Mad Max: The Toecutter exacts revenge

Mad Max: The Toecutter exacts revenge
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Family friend May Swaisey (Sheila Florance) helps Max’s wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and child (Brendan Heath) to escape the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his gang, but they soon catch up. Summary by Paul Byrnes

The scene uses iconic imagery – madonna and child, old lady with shotgun – to generate great emotional power and horror, without becoming explicit in its violence. Killing the mother and child, the worst of crimes, has Biblical overtones. 

Mad Max Synopsis

In the near future, in a collapsing society, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) patrols the highway in a super-charged patrol car, the Interceptor, like a modern-day samurai. When a bikie gang declares war on him and his family, Max takes justice into his own hands.

Mad Max Curator's Notes

The influence of Mad Max would be hard to overstate. Some would say it is the most influential movie ever made in Australia. The film had a profound effect on filmmakers and audiences around the world. It redefined the idea of what kinetic action cinema should be, along with audience expectations. It also threw a well-timed wrench at the polite veneer of much Australian cinema. The film was neither highbrow nor historical, as many Australian films of the 1970s were.

At the same time, Mad Max is profoundly local in its attitudes and origins. Dr George Miller grew up in Chinchilla in south-western Queensland. The hot, flat plains and 'a profound car culture’ had claimed the lives of several contemporaries before he left school. As a young doctor, he saw the impact of road carnage at close quarters, in casualty wards. The film has both a love of speed and an apocalyptic view of its effects. It also has an ambivalent, even jaundiced view of authority. There is no justice, only vengeance. 

Mad Max was made for $380,000 raised from friends, so it was completely independent of the Australian film funding bodies. It was, in short, a piece of larrikin cinema – impolite, independent, and in a style not considered respectable. Miller was strongly influenced by silent cinema, particularly the techniques of comedians Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Mad Max was an experiment, he says, in making 'pure cinema’.

Critics compared Miller to the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa but Miller says he did not know who Kurosawa was at the time. When it was shown in the USA, the Australian voices were dubbed into American accents. The sound design by Roger Savage was particularly influential, the tones of different engines being used as a kind of music.

Notes by Paul Byrnes

Education Notes

This clip shows May Swaisey (Sheila Florance) forcing Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his gang into a shed at gunpoint, as Max Rockatansky’s wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and child (Brendan Heath) escape. May bolts the gang in and joins Jessie and the baby in the car. They drive off as the gang starts breaking down the shed door, eventually breaking through to get on their motorbikes in pursuit. The car breaks down and May tries to protect Jessie, firing the shotgun at the approaching gang as Jessie, carrying the baby, runs away barefoot down the centre of the long straight road. The gang passes May and the stationary car, leaving her unharmed. A tachometer on one of the bikes revs, Jessie falls, and the final shot is of a child’s shoe tumbling to the road in the wake of the gang, who disappear into the distance as the roar of their engines fade.

Educational value points

  • The events in the film’s narrative that are shown in this clip led to the creation of one of Australian cinema’s great antiheroes. The death of his wife and child turn Max (Mel Gibson) into Mad Max. His symbolic loss of innocence, hope and decency leaves Max with revenge as his driving force.
  • The clip contains one of the key scenes and most agonising moments in the film. The image of Jessie running down the road has been carefully constructed to intensify the vulnerability of humans in a post-apocalyptic, machine-worshipping age of reckless speed and disregard for life, exemplified by the gang.
  • Director George Miller’s (1945–) skill in creating suspense is clearly demonstrated. The editing, sound, choice of perspective and low-angle shots encourage the audience to experience the approaching gang as a menace. Miller’s ability to horrify the audience while not actually showing explicit violence is masterfully evidenced here when the tiny shoe tumbling across the road suggests the actual impact.
  • Mad Max incorporates elements from a range of genres. In this instance, the scenes have many of the hallmarks of a horror film, including the style of editing, the use of sound, the ways tension and dread are created and the use of narrative set pieces such as the escape of potential murderers from flimsy confinement, the near getaway and the car that breaks down.
  • Women are positioned within the film in traditional and archetypal roles. Characters include the mother and child and the ancient crone. These are figures of heightened vulnerability and have biblical or folk antecedents, which increases their emotional resonance for the audience.
  • The clip provides a convincing rationale for the international success of Mad Max. The intense horror and suspense of these scenes exemplify the grip Miller was able to maintain on his audience. Despite being made on a very low budget and disastrously dubbed for distribution in the USA, the film achieved cult status, ultimately made an enormous impression worldwide and is viewed as a major development in action filmmaking. Miller has continued to work widely in the industry as both a director and a producer, with his directorial work including Mad Max 2 (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
  • Mel Gibson (1956–) is shown in the role that catapulted him to international fame. he went on to even greater success as a result of his participation in the second film in the series, Mad Max 2 (1981), and further action films such as the Lethal Weapon series.
Production company:
Kennedy Miller
Byron Kennedy
George Miller
James McCausland and George Miller
Brian May
Steve Bisley, Tim Burns, Mel Gibson, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Joanne Samuel, Roger Ward