Mad Max in the Castle of the Grail Maidens
Mad Max: The Fury Road, dir. George Miller (Kennedy Miller Productions and Village Roadshow Pictures, ©2015)
Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This, the fourth installment in director George Miller’s Mad Max franchise, is neither sequel nor prequel nor remake. Rather, it is simply a continuation of the eponymous hero’s quest for meaning in life, albeit a continuation in which he plays a decidedly secondary role. Just before the final credits as the screen fades to black, the following title appears: “Where must we go . . . we who wander this Wasteland in search of our better selves.” The quotation is attributed to the “First History Man,” an attribution—the source is the screenwriters themselves—both puzzling and problematic depending upon how gendered the word man is meant to be. Fury Road is, at its heart, a radical regendering, if not queering, of the Mad Max franchise. Bits and bobs, small (a wind-up music box played by the Feral Kid in the second film) and large (the preciousness and scarcity of gasoline), reappear in Fury Road from the three earlier films: Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), but Fury Road is a very different kind of film about very different issues.
Decidedly less plot driven than its three predecessors, Fury Road in the main consists of two extended chases, one away from and one back to the Citadel, the castle-like base of the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a disfigured hunk of a man who recalls the Humungus in Road Warrior. Joe enslaves the remnants of humanity in a vast wasteland by controlling the supply of water, oil, and, interestingly, mother’s milk, as he sets out to breed a progeny to ensure dynastic continuation of his control. He has already fathered two sons, one a horribly deformed dwarf ironically named Corpus Colossus (Quentin Kenihan) and the other a mindless hulk of an automaton named Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones), and Joe keeps a Harem of five women to impregnate to bear him even more sons. Joe’s army consists of white skinned genetic mutant fanatics called War Boys, who regularly require periodic blood transfusions from captives who have been turned into human blood bags.
The earlier three Max films had been less than subtly homoerotic. The leather uniforms, souped- up cars and motorcycles of the first film gave way to outright homosexual couplings and torture scenes in the second to a gay icon, Tina Turner, as female lead in the third. Fury Road is devoid of any hint of the homoerotic; indeed, there is very little sex at all in the film. But the central character, who constantly upstages Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky, is Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, whom we later learn is a member of a matriarchal tribe called the Vuvalini. With her almost-shaved head and prosthetic right arm, Furiosa is a match for anyone, male or female, and her actions drive the plot. She decides to rescue Joe’s five brides—“We are no man’s property” reads a slogan painted on their Harem chamber wall. She devises a plot to exchange oil for safe passage through enemy lands, she rescues Max, and she is the character who finally comes to seek redemption—and unlike the three previous films in the franchise, Fury Road, is, in the final analysis, a film about finding redemption—by returning to the “Green Place.” She queers the franchise in a number of other ways. Her title “Imperator” is the masculine form in Latin, but her name, “Furiosa,” is the feminine, and that name recalls the hero of Ludovico Ariosto’s early sixteenth century epic poem Orlando Furioso, another character bent on rescue and redemption, who abandons his leader. While Joe’s five brides may dress in at times admittedly ridiculous variations on wedding dresses, Furiosa’s outfits are decidedly non-gendered, and her hair style and grease-painted forehead further queer her identity.
Paul B. Sturtevant has recently discussed the ways in which The Road Warrior is and is not a Grail film and Max himself is and is not a Grail Knight (“A Grail or a Mirage? Searching the Wasteland of The Road Warrior,” pp. 173-186 in The Holy Grail on Film, Essays on the Cinematic Quest, ed. Kevin J. Harty. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015). Fury Road is much more decidedly a Quest film. The Grails here are several: water, gasoline, mother’s milk, the elusive Green Place, the Valhalla that Joe promises his young followers, even Joe’s Harem who are referred to as “breeders.” And the Grail questors are many: Max, Furiosa, the Mad Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who eventually abandons Joe and joins Furiosa in opposing him, and all the Vuvalini. And both the presence of the Vuvalini and the film’s conclusion in which the matriarchy trumps the patriarchy as the Citadel, like the now-lost Green Place before it, becomes a gynotopia are what most radically queer the Max franchise.
As the film opens, Max is alone, haunted by memories of his daughter and wife, whose death he was unable to prevent earlier in the films in the franchise. His meditative moment literally lasts just a moment, as he is immediately captured by a marauding group of Mad Boys and turned into the most-prized of blood bags because he is O negative, once thought the blood type of those who were safely universal donors. The film never quite explains what is wrong with the Mad Boys, but their anemic appearance, their lack of body hair, and their regular need for blood transfusions suggest some kind of fatal hemolytic genetic disorder and their tumor-like lumps suggest some form of cancer. That there are no old Mad Boys also suggests that their life span is decidedly limited. In addition to frequent transfusions, they are further sustained by their rabid devotion to Joe who rewards them by spraying their mouths with chrome-colored paint, which presumably induces some kind of high, and who promises them glory in Valhalla if they should die fighting for him. Religion in the film is at best murky—later in the film, one of Joe’s brides prays for deliverance while admitting that she has no idea to whom (or what) she is praying. In Norse mythology, Valhalla is, of course, the heaven that welcomes warriors who die weapon in hand, but the youthful unswerving fanaticism of the War Boys who keenly expect paradise in exchange for martyrdom has contemporary echoes not easily lost on moviegoers today.
Max and Furiosa cross paths when she decides to liberate Joe’s brides—the Harem being yet another nod to contemporary religious issues—and to return with them to the Green Place of her youth. Since the mythological quest in general and the Grail quest in particular are always fluid, just who plays which role in a retelling of either quest can vary. If, in the earlier films, Max was Perceval like, it is tempting, at first, to follow Chrétien’s lead and see Furiosa as Gauvain (Gawain) to Max’s Perceval, but given the narrative arc of the film, it is Furiosa who better fits the role of Perceval and Max, that of Gauvain. In Chrétien, while the narrative tracks the parallel adventures of both knights, it eventually comes to focus solely on those of Perceval. So too in the film, Furiosa becomes the final focus—the Imperator of the Citadel—as Max fades into the crowd at the end of Fury Road, perhaps to return in future films, perhaps not.
As I indicated earlier, Fury Road queers the Mad Max franchise, but it also queers the Grail quest. There are five Grail maidens locked in a castle and in need of rescue, and that castle is the main repository for three of the film’s Grails: gasoline, water, and mother’s milk. Elsewhere in the castle, women are literally milked by machines for their breast milk. And Furiosa’s War Rig is stocked with gasoline and with mother’s milk. In one telling scene, Max washes the blood of those whom he has just killed from off of his face and hands in a bucket of mother’s milk—pace Freud! Fury Road’s Max is as taciturn as his franchise predecessors, and it is Furiosa who asks him the key question—“what is your name?”—to which she receives no immediate reply—again in the legend, it is Perceval who must ask a question. Eventually he will tell her his name is “Max.” The first word of the film’s subtle nods to Furiosa, and it is Furiosa who is intent upon seeking redemption, specifically by returning to, or ultimately by reinventing, the Green Place. At first, in the franchise, Max is looking for revenge; here, he has settled for looking for meaning in life. It is Furiosa, who heals all wounds, though she does first need a transfusion from Max, and her final act is to unleash the healing waters of Aqua Cola from deep within the Citadel, as she and her Vuvalini sisters recreate the Green Place on its site. Joe’s Harem are also hardly blushing brides. Despite their peculiar names—Toast the Knowing, The Splendid Angharad, Capable, The Dag, and Cheedo the Fragile—each holds her own in a number of battle scenes. But it is Furiosa who becomes the Perceval figure in what is admittedly a fascinating, and perhaps brilliant, queering of the traditional Grail quest.
Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University