Laura Williamson revisits a post-apocalyptic action classic, filmed in her ‘hood.
IT’S AFTER THE OIL WARS. AMERICA IS A RADIOACTIVE AFTERTHOUGHT WHERE MARAUDING BANDITS STALK THE COUNTRYSIDE ON THE HUNT FOR PETROL, AND WOMEN. THE RADIO CRACKLES IN THE BACKGROUND, A LITANY OF BAD NEWS: “GASOLINE ALL BUT UNATTAINABLE”, “FOOD RIOTS”, “OIL FIELDS IN ARABIA STILL BURNING “, “LOOTERS… SHOT ON SIGHT”. BATTLETRUCK BEGINS.
Except it’s not America, it’s Central Otago, which we know because we’ve mountain biked over half the terrain in the film, and also Bruno Lawrence is there. (Proving again that if Bruno shows up in any New Zealand film of a certain vintage, things are about to get dystopic. See The Quiet Earth, Smash Palace, Goodbye Pork Pie and Utu.)
“Think 20-ton homicidal robo-armadillo designed by Jules Verne and Rambo”
Dropped in 1982, BattleTruck (released overseas as Warlords of the 21st Century) is 90 minutes of post-apocalyptic awesome. Mostly, it involves renegade colonel Jacob Straker waging a reign of terror against innocent civilians with a giant armoured truck, including a proto-hippie collective that is sheltering his rebellious daughter, Corlie. Enter Hunter, played by Michael Beck of The Warriors (and, importantly, Olivia Newton John’s roller disco romp Xanadu). He’s a lone wolf. His jaw is set right-angled, and he may fall in love with you, but he’ll never settle down, because the only thing he can commit to is his bulletproof methane- fuelled dirt bike, obviously.
BattleTruck gets some stick for being a rip-off of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), another movie in which gas shortages facilitate a plot centred on rad vehicles being driven around post-nuke landscapes and ramming into each other. This is unfair. The two movies were made at the same time and fuel scarcity was a hot topic in 1982, especially in Aotearoa, where memories of the oil shocks and Robert Muldoon’s car-less days were fresh.
The film was made in New Zealand partly thanks to an early-80s tax-break scheme that attracted international productions, and it was a big deal for the local film scene. The set was the country’s largest to date, and the truck itself (more on that later), was the biggest motorised film prop ever constructed here. It also harnessed some notable homegrown talent. Lee Tamahori, who went on to direct a wee film called Once Were Warriors, as well as the 2002 Bond offering Die Another Day, served as boom operator, and the gaffer was Stuart Dryburgh, later the Oscar-nominated cinematographer of The Piano.
Despite a modest B-movie budget (about the equivalent of $400,000 US dollars, versus $3,000,000 for Mad Max 2), and the technological limitations of the time, BattleTruck delivers. There are some cracking performances, especially from Bruno Lawrence as Straker’s sociopathic sidekick Willie, while John Ratzenberger, who was both Cliff the mailman in Cheers and the talking piggy bank in the Toy Story films, plays the kind villager Rusty. The dialogue errs on the side of cheese, but there’s lots of humour and, at times, poignancy. “Why do men have to fight?” Corlie asks, “it has to change.” Still true, Corlie, still true.
“the only thing he can commit to is his bulletproof methane-fuelled dirt bike”
BattleTruck is also a love letter to the landscapes of Central Otago. Even when it’s standing in for the end of the world, the place is beautiful. There was a fair bit of old-school filming from helicopters with the Old Man and Old Woman Ranges in the background, and the tracking shots look great, despite being shot from a Citröen DS with the body removed. According to co- producer Robert Whitehouse, they used the Citröen because there were no proper tracking vehicles in New Zealand back then, and that model had excellent suspension.
The real star of the show, though, is the eponymous truck. The tractor unit was built up by Auckland’s Jones Odell Motor Bodies from the chassis of a Pacific P9 Logging Truck (a monster, the P9 could tow 120 tons of logs), while the trailer came together in Ashburton at Mid Canterbury Transport. The BattleTruck is a pre- CGI beauty, a shining example of the used-future aesthetic, clad in battle-blackened eight gauge steel and shaped with a sloping nose that dips menacingly to the ground. Think 20-ton homicidal robo- armadillo designed by Jules Verne and Rambo. Inside, the control panel owes a debt to the Millennium Falcon, which makes sense. The director of photography, Chris Menges, had worked as second unit DOP on The Empire Strikes Back. He went on to win two Oscars, for The Killing Fields and The Mission.
The truck is resplendent in the final scene (spoiler alert!), in which it takes a nosedive off a cliff, blows up mid-air, and tumbles in flaming slow motion glory into the Clutha River. Six camera crews filmed this, the mother of all money shots, at Halliday Bluff, downriver from Albert Town near Wānaka. According to Robert Whitehouse, he and co-producer Lloyd Phillips spent two days driving every road out of Alexandra in a 70-mile radius until they found the spot. “The main special effects guy, Johnny Burke who was an old hand from the US who had worked in the original Mission Impossible TV series, timed everything so well. It went like a dream. It was before the days of reliable radio controls, so stunt driver Buddy Joe Hooker was in the truck, getting it up to speed and jamming the accelerator, then bailing out before it reached the cliff.” Apparently Occupational Health and Safety wasn’t a thing 40 years ago.
A crowd gathered to watch the action, and it’s become part of local lore. Albert Town resident Megan Van was in primary school when the stunt was filmed. She says her and her three brothers waited all day.
“I think all of Albert Town was there at the confluence of the Clutha and the Cardrona – they kept walkie talkie-ing down to say it would be another hour, then another. We were terrified to go and get a snack or a drink, in case we missed it. For a nine-year-old, it was like, wow, you are going to be part of something in Hollywood.”
The next day she went back with her brothers, who managed to nick the grill from the windscreen, as well as a few other truck treasures, to decorate their rooms with. Megan says seeing the action was cool, but the highlight came the following year, when BattleTruck screened at Wānaka’s old town hall. “Watching it at the cinema was spectacular. We were all invested,” she remembers.
“Apparently Occupational Health and Safety wasn’t a thing 40 years ago”
Awestruck kids aside, Central Otago locals were heavily involved in the making of the film. Now based in Dunedin, Ken Dennison was in his mid-twenties and working for Alexandra Transport (now Fulton Hogan Central) at the time. The production crew needed someone to drive the truck, and he got the job, briefly. As he explains: “No one wanted it, but when they found it was the glamour job, one of the more senior drivers got to do it.” During his short tenure, he mostly brought the truck to and from the sets. “It was pretty daunting. You couldn’t see much going forwards because of the way the truck was set up, and there was a concertina. It didn’t follow very well around corners.”
“I used to have a bit of fun with the loudspeaker, just on dark when people were coming into town. They gave it a good hard look.”
The people of Alexandra weren’t the only ones. Apparently the BattleTruck attracted a lot of interest when it was driven south from Auckland, and there were rumours it was a new vehicle about to be deployed against Springbok Tour protestors by the riot squads. Someone on the Interislander Ferry defaced it, writing “Bok buster” on it with chalk.
Another local who became heavily involved in BattleTruck was Clyde-based electronics engineer Richard Davidson. Several scenes were filmed on his family’s property, including the moment Hunter crashes his motorbike through the roof of the truck and beats up the baddies within. I don’t know about you, but nothing that epic has ever happened in my backyard.
Richard also designed, and operated (via radio control from a safe distance across the river), the detonators that blew up the truck. There were 36 explosions involved, 18 in the truck and a further 18 in the trailer unit, which went off in sets of two about an eighth of a second apart. He needed to make sure both that Buddy Joe was out of the truck before it lit up, and that it exploded in a way that would make for good viewing. There was a lot of maths involved. “I had to work out how fast the truck was going, how far it would travel, and at what point the stunt driver would jump. It’s not as simple as flicking a switch, and the thing goes bang,” Richard explains.
The director, Harley Cokeliss, also a veteran of The Empire Strikes Back, expressed in a later interview how impressed he was with the Kiwis on the team. “I love the spirit in New Zealand, where the chef when he wasn’t making lunch, he was laying tracks with the rest of the grips. It was a terrific spirit. Everyone had a wonderful time making the film because we were out in this beautiful landscape.”
He was especially in awe of the production team. “We had a nothing budget… They were literally working with junk.” When it came to making the sets, which were built near Galloway, he describes how the crew would suss out an abandoned building, saw it off at the base, bring it back on a flat deck truck, and voila, hippie commune. “They were artists with chainsaws.”
One person’s junk, of course, is another’s treasure, and there are remnants of the BattleTruck in the community to this day. In Luggate, a backyard pergola that was made from the frame of one of the vehicles in the film still stands. Somewhere up the Lindis, the trailer deck of the truck itself, which was fished from the river after the explosion, is living out its days as a bridge over a creek on a high-country station. And the foot of Halliday Bluff is now part of the Upper Clutha River Track.
Peer over the edge next time you’re there. Maybe you’ll find a piece of the doomed lorry, or hear a lingering echo. Can you hear it? “Out of the rubble of the cities comes… BattleTruck!”