Saturday, February 23, 2013

Battletruck (1982)

aka Warlords of the 21st Century

The apocalypse has come and gone (again). After the Oil Wars, the remnants of humanity have divided into the usual camps, though there do not seem to be any mutant cannibals around.
Former military man Straker (James Wainwright) cruises the empty highways of New Zealand with his bands of crazy thugs in an armoured truck, always looking for fuel and people to crush under his boot heels. Just after his awesome crushing technique has gotten him possession of a large underground fuel depot, the girl Corlie (Annie McEnroe), with whom Straker has a rather complicated relationship, escapes from the fascist's loving arms.

Straker's men are just beginning to catch Corlie and bring her back again, when the motor-biking Hunter (Michael Beck) appears and rescues her. Hunter is the proverbial post-apocalyptic loner living his life in the mountains, fuelling his bike thanks to the wonders of chicken shit, and really having no room for other people close by. Consequently, Hunter loads Corlie off at a base democratic commune named Clearwater he is somewhat friendly with.

The people of Clearwater are quite good at living a dignified post-industrial life, or as dignified as life gets when you mainly live on turnips, and do take in Corlie. Unfortunately, Straker isn't too far behind still looking for the girl. Obviously, he has no moral qualms with steam-rolling some radical democrats. For the moment, Corlie escapes Straker and seeks help with Hunter, who will have to change his loner ways a little to help her and Clearwater out.

Harley Cokeliss's Battletruck is, despite of a production credit by Roger Corman's New World Pictures (at a point when that company was still able to produce good B-movies), a film shot in New Zealand by people from New Zealand.

In tone, the film is one of the slightly more serious post-apocalyptic films, not just without giant insects and mutants, but also clearly trying to paint a somewhat believable picture of a world after a third world war that doesn't seem to have become very nuclear and the destruction of most oil fields and fuel reserves. Unlike in most films of the genre, people don't dress in leather and latex and drive dune buggies around (though the second vehicle of the bad guys is relatively close to one), but look as if they were actually dressing in scavenged clothing as well as home-made ones, clothing clearly chosen to keep them warm in a world without central heating. Instead of cars, what we see of people use horse drawing carts made from car parts.

The same goes for the few buildings in the film - most everything looks as self-constructed by amateurs as is to be expected, yet also like the kind of building one could imagine to see people construct in their situation. The only aspect of Battletruck going somewhat in the direction of the silly are the few motor vehicles; these still look pretty home-made with their dubious "armour" which just doesn't seem all that useful or probable. At least the vehicles do fit stylistically into the rest of the film's production design. I also don't think you are allowed to make a post-apocalyptic movie without improbable vehicles like the VW Beetle thing Hunter drives during the climax, so Battletruck just had to get with the program.

The scavenged and home-made look of the film goes quite a way in providing it with the proper post-apocalyptic mood, but the real star of the movie is director of photography Chris Menges's work. Menges - who by now has won two Oscars - shoots the properly awe-inspiring and beautiful landscape of New Zealand with an eye for natural light and the inherent strangeness of nature. It's a truism that, if you can't afford much of anything on your budget, but have the right landscape around you, you can still make a film that looks like several million dollars, in particular if you have a DP of Menges's quality. It also sure doesn't hurt to have a director with Cokeliss's talent for using a small number of buildings and vehicles so economically the audience mostly won't notice how small that pool actually is.

On the negative side, there really isn't that much substance to the film's script. The characters and their relationships - with the exception of that between Corlie and Straker - are a bit too simple, the political allegory so obvious I can't even get snarky about it being an allegory (the lowest form of subtext), and the pacing of the film's second half turns from slow to snail-like.
Despite these misgivings - and what I think is the curious attempt to sell the film as taking place in the post-apocalyptic USA via bad accents - Battletruck's visual power and the lived in feel of its post-apocalyptic world are more than enough to recommend it, at least to post-apocalypse movie enthusiasts like myself.


Anonymous said...

My strongest memory of Battletruck is how it looks like one of the stuntmen is getting hit, for real, by a vehicle.

I have the new DVD (and an old tape somewhere). Maybe I should watch it again, or maybe I should continue with my recent fascination of ABC's Movie of the Week? ;)

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Yeah, stuntmen security was clearly not one of the movie's priorities.

Or you could watch a Movie of the Week and then proceed to Battletruck?