“The Wild One” Movie Review: Rebellion, Freedom and Jive Talkin’

I’ve learned if you’re into motorcycles at all, the name of this movie, “The Wild One”, will come up again and again, though if you’re looking for an edgy biker film, this quaint ‘50s tale isn’t likely to hold up against the current idea of an outlaw biker gang depicted in shows like “Sons of Anarchy”. That said, it was a controversial film when it premiered in 1953 and was actually banned in England for a number of years. The mystique of the outlaw biker and the iconic black motorcycle jacket are just two of the ways the movie is still influencing motorcycle culture. Since the flick first came out, the image of the rebel biker, epitomized by Marlon Brando’s character Johnny Strabler, has been imitated, parodied, and homaged in everything from Nickelodeon cartoons to the latest installment of the Indiana Jones franchise. With so many references and people talking about this movie, it was time to Netflix it and see what all the hoopla was for.

Despite the racy title, to modern movie audiences the main character, Johnny, will probably come off as less than wild, unless, of course, you’re referring to his talent for riding a motorcycle at highway speeds without losing his signature floppy cap. My theory is he wasn’t so rebellious, just cranky from his hat being on too tight.

The plot, loosely based on an actual incident of motorcycle enthusiasts invading the town of Hollister, Calif. in 1947, takes place in the fictional town of Wrightsville, a sleepy community that looks like the set of a wild west movie. Johnny’s motorcycle gang of around 40 members, The Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, rides into town after causing trouble and stealing the second place trophy at a motorcycle track race the next town over.

Not everyone is happy to see the bikers, who rev their engines and do mini drag races in front of people’s cars, but entrepreneurial barkeep Frank Bleeker is happy to have them as they enthusiastically buy up the beer in his bar. Which brings us to one of my favorite parts of the movie – a bottle of beer could be purchased for a quarter! Nice.

On first blush, it seemed to me they were just a bunch of young guys looking for some fun on the weekend. Johnny gets the hots for the local waitress. Some of the other guys make cracks about how hickish the town is. They find a jukebox that plays jazz and start talking in jive. Not exactly my idea of an “anti-social subculture in revolt,” but I can only assume it was more shocking to people in the ‘50s.

But part of my bias may come from the fact that for me the quintessential outlaw biker gang is those guys from “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior”. Ruthless, post-apocalyptic scavengers with mohawks, bondage leather and chains coming out of their noses or clean cut guys dancing to jazz music, who do you find scarier? I mean seriously. I also really enjoyed the “Weird Science” biker gang scene when Lisa conjures up the group of mutant bikers to make Gary and Wyatt seem tough, but I digress.

The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club does eventually get out of hand and start trashing the town beauty salon and other town establishments, but what did you expect after serving them all of that $.25 beer.

Perhaps the theme of the movie is best hit home in the scene when Johnny saves the bar waitress, named Kathie, from the motorcycle hooligans circling her in the street. She hops on his bike and they ride off to a wooded clearing. After they hop off, he kisses her forcefully, but she is too tired to resist. Representing all of the repression and quashed dreams and passion of her society, she finds in Johnny a kind of escape from the boredom of her life, but when she signals her interest in him, she discovers that the freedom is an illusion. Johnny turns her down, perhaps knowing on some level that his directionless life is just as much of a trap in the end.

She runs off crying, and some of the townspeople mistake that for her fleeing an attack from Johnny. The townspeople, turned angry mob, turn on the bikers and beat up Johnny. He tries to ride away on his motorcycle but has a crowbar flung at the wheels. He falls off and his bike goes careening into the elderly bartender Jimmy who dies in the street. Thanks to the testimony of Kathie and two other witnesses, Johnny is able to avoid a manslaughter charge, and the bikers leave town after agreeing to pay for the damages and never show their face in the county again. Johnny does make one trip back to Bleeker’s bar to give Kathie his only smile of the movie, his way of thanking her.

Lessons learned -

1. Leather jackets are the cat’s pajamas daddy’o, and

2. If you are in charge of serving the beer to a 40 person motorcycle gang whose obvious only way home is on motorcycles, know when to cut them off or don’t be surprised if you end up in a deadly crash later.

Marlon Brando sporting his oft copied biker jacket and cap from "The Wild One".