Notes and Additional Thoughts on
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
Here are some thoughts on the movie's communication of symbols:
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is one of many works that illustrate what the
mythologist Joseph Campbell and literary theorist Northrop Frye have said about fiction
and science fiction. In the 1950s, Frye wrote that science fiction is a
"displaced" mythology. If memory serves me correctly, Campbell wrote about
modern fiction as a creative mythology. Both saw imaginative works as collectively
expressing a unified ethical vision that is already a part of us. Every work
"participates" in that ethical vision and expresses it, from one angle or
another, to one degree or another. Some works, such as Mad Max or the movie, Logan's
Run, or the original Star Trek TV series, or the TV series MASH, capture
an essential part of it and call up something deep inside us.
Mad Max also illustrates something else: the essence of popular fiction isn't seeing
great "men" brought down, as in classic tragedy, but seeing less-than-great
characters lifted up as they encounter circumstances beyond their control that require
them to find something in themselves they didn't know was there. Tragedies let us
watch the great fall, which has some interest for us. Superficial stories, like
the series about Hercules on television, let us watch the great stay great,
which also has a limited interest. What we find the most fascinating is watching the
seemingly average achieve greatness and also seeing the below average struggle and act
foolish, in comedy, as they run in place or try to achieve something better.
* * * * * *
Like all works of imaginative fiction (at least all the ones I'm familiar with), Mad
Max Beyond Thunderdome tells a story by incorporating images of the person (images of
ethical development, mind, body, family and birth); images from myths and from the Old and
New Testament; and images of contemporary and past society, as well images from other
works of fiction and nonfiction. It uses all this as its raw material and, in so
doing, it comments on all of it. But its primary purpose is to incorporate this material
into a new myth that expresses the universal concerns of all people, as seen through the
filter of contemporary culture.
And like all works of fiction, the movie presents its images with varying degrees of
disguise. The image of the children as Aborigines, for example, isn't disguised at all,
even if some members of the audience outside Australia don't appreciate it. Other images
of the family drama and the functioning of the mind are much more heavily disguised.
Similarly, as in all fiction, we can surmise that the authors put these images in the
movie, and disguised them, with varying degrees of conscious awareness of what they were
doing. But whether or not the authors were consciously aware of what they were up to, and
whether the images were disguised or obvious, all the images and story lines are covert
and overt communications from the authors to us, the audience. Audiences, in turn, pick up
the communications and experience them in ways that fit their own personality. It is the
role of criticism to understand how all this is created, communicated and received, which
is what this essay has tried to do, but only within a limited range, since a more complete
study would have to be much more exhaustive.
* * * * * *
Here are some notes for part one, The Future as Demonic Parody:
* Regarding the phrase "a jalopy of an airplane...":
The airplane is referred to in the credits as "the flying jalopy."
* The reference to Aunty Entity's house as a bird's nest of a building is taken
from a review by the critic Roger Ebert, which can be found in the Internet Movie
Database. The review is dated 07/10/1985.
Here is the relevant quote:
Tina Turner herself lives far above the masses in a bird-nest throne room perched high
overhead. And as Mad Max first visits Turner's sky palace, I began to realize how
completely the director, George Miller, had imagined this future world. It has the
crowding and the variety of a movie crossroads, but it also has a riot of hairstyles and
costume design, as if these desperate creatures could pause from the daily struggle for
survival only long enough to invent new punk fashions. After the clothes, the hair, the
crowding, the incessant activity, the spendthrift way in which Miller fills his screen
with throwaway details, Bartertown becomes much more than a movie set - it's an astounding
address of the imagination, a place as real as Bogart's Casablanca or Orson Welles' Xanadu
or the Vienna of ``The Third Man."
* Master-Blaster has something in common with the Minotaur, which was part bull, part
human. Both are large two-part beings that live in a maze. (Underworld has mazelike
qualities.) Master, the dwarf has something in common with Hephaestus, the lame craftsman
and god of smiths and fires. According to various reference works, dwarfs are also
commonly depicted in myths and stories as being skilled artificers; as working in mines;
and as living in caves or holes in the ground. It's not much, but it's a life.
* Regarding the reference to the children's myths and rituals as a take-off of
Aboriginal religion, here is a piece of information about Aboriginal mythology, which is
in the Encyclopaedia Britannica online, under "Australia: Traditional
"The Aboriginal worldview centered on the 'Dreaming' or 'Dreamtime,' a complex and
comprehensive concept embodying the past, present, and future, as well as virtually every
aspect of life. It includes the creative era at the dawn of time, when mythic beings
shaped the land and populated it with flora, fauna, and human beings and left behind the
rules for social life. After their physical death and transformation into heavenly or
earthly bodies, the indestructible creative beings withdrew from the earth into the
* Regarding the reference to the children's myths and rituals as a cargo cult, here's a
description, also from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, listed under "cargo
"any of the religious movements chiefly, but not solely, in Melanesia that exhibit
belief in the imminence of a new age of blessing, to be initiated by the arrival of a
special "cargo" of goods from supernatural sources -- based on the observation
by local residents of the delivery of supplies to colonial officials. Tribal divinities,
culture heroes, or ancestors may be expected to return with the cargo, or the goods may be
expected to come through foreigners, who are sometimes accused of having intercepted
material goods intended for the native peoples. If the cargo is expected by ship or plane,
symbolic wharves or landing strips and warehouses are sometimes built in preparation....
"These preparations announce the radically new age, thought to be inaugurated
probably by cataclysmic events that will destroy the old order and bring a paradisial
plenty, together with freedom and justice that may involve the reversal of the positions
of white foreigners and indigenous peoples.
* * * * * *
Here are some notes for part four, Ethics and the Family Drama:
* Regarding the claim that the father is symbolized by both Master and Blaster, and
that the son may be symbolized by Max and by the children: it isn't unusual for dreams or
works of art or other forms of fantasy to split one person into a number of characters --
or to condense a number of people into one character. They do the same with other
elements, as well, as psychoanalysis has long described.
* The justifications for interpreting Bartertown as a disguised depiction of a family
is as follows: Bartertown is a walled in, controlled, environment, governed by a powerful
male and female in a struggle for power. Others in this environment who are caught between
them, including Max, are at their mercy. Based on my reading of other similar works of
fiction; based on what we know about human psychology; and based on the total pattern of
the movie, this is clearly a disguised depiction of a household and family.
* There is also another possible image of anatomy in the movie, odd as it may seem. In
this one, Crack in the Earth is a pouch, a la kangaroo. Baby kangaroos are born very
small. They then crawl across the mother's underside to the pouch, where they will
complete their maturation. So here, Max, the kangaroo son, is given birth by Bartertown,
which now becomes the female genitals. He then makes his way to the pouch in Crack in the
Earth, from whence he will be born into the world of a new and more mature adulthood. This
possible subtext doesn't fit in as well as the others with the elements of the movie, but
it doesn't need to for it to have been one of the underlying fantasies of the authors or
of some audiences.
* It is possible to interpret Crack in the Earth and Bartertown as depicting a
single family. It is possible to interpret the movie as depicting Max as leaving the
family of childhood in Bartertown and going into a woman and engendering his own family,
when he arrives at Crack in the Earth.