The Wild One (1953)
The Wild One (1953), a landmark film of 50s rebellion by director Laslo Benedek, producer Stanley Kramer, and screenwriter John Paxton. It was the first feature film to examine outlaw motorcycle gang violence in America. The film had its U.S. premiere, under the title of Hot Blood, on December 30, 1953. One of the film's taglines on its posters stated: "Hot feelings hit terrifying heights in a story that really boils over!"
[Benedek and Kramer had originally collaborated on the Oscar-nominated film adaptation of Arthur Miller's critically-acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning play Death of a Salesman (1951), with Fredric March in the lead role, replacing Lee J. Cobb who was blacklisted.]
The tale was inspired and loosely based on a real-life incident over the Fourth of July weekend in 1947 in Hollister, California, (publicized in an issue of Harper's Magazine in a January 1951 article titled "The Cyclists' Raid" by Frank Rooney), when about four thousand people, composed of motorcyclists and other visitors and enthusiasts, roared into the town over a two day period, and overwhelmed the facilities. However, they did not ransack the town, confront the locals, or cause civil unrest (except for some arrests for drunkenness, or urinating in public - often due to a lack of restrooms). In the film, most of the action was located in Wrightsville, somewhere in Middle America.
Because of the controversial nature of the film, public screenings were banned in England by the British Board of Film Censors for fourteen years (until 1968) after its release. Even in America, it was feared that the shocking, 'Communist' movie glamorized a anti-social subculture in revolt, would set a bad example, and cause impressionable viewers to copy-cat its plot and incite deliquency and riots. In fact, it took many years for pacifist motorcyclists to overcome stereotypes and fabrications promoted by the film.
James Dean's disaffected, frustrated youth Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Elvis Presley's anti-hero character in Jailhouse Rock (1957), and even the significant counter-cultural Easy Rider (1969) - plus a spate of exploitation biker films (i.e., Roger Corman's trashy B-film classic The Wild Angels (1966)) - owe their existence to this original, cult classic film. Although Marlon Brando portrays a stunning, brooding, nomadic character in one of his central and early roles (his fifth screen role), the film lacked Academy Award nominations.
The sale of black leather jackets and motorcycles reached new heights after the film's release, and motorcycles became a symbol of youth rebellion. The film's poster of Brando leaning on his motorcycle (see below) remains a best-seller.The Story
The slightly-dated, tame and quaint film begins with the opening title, shown over a long, ground-level shot of an empty, open country road and its white median strip in a memorable, cinematographic sequence:
This is a shocking story. It could never take place in most American towns - but it did in this one. It is a public challenge not to let it happen again.
The cautionary prologue seems to refer to the hooliganistic, violent behavior of the cyclists, but it also decries the reactions of the townspeople and their repressive, backlashing, vigilante-style behavior towards the outsiders. A voice-over narration of the main character introduces the story:
It begins here for me on this road. How the whole mess happened, I don't know. But I know it couldn't happen again in a million years. Maybe I could have stopped it early. But once the trouble was on its way, I was just goin' with it. Mostly, I remember the girl, I, I can't explain it - sad chick like that. But somethin' changed in me. She got to me. But that's later, anyway. This is where it begins for me right on this road.
Gradually, the tiny blurs on the horizon and the low rumble that is heard turn into figures of 40 black leather-jacketed cyclists who roar directly into the stationary, low-angled camera. The motorcycle gang rides in a tightly-knit squadron formation, led by sideburned Johnny (Marlon Brando), the narrator. He is a surly, sneering and rebellious sort, wearing the trademark black-leather jacket (with Johnny scrawled on the left chest), round dark shades, white T-shirt, bulky aviator's cap, skin-tight jeans, black gloves and boots.
Looking for trouble, his free-spirited motorcyle gang, the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club (BRMC) (with the symbol of a skull above two crossed pistons on the backs of their leather jackets), roars into a legitimate, weekend motorcycle race competition/meet in the town of Carbonville. The group plows through a roadblock, disrupts the race by strolling across the track, and taunts officials of the Sage Valley Motorcycle Races. Accused of being an "outlaw outfit," they are quickly thrown out of the competition by Sheriff Singer (Jay C. Flippen) and told to "Hit the road...get goin'," but not before stealing the second-place prize trophy (the first place prize trophy was too big to carry and "two feet high"). The prize is handed to the swaggering leader Johnny, who stashes the trophy inside his jacket - and later has it strapped to his handlebars. When the Sheriff asks where the gang is from as they speed away, a race official replies:
I dunno - everywhere. I don't even think they know where they're goin'...Ten guys like that give people the idea everybody drives a motorcycle is crazy. What are they tryin' to prove anyway?
The Sheriff answers: "Beats me. Lookin' for somebody to push 'em around so they can get sore and show how tough they are...They usually find it someplace, sooner or later."
They invade the next small, sleepy California town of Wrightsville. Their arrival is greeted by waves and star-struck gazes of young boys. Various locales in the town that become important later on are identified - Mildred's Beauty Salon, Bleeker's Cafe, Hannegan and Thomas' Hardware, and the Ace Gasoline Station. The opportunistic owner-merchant of the local bar/cafe, Uncle Frank Bleeker (Ray Teal) is pleased with the gang's arrival and instructs his elderly dishwasher/bartender helper Jimmy (William Yedder):
Jimmy, you better put some more beer on ice.
The gang continues to cause havoc by dragging on the main street for beers. One of the gang members tells everyone to race for Bleeker's: "Last guy to the door of that joint buys beers. Last guy in buys." During the drag race, they force old man Art Kleiner's (Will Wright) car to careen out of control, and one of the bikers breaks his ankle when he collides with the car. The town's weak-willed Sheriff Harry Bleeker (Robert Keith) is overwhelmed by the disturbance and ineffective at stopping the escalating rowdiness ("It was an accident, I saw it"). In fact, Johnny confronts the Sheriff and demands that the law officer arrest the reckless, elderly driver:
There were guys all over the street tryin' to miss him...and he's alright, but he's got one of my boys all busted up.
While his fellow bikers are out on the street, Johnny is drawn to the young attractive, clean-cut cafe waitress, Kathie Bleeker (Mary Murphy) in Bleeker's Cafe/Bar - the local restaurant and bar owned and operated by her uncle. Following her into the restaurant, Johnny whistles nonchalantly as the prize trophy dangles from his arm. He sits at the counter, watches her intently, and orders a bottle of beer:
Kathie: Do you want something?
Johnny: (inhaling) Yeah. I'd like a bottle of beer.
Kathie: The beer's just in the bar. (She twists her head in the bar's direction.)
Johnny: Oh, alrighty.
In the adjoining bar, he puts money in the jukebox and selects a jazzy tune (while snapping his fingers), as she follows him and serves him a bottle of beer. Acting coolly, he drinks his beer straight from the bottle, and follows her back into the restaurant. Outside, Kathie's father - Sheriff Bleeker refuses to honor Art Kleiner's complaint to arrest any of the bikers:
Art - that's silly. Your car's OK, you're OK. And that's lucky - the way you drive.
The conversation between Kathie and Johnny reveals much about their two opposing lifestyles (a square, stable hick vs. a hip wanderer). He offers her his stolen trophy, hoping to impress her, but she refuses, even though she is attracted by his forbidden freedom:
Johnny: Say, you live here all the time?
Kathie: All my life.
Johnny: We've been over to Carbonville at the meet.
Kathie: A bunch of motorcycles came through this way yesterday. They didn't stop. (Gesturing toward his trophy) Is that what they give you in those races for killing yourself?
Johnny: That's right. You want it? Hmm?
Johnny: (He pushes it towards her on the counter.) Well, go on, take it, go ahead.
Johnny: Go on.
Kathie: Can't do that. You won it. You have to get your name engraved on it, or whatever you do. It's important to you. You don't - you don't give something like that away just like that, not unless you knew a girl real well and, well, you liked her.
When one of his gang members asks if they are going to stay around town or leave ("Are we gonna get out of this dump?"), Johnny tells them that they will remain a while longer - and then looks up at Kathie, obviously attracted to her and interested in spending more time to get to know her better.
His gang members drink and carry on outside (pogo-stick races, and slaloming around beer bottles on their bikes). The bar owner encourages their beer-drinking and invites them into the bar and restaurant: "Plenty more where this came from. It's ice-cold too...We'll take good care of ya." At the bar, the bikers are entertained by Jimmy and his conventional, old-fashioned, small-town attitudes. For example:
- "What do you hicks do around here for kicks?"
- "The roses grow. People get married. Crazy as anyplace else."
- "What about TV? Do ya like TV?"
- "Oh, pictures! No, no pictures. Everything these days is pictures. Pictures and a lot of noise. Nobody even knows how to talk. Just grunt at each other."
Johnny engages Kathie in conversation in the restaurant, pressing her for a date that evening and an invitation to Carbonville's dance. In response, the hard-working waitress questions the untamed leader of the gang about where the bikers are going, and what they do when they ride around. He is incredulous as he teases her about her conventional lifestyle and attitudes:
Kathie: Where are you going when you leave here? Don't you know?
Johnny: (scoffing) Oh man, we just gonna go.
Kathie: Just trying to make conversation. It means nothing to me.
Johnny: Well, on the weekends, we go out and have a ball.
Kathie: And what do you do? I mean, do you just ride around? Or do you go on some sort of a picnic or something?
Johnny: A picnic? Man, you are too square. I'll have to straighten you out. Now, listen, you don't go any one special place. That's cornball style. You just go. (He snaps his fingers.) A bunch gets together after all week it builds up, you just...the idea is to have a ball. Now if you gonna stay cool, you got to wail. You got to put somethin' down. You got to make some jive. Don't you know what I'm talkin' about?
Envious of his ability to move on whenever he wishes, Kathie tells him she knows what he means: "My father was going to take me on a fishing trip to Canada once...We didn't go." Her life has been one of stultifying, small-town repression, denial, and restriction.
As he and his boys are guzzling beer and dancing with some of the ladies in the bar, one female dance partner questions Johnny:
Hey, Johnny, What are you rebelling against?
While tapping out a jazzy beat on the top of the jukebox, he raises his eyebrow and drawls his amorphous reason for rebellion:
What've you got?
Johnny pulls Kathie toward him and tries to dance with her, but she walks away, explaining that she doesn't dance very well.
Sheriff Bleeker enters the restaurant, sits next to Johnny at the counter, and tries to appease the surly leader:
Out there, I think you got me a little wrong. I've got a job to do here but I'm not hard to get along. It's generally just a misunderstanding. If it looks like anything might develop into real trouble, why, it can be decided if folks just sit down and talk it over. (Johnny refuses a light.)
When she calls the Sheriff "Dad" and Johnny learns that Kathie is the sheriff's daughter, she asks why he tried to act so rudely toward her father ("Why are you trying to be so rude?"). He leans toward her and snaps back: "I don't like cops," grabs the trophy from the counter, and prepares to leave with his gang.
Just as they are beginning to depart, an outlaw bike gang arrives, led by a crazy, vulgar biker named Chino (Lee Marvin) - a former member of Johnny's gang who broke away and formed his own rival group (the Beetles). The dirty, ape-like, loud-mouthed, cigar-smoking, stubbly-faced Chino taunts his ex-leader by stealing the trophy off Johnny's bike (and putting it on his own bike's handlebars) and issuing crude insults:
I love you, Johnny. I've been looking for ya in every ditch from Fresno to here, hopin' you was dead.
Chino initiates a conflict over the award's ownership - and the "girlfriend" that he has found at Bleeker's. After Johnny swaggers over and authoritatively orders him to take it off his bike, Chino merely dusts off the trophy and refuses to relinquish its ownership. Johnny pushes his rival off his bike and takes back his prize, as Chino accuses Johnny of stealing the trophy rather than winning it:
Aw, don't take that away from Chino. It's so beautiful. Chino needs it. Makes Chino feel like a big strong man. Chino wants to be a big racetrack hero with all these girls. Pow, huh! Look, I didn't win it, Johnny. I just gleeped it. But I gleeped it off a guy that didn't win it either. Look, Johnny, you want one? How about you go gleep one someplace yourself, huh?
Realizing that Johnny has tried to win the affections of Kathie, Chino hands the object to her just before preparing to fight Johnny. He overdramatically describes what will happen to the maiden's 'hero':
This lovely young lady over here shall hold this beautiful object signifying absolutely nothing. Now watch closely, see how the timid maiden of the hill clutches the gold to her breast, and see how she fights back a tear, while her hero bleeds to death in the street.