Birth of the Road Warrior: Mad Max at 40

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It’s 40 years since one of the most iconic and influential biker movies of all time hit the silver screen. Mad Max, released in 1979, became just as famous for its dramatic action using real biker gangs as it did for its vision of a post-apocalyptic wasteland that’s remained popular ever since.

It was not only a low budget movie that became a massive hit (with a budget of $350,000 and gross of over $100m it was the Guinness Book of Records’ most profitable movie for over 20 years) but it also launched the career of Mel Gibson and spawned both a franchise and bike-rich movie genre that’s still hugely popular today.

Without Mad Max, motorcycles in the movies would simply not be the same. Not bad for a mostly amateur Aussie flick made by a first-time feature director on such a tight budget that most of the bikes and bikers could only be paid in beer!

A lot of the riding in Mad Max was performed by Vigilante bike club members

The story of the creation of Mad Max is essentially that of wannabe filmmaker and project driving force, George Miller. A trained doctor, he started dabbling in film ‘shorts’ in the early to mid-1970s, and developed a feature film idea about a future cop or, to be precise, an ‘MFP’ (Main Force Patrol) police interceptor, getting his revenge on a criminal biker gang who murdered his wife and child. Inspiration came in part from the oil crisis of the time, and from Miller’s personal medical experience of motorcycle injuries.

Genuine bikers

With a tiny budget, so precluding any established Hollywood stars, Miller and friend Byron Kennedy set about filming in late 1977 in a desolate, dusty area of Victoria state. Drama school graduate Mel Gibson was cast in the leading role of Max Rockatansky after attending an open casting merely as moral support for a mate.

Gibson's character speaks just 16 lines in the film

“We had a budget of just $350,000,” said Miller later. “Byron and I were photocopying scripts and distributing them off the back of my bike. After filming the stunts we swept the glass off the roads ourselves.”

With money tight, Miller had to be creative when it came to bikes and extras, too. While the main bike cop, Jim Goose, and the leader of the biker gang, ‘Toecutter’, were played by Aussie actors Steve Bisley and Hugh Keays-Byrne respectively (the latter having previously starred in the cult bike flick Stone) most of the rest of the gang – and their bikes – were the real McCoy. Miller placed an ad for the shoot in a bike shop window and local motorcycle club, The Vigilantes, came on board.

Actor Tim Burns, who played the ‘Johnny the Boy’ character who finally gets his comeuppance from Max at the movie’s conclusion, later recalled working with them, hinting at how some of the striking motorcycle action scenes came about. “They all wanted to ride the bikes as fast as possible, as often as possible, by their nature. Their riding was individually and collectively superb.”

Johnny the boy gets what's coming to him

As a result, although professional stuntmen were used, many of Mad Max’s stunts and precision riding, including donuts, were actually done by Vigilantes. The donut and wheelie shown as Toecutter’s gang get rowdy in the outback town towards the beginning (shot in Fraser Street, Clunes, Victoria) were both performed by actual Vigilante club members. In fact, the Vigilantes proved so proficient, one even doubled for Goose to do his donut in a later scene…

Nor were they the only ones. When Toecutter’s gang needed to be boosted by extra bikes and riders, the Victorian Four Owners Club came to the rescue. While the famous ‘bubble trike’ – a custom Honda CB750 with unusual bubble sidecar – as viciously attacked by Toecutter’s Gang in one scene – was created by members of the Barbarians Motorcycle Club.

It’s also worth mentioning here that Keays-Byrne, already an accomplished biker and who also appeared in the latest Max Max: Fury Road as ‘Immortan Joe’, decided to ‘get into character’ for the Toecutter role by riding, with several others, the 550 miles from Sydney to the shoot in Melbourne fully dressed in costume.

“It was a good rehearsal,” he remembered years later. “It was about three days and we took the coast road. One of the most pre-occupying thoughts I had was not to look like those cowboys in the Westerns who are never carrying enough kit to camp where they stopped. I had enough kit, bags and that huge axe – all of that had to be slid into the structure of the bike and not f**king kill me!” It’s a typical example of the degree of motorcycle authenticity that gives the movie much of its appeal.

Toecutter played by Hugh Keays-Byrne

Behind the scenes

But the main motorcycle star of Mad Max couldn’t rely on donations or volunteers. While Max himself was mostly associated with a Ford Falcon V8 Interceptor car, his best buddy, Jim ‘Goose’ Rains, was an MFP biker for whom a distinctive machine was needed, and created – as Bertrand Cadart, who had a minor role as Clunk and an equally small motorcycle customizing company, ‘La Parisienne’, remembered.

“The producers managed to secure 10 KZ1000s from Kawasaki Australia,” he recalled. “But they had high-rise bars and looked very ’70s.” Miller and Kennedy considered their look inappropriate so approached accessory manufacturers for help – with little success.

Then, by chance one day, Miller came by Cadart’s house and saw a fairing that the French ex-pat was working on, which had been inspired by the Bol d’Or endurance racers of the late 1970s.

“George couldn’t afford his own design so we used what I was building,” said Cadart. Toecutter’s bike used similar, black bodywork while a silver ‘MFP’ paintjob and a set of mag wheels were the finishing touches. “The only set of mag wheels George could afford were the ones on Goose’s bike,” said Cadart.

“We bought one set of Lester wheels, which in those days were sh*t-hot. All the stunts were done with a bike with spoked wheels. I wrapped foil around the spokes to make them look like mags!”

Goose's KZ and Max's V8 Interceptor

With cast, vehicles and locations sorted, filming began in October 1977. Remote roads were closed ad-hoc with the friendly help of Victoria State Police, famously silent Max said precisely 16 lines of dialogue and, largely thanks to the efforts of cinematographer David Eggby, the action scenes became one of the film’s standout features.

Eggby, a lifelong biker himself, literally strapped himself to the rider for Goose’s famous riding scene, and went for it – without a helmet.

“I couldn’t wear a helmet because you can’t operate a camera with one; it gets in the way,” he explained later. “Terry Gibson, who was the president of The Vigilantes, doubled as Goose, they put a seatbelt around both of us and we went for it. You can see on the speedo that it’s cracking 180kph (about 110mph). The camera was quite heavy. I relaxed once and I nearly lost it!”

Where are they now?

Gang members pursue a car in Mad Max

Even then, Mad Max nearly never got finished. “We ran out of money for editing and post-production,” remembers Miller. “So, I spent a year editing the film by myself in our kitchen, while Byron Kennedy did the sound, and then went back to working as an emergency doctor on the weekends to earn money to keep going. I thought, ‘Oh my God, we made a film and it won’t cut together and we’re going to lose all that money.’

It didn’t, of course; instead becoming a cult classic and spawn three follow-ups, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior in ’81, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in ’85 and, Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015.

And what became of the bikes? “Byron Kennedy offered us the surviving motorbikes for five grand for the lot – all seven of them,” recalled Cadart. “He said, ‘One day they will be collectors’ items,’ and we said, ‘Yes, Byron, sure’ so instead they were taken to a wrecker. Some of them got wrecked and some got put back to bog-stock and sold. But not a single one survived in its Mad Max incarnation.”

Which, obviously, is a tragedy – but overall, Mad Max is anything but, not least to Miller. “Mad Max is obviously very special to me,” he said years later. “It was the first film, and after all these years it still means something to people. So even though it was very hard to make, we must have done something right!”

The most famous Mad Max bike of all…

The most iconic Mad Max motorbike

Ask any biker to visualize a motorcycle from Mad Max and invariably Goose’s ‘Kwaka Interceptor’ comes to mind.

It was based on a 1977 Kawasaki KZ1000 donated by Kawasaki Australia but famously modified with futuristic café racer fairing and tailpiece moulded by Melbourne-based La Parisienne as inspired by Bol D’Or-style endurance racers of the era.

Finished off with Lester mags and a silver ‘MFP’ paintjob it’s reminiscent of Rickman/Dunstall kit café racers of the 1970s yet also somehow with a retro vibe long before retro bikes were even invented.

It’s so iconic that more than a few replicas have been built over the years since. La Parisienne themselves went out of business a few years after Mad Max was released, but in the early 2000s Japanese customizing specialists White House made a number of accurate replicas called the MFP-1100 Midnight based around Kawasaki Zephyr 1100 running gear.

In addition, American fibreglass fairing specialists Air-Tech Streamlining, of California, have been making replica ‘Goose’ fairings, bellypans and seat units for a number of years priced around $345 (for a fairing) and will produce them on demand. All you need then, of course, is a Zed thou (or similar) and a fair bit of patience and elbow grease, or should that be ‘goose’…?

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Original Mad Max film poster