The sixties did not belong to the hippies. Sure, they leased a few years of the decade and made a big impression, to say the least. But there was another group at large in those years, and they were sure not to wear any flowers in their hair, long though it may have been. They sported not long flowing colorful clothing but black, skull-emblazoned leather. Their drug of choice was, ostensibly, alcohol (though Ken Kesey did manage to turn them on to acid for a minute). This group even, on occasion, served as a sort of police force for the flower children. They were a motorcycle gang, and they called themselves, of course, the Hells Angels. In the second half of the sixties, they were at their peak. With the help of a media frenzy fueled by Hunter S. Thompson's now-classic book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, the Hells Angels became countercutural icons. America could not get enough. Films like 1966's The Wild Angels and 1967's Hells Angels on Wheels, concerning biker gangs and their various indecent exploits ripped straight from the headlines, were being churned out and devoured at breakneck speed.
By 1966, though, the group had already been around for eighteen years. The “Hells Angels Motorcycle Club” was formed in 1948 in Southern California, and they were far from the only gang in town. In fact, at the time, the big gangs on campus were the much cooler-named “Boozefighters” and the “Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington.” Motorcycles and their accompanying clubs had become popular in the wake of World War II, with vets yearning for a rush similar to that of combat1. A year before the Hells Angels' formation -- way before they stomped the snot out of Hunter S. Thompson, tuned in, turned on, and dropped out with the Merry Pranksters, and the disaster that was the Altamont concert -- a little altercation in Hollister, California became the first exposure many had to the world of motorcycle clubs. In what became sensationally dubbed the “Hollister riot,” a 1947 Gypsy Tour motorcycle rally attracted all manner of rowdy biker gangs (The Pissed Off Bastards and the Boozefighters among them) who boozed, fought, and caused a general ruckus in San Benito County. This “riot,” which has also been called the “birth of the American biker,2” would provide the basis for the first of many biker films: 1953's The Wild One.
The Wild One is an adaptation of a short story by Frank Rooney called Cyclists' Raid, itself inspired by a Life Magazine photo from the “riot” and published in Harper's Magazine in 1951. In it, Marlon Brando played Johnny Strabler, the leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club. It would become one of his most iconic roles. You know the look: tilted cap, leather jacket, devil-may-care swagger. “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” All together now: “Whaddya got?!” Brando may be the most memorable aspect of The Wild One (Is he ever anything less?) but the film is worth its weight in leather even without its method acting hero. The view from 2012 is that it's yer run of the mill misunderstood youth morality tale. That may be so, but it does differentiate itself from the pack. Its ambiguous ending is actually not all that moral; it refuses to tie everything up pretty with a bow – Impressive for a film made in 1953.
Though it was based on the so-called “shocking story” of the Hollister raucous, The Wild One, upon its release, caused an international stir even more widespread and long-lasting than the '47 riot itself. The film was controversial for its code-challenging depiction of explicit violence, hooliganism, and rebellion. The BRMC drink beer, terrorize townspeople, listen to jazz, use beatnik-infused jive slang, and, duh, make a whole lot of noise about riding their motorcycles. Motorcycle makers Triumph were so appalled that they actually objected to the use of their bikes in the film (at least until, sometime later, they used the iconic images from the film to sell the things). So intimidated were they by the punks in the film, the UK banned The Wild One until 1967, at which point they released it with an X rating. The rub? The townspeople themselves exhibit far worse behavior than the gangs. In a vigilante frenzy of lynch mob mentality, their torture of Johnny has tragic consequences, as the film finally lives up to its dark and violent reputation.
László Benedek directed The Wild One, fresh off his successful 1951 adaptation of Death of a Salesman. The name to look out for, though, is producer Stanley Kramer. Kramer is often unfairly remembered as the man behind many of the preachy and melodramatic “message movies” of Hollywood's Golden Age, from On the Beach to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. However, Kramer is more of an auteur than he is often given credit for: his producer and/or director credits can be found attached to a surprisingly diverse array of classics including High Noon, Judgment at Nuremberg, and even the zany It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Another person to look out for is Lee Marvin! Thirteen years before Point Blank, he appeared here in a short role as the leader of a rival gang.
As the canvas for one of Brando's most memorable performances, it will be revisited forever. As a consistent influence on biker fashion, it has helped keep leather jackets, blue jeans, and white t-shirts in style for more than fifty years. It may not be the best film ever made, but The Wild One is an indispensable thread in the fabric of American culture. Above all, it is an early touchstone of the American motorcycle obsession that has not waned since World War II and the stylistic grandfather to a whole genre that we have to thank for great stuff as old as Easy Rider and as modern asSons of Anarchy. As long as biker culture remains a consistent catalyst for artful entertainment, we are willing to forgive the odd Wild Hogs. Talk about a “PUBLIC CHALLENGE NOT TO LET IT HAPPEN AGAIN.”
2 Hayes, Bill. The original wild ones : tales of the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club. St. Paul, Minn. Enfield: Motorbooks Publishers Group UK distributor, 2009.