to other action films. However, I do think that it's best described as the manic western with cars. You can see it if you watch enough Leone, Ford, or Peckinpah. You may be distracted by the technological "advancements," but it updates everything in a way more effective than director Quentin Tarantino did with Django Unchained. Miller didn't just take concepts and apply them to a different genre. He took the iconography and reimagined them in a post-apocalyptic landscape, even having a few strong female characters that are rare, but not absent, from westerns. Even if this film never gets its due as such, I can only hope that you have heard my point and have at least considered my proposition.

1 comment:

  1. Totally. Just saw it. The typical western depiction of the Native Americans as heathens---Mad Max being masked in front of the truck, etc. Hadn't even read this article.