Movie Review / Battletruck AKA Warlords of the 21st Century (1982)

  • Movie Review: Battletruck (aka Warlords of the 21st Century)
  • 1982, New World Pictures
  • by Chris Frain, June 2017

Released during the time known as the “The Greatest Year for Genre Films,” the New Zealand-filmed Battletruck (aka Warlords of the 21st Century) arrived hot-on-the-heels of the success of its friendly neighbor’s Road Warrior, amidst a field of post-apocalyptic knock-offs of mostly Italian origin. The film was produced by the American studio New World Pictures but was produced in New Zealand with a mostly New Zealand crew and actors (more on that later). The film was directed by Harley Cokliss (keep your snickering to a minimum) and stars Michael Beck (from 1979’s The Warriors!) as the futuristic motorcycle-riding loner-hero known simply as “Hunter.”

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But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – half the fun of post-apocalyptic movies is knowing how we got here in the first place. According to the weird ring-modulated radio voiceover, the world (or at least the US, or maybe just New Zealand?) has fallen into chaos after a vaguely nuclear war has occurred. “After the oil wars…” (of 1994, according to the teaser trailer), things have become very grim indeed, with the remaining population fleeing into the countryside and reduced to using horsepower (literally!) to power their vehicles. A sign blowing in the wind lets us know that the last time gasoline was even available, it cost $59.99 per litre! (Again, is this taking place in the US or New Zealand, maybe Canada?)

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Because of this chaos a band of raiders, under the command of “Straker” (James Wainwright), has been pillaging what’s left of civilization in their awesome mobile command center, the titular Battletruck. They discover one of the last strategic reserves of gasoline (a plot point that seems super-important at first but then has no relevance during the rest of the movie) and set up camp. However, Straker’s daughter, Corlie (Annie McEnroe) becomes disenchanted with her father’s ruthless ways and makes a desperate attempt at escape from the raider gang. Hunter appears out of nowhere and saves Corlie from the raiders and ultimately brings her to a peaceful settlement known as Clearwater Farm.

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The depiction of Clearwater Farm is exactly what I love about Battletruck the most. Without burning too much time they quickly explain that it is essentially a commune ruled through direct democracy, while the strains of the Shaker melody “Simple Gifts” plays in the background. This is a community committed to not repeating the sins of the past, and seeing them work so hard on re-establishing civilization along egalitarian principles makes them hard to root against. Overall, the village closely resembles the settlements in Fallout 4 – I wonder if watching Battletruck was part of the design team’s research.

Plus, their town hall is in a geodesic dome! How cool is that?!

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Eventually, the film turns into sort of a rehash of The Magnificient Seven, as the bad guys eventually discover Clearwater Farm and attempt to include it as part of their suzerain. I won’t go further into plot details beyond that, other than the raiders seem to think that utilizing the Battletruck in every situation is the best option (this inspired the aphorism – “when all you’ve got is a Battletruck, every problem looks like a village that needs to be run over”).

There are several elements that set this movie apart from the typical Mad Max knock-off genre (a genre I love, by the way). The New Zealand filming locations (still unclear whether this movie is set in the US or NZ) offer a wider set of biomes/topography than in other Road Warrior-inspired movies. Instead of just hostile sandy deserts we get to see snow-capped mountains, forests, fog, and all that stuff we would get to know through the Lord of the Rings movies. The film looks best in scenes where it is cloudy or foggy, dispelling our myth that the end of the world necessarily turns everywhere into Death Valley.

The clothing in the film represents this difference in setting, either by necessity (a low budget) or choice. It’s refreshing to see a post-apocalyptic movie from this era not entirely clad in spiked black leather and football shoulder pads. In fact, the clothing choices are frighteningly realistic, with flannel and denim featured with homemade wool sweaters and ponchos. There’s something especially unsettling about a post-apocalyptic future that looks closer to our present, as if the danger is closer than we think.

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There are also some weaknesses in Battletruck when compared to the Mad Max knock-offs. For starters, “Straker” (I swear I heard him referred to as “Streaker”) is a pretty bland villian. Sure, he’s ruthless and can be humorously matter-of-fact, but he isn’t memorable beyond being a vaguely evil military guy. He’s certainly no Lord Humungus.

Also, the use of American actors for the principal roles and New Zealand actors (with no dubbing or attempt at toning down their accents) for the supporting roles left me absolutely confused regarding where exactly this movie was taking place. I would have been happy with just an all New Zealand cast, but I’m sure the politics of even getting a low-budget movie made in 1982 still resulted in having American actors in the key roles.

Finally, the action sequences are not really compelling. The stunt work is limited to people falling off of or jumping out of vehicles, and that’s about it. Don’t look for Fury Road level of excitement here. While the Battletruck itself is treated by the camera like the Star Destroyer at the beginning of Star Wars, it doesn’t really do much other than run over flimsy buildings while passengers shoot from it.

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A few stray observations:

  • Speaking of Star Wars, you may recognize The Empire Strikes Back’s John Ratzenberger as “Rusty” (he also played a character on a minor television show called Cheers…).
  • I absolutely love the horse-drawn automobiles featured in the film. That’s a nice touch to show, rather than tell, us that there’s no more gasoline.
  • Even among the New Zealand actors the accents drift in and out, which I find humorous.
  • The score vacillates between John Carpenter-esque minimalism and full-on prog-rock anthems with a full band.
  • The production company obviously rented a helicopter for a day because we get two very long shots of Hunter riding his future-cylce through the dusty plains.
  • It’s interesting that for all the post-apocalyptic fiction we have currently, none of it is premised on running out of oil. And yet (seemingly) every early 1980s apocalypse involved not just nuclear war, but the aftermath of not having oil after such a conflict.

You can find Battletruck/Warlords of the 21st Century via the usual video streaming services, or if you absolutely need a physical copy you can buy it in a double pack DVD with Roger Corman’s 1978 “classic” Death Sport.

Parting thought: If you were drafting a Fantasy Post-Apocalyptic Vehicle team, who would pick first? Battletruck? MegaWeapon? The truck-thing from Damnation Alley?

Chris Frain is also known as the synthwave act Pattern Language. The debut album, “Total Squaresville,” is available now on iTunes and Bandcamp at:

https://happyrobotsrecords.bandcamp.com/album/total-squaresville

 

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