The Road Warrior and the Fall of Troy
Dilworth, Thomas, Literature/Film Quarterly
The 1982 Australian film 77ie Road Warrior is a muscular punk cult movie which has appealed to a broad range of audiences. Yet it has not always been a success with critics. Most reviewers acknowledge its impressive technique, especially the stuntsmanship and fast-paced editing which make it a successful action movie of the motorized chase-and-crash genre. But the film's director and cowriter, George Miller, claims that it is more than merely a genre movie:
This is a mythological tale. . . . You can compare it to a western-I grew up on them and they are very important to me-but I think this kind of story is told over again in many cultures.
In an attempt to generate a script with mythic significance, Miller and his co-writers viewed all the Samurai films, looked again at the classical westerns, and read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.2 Critics have generally commented on the film's debt to westerns and particularly to the 1953 film Shane.3 But several critics have denied the claim to mythic significance. Pauline Kael, for instance, regrets "Miller's thinking there's mythic depth" in the film, and accuses him of assuming "that the more indebted to old movies your material is, the richer it is, and the more archetypal-and that junk food is the only true nourishment. There's nothing under the film's clichés-nothing to support the visceral stress that Miller's single, continuous spurt of energy puts on us." She thinks the film "has no resonance of any kind."4 Yet the film's continuing success with a broad audience suggests that it is mythic, since myths operate on the level of our most deeply felt fears and desires. Even Stanley Kauffman, who considers it "schlock," admits that The Road Warrior "has struck a chord deep in the psyche of the Western world."5 The film is not exceptional, however, because it is mythic; most action films are mythic. But mythic films are usually limited to myths of individuation, in which archetypal heroes or saviours rescue good people from villains. The samurai films and the classical westerns are examples. What distinguishes The Road Warrior from such films is the breadth of its mythic resonance, which expands beyond the mythology of individuals to a corporate, near-apocalyptic mythology with specific cultural significance. The film achieves this expansion through its pervasive evocation of the oldest story of western civilization as narrated in the Trojan epics.
The film is set in the Australian desert after a world war which has destroyed the fabric of civilized society. The main character is Max, the Road Warrior, who roams the desert in a supercharged V-8 Interceptor in search of gasoline. He captures the pilot of a gyrocopter (a miniature helicopter) who had tried to steal Max's fuel and who leads him to a walled enclosure besieged by what is essentially a motorcycle gang. The movie's main conflict is between the humane defenders of the walled enclosure, who are hoarding gasoline, and the brutal gang who want the gas for themselves. The Road Warrior sides with the gas-hoarders for the promise of fuel. Soon after he takes sides, a young boy from the enclosure sneaks outside its walls and throws a sharp-edged, stainless steel boomerang that kills the homosexual lover of one of the principal members of the motorcycle gang. When this happens, the film re-enacts Book XVI of the Iliad where, beneath the walls of Troy, Hector slays Patroclus, the homosexual lover of Achilles. The film's young Hector-figure probably intends to kill the Achilles-figure, who is standing near his lover at the time, just as Homer's Hector intends to kill Achilles, whose armor Patroclus is wearing. Like his prototype , the latter-day Achilles is consumed by grief and rage , and bent on revenge.
The Homeric evocations in the film make it more than "a cowboy-and-indian western in new guise."6 Because its narrative alludes to the ancient narratives, the film acquires-in its form, its characters and its subject - a complex significance involving recognition and surprise. …