The National Identity of Remote, Lethal Lands: the Australian Road Movie

Oliver Pfeiffer
An artist's rendering of one of those cars that ate Paris

Australian cinema has utilised the road movie as a means to express geographical concerns regarding isolation, suffocation and disillusionment with contemporary Australian life.

“In the road movie, the travel undertaken by the protagonists serves as a metaphor for life itself, with freedom and social mobility being analogous to physical mobility.” says Jonathan Rayner in Contemporary Australian Cinema: An Introduction.

Although a cultural product of America’s preoccupation with the mythology of freedom, escapist adventure and metaphoric redemption, the road movie is a subgenre culturally compatible enough to have been embraced interestingly by other countries around the globe to express their own concerns with ideology and national identity.

With reoccurring themes of entrapment and stasis, (as appose to traditional themes of liberation through movement) Australian cinema has utilised the road movie as a means to express geographical concerns regarding isolation, suffocation and disillusionment with contemporary Australian life. The relationship between landscape and the characters that interact with them is very much at the heart of the Australian road movie; where the Australian Gothic threatens to intrude at any moment and where there is little comfort in the activity of escape.

The typography of the outback terrain has also proved an ideal canvas for many Aussie auteurs to cut their creative teeth; including directors Peter Weir, Richard Franklin, George Miller, Phillip Noyce and Stephan Elliott. While stars such as Mel Gibson, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and character actors Bruce Spence and John Jarratt have also shined provocatively on the open road.

Fuel Injected Suicide Machines

The romantic allure of leisurely losing yourself in a remote and exotic land has its consequences in the Australian Outback road movie; where the terrain often turns hostile and a trip through scenic backcountry can turn into a fierce game of survival.

Appearing from the mid-‘70s onwards, Australian Outback road movies were noticeably set within or amongst remote disintegrating communities, usually featured anachronistic residents who posed a threat to masculine integrity and contained Grand Guignol horror moments often with a grainy cinéma vérité style aesthetic quality. They were also somewhat desirable for the stylish way they shot their vehicles or as Quentin Tarantino eloquently put it: “Nobody shoots a car the way the Aussies do. They manage to shoot cars with this fetishistic lens that just makes you wanna jerk off.”

Hostility toward the passing traveller is central to the plot of Peter Weir’s debut feature production The Cars That Ate Paris (1974); a significant example of the pervasive Australian Gothic with its sinister cut-off rural community of deranged inhabitants. Sofia in New South Wales steps in for the fictional outback hamlet of Paris: a deceptively sleepy little town surrounded by hills but layered with dangerously unstable country roads. Profiting from unwary tourists, the residents engineer road traffic accidents for the means of their own survival, trading in salvageable car parts for clothing and food.

Weir’s film suggests a loss of personality and identity through the integration of community. The diminutive protagonist Arthur (Terry Camilleri) is portrayed as an incompetent simpleton who can easily be manipulated and, following the trauma of his brother’s death in a car accident, is rendered incapable of driving. Other car wreck survivors are often brain-dead and used for medical experimentation – in effect ‘recycled’ as much as the car parts.

As Rayner has observed in the cinematic trends of the ‘Australia’ Gothic rural community “the insane are recruited to secure the objectives of the malevolent establishment.” As a consequence, deranged locals emphasise the otherness of the Australian community; a character called Charlie, (played by Bruce Spence) is a sadistic weirdo with a penchant for collecting Jaguar car crests. Significantly, Charlie also helps to administer the contrived car crashes under the patriarchal rule of the town’s mayor (played by John Meillon). However, the town’s fate is sealed by the obsession with the car when a procession of spike-encrusted vehicles, driven by the town’s rebellious youths, enact a terrifying revenge against the residents during the film’s climax.

As Rayner has noted this empathises the Australian ethos that “we would die without our cars, and to prove the point we daily risk dying in them.” The influential power The Cars That Ate Paris had on the emerging Australian road movie cannot be overemphasised. This is perhaps most evident in the Mad Max trilogy (1979-1985); where the suspicion of establishment, social breakdown, resident animosity and a loss of authority -- all within an overpowering car culture environment -- became reoccurring themes.

Mad Max marked the debut of George Miller, another notable Aussie director who would go on to helm the entire series and direct such notable films as The Witches of Eastwick and the animated hits Babe and Happy Feet. Set ‘a few years from now’ in a collapsed society the film opens precariously with a warning sign stating the high fatality rate on the aptly named ‘Anarchie Road’. In Mad Max, roads are long and lethal and the camera rarely veers away from the hazardous two-lane-blacktop. This time the hostile locals are a band of crude Hell’s Angel type bikers, whose main occupation is to terrorise the roads. In his lead debut role Mel Gibson plays the young titular law enforcer who attempts to police the roads.

Max and his family become ‘the travellers under threat’ when they go on vacation and enter hostile territory. The outback momentarily turns idyllic but danger always appears to be lurking on the outskirts in the form of the vengeful bikers who proceed to terrorise Max’s family. As a result Max turns rogue and enacts a personal revenge ploy. This loss of emotional control, which is linked to lose of life, poses a challenge to masculine integrity turning Max into an emotionless avenger.

In the great Australian cinematic tradition, cars are seen as an extension of power, individuality and masculine identity and as something to be both fetishised and feared. Once again salvageable parts feature prominently; this time used to soup-up vehicles: Max’s signature motor, ‘The Interceptor’, has a modified front with a supercharger sticking out of the bonnet, while his adversary ‘The Toecutter’ has a vehicle that is propelled by a fuel rocket, which, as the character self-proclaims makes him “...a fuel injected suicide machine!”

The dry barren landscape and rocky background canyons of Broken Hill, (a mining city in the far west outback of New South Wales) is the setting for a destitute post-apocalyptic future in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. It is also an appropriate locale for our returning titular protagonist; a man who has wandered into the wasteland after the death of his family and the bloody revenge he enacted. Jonathan Rayner has emphasised: “At a superficial level Max’s actions always serve a greater good, but in each film the Gothic sensibility intrudes to deny them their dignity.”

As a consequence, Max’s heroic status is questioned throughout the series particularly as his character takes on the persona of the lone avenger attempting to make his own way through a beleaguered community. In Mad Max 2, he helps a white tribe – but it is a society that has little respect for him, and the revelation that the petrol truck he offered to drive them was in fact filled with sand undermines Max’s heroism and makes a mockery of his heroic status. Again, this erosion of humanity is a reoccurring theme throughout the Australian car-orientated/outback road movie.

By the third Mad Max film, Beyond Thunderdome, the deserted highways are no longer visible and sand dunes (filmed in the Kurnell sand dunes in southern Sydney; the site of Australia’s initial conception) are a constant fixture. In the film Max attempts to liberate the Gothic rural community of ‘Bartertown’ from tyranny by taking on the seemingly monstrous ruler Master Blaster in the titular gladiator arena. However, after he succeeds he ends up ultimately deceived by its new ruler, Aunty Entity (played by Tina Turner) due to his sudden compassion for the ultimately child-like Blaster. This further demonstrates the flawed ambiguity of the Australian protagonist in the road movie.

The Australian car-orientated film also included such revenge thrillers as Midnite Spares (1983) (directed by Quentin Masters) and Dead End Drive-In (1986) (directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith), both of which embraced exploitative levels of extreme violence, which confirmed their place in the newly coined ‘Ozploitation’ movement, as exemplified in Mark Hartley’s 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood.

A not-so-nice ride in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

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