Motorcycle movies from the 1950s are not normally my cup of tea. I think it may have something to do with the predominant stereotypes on which the movie-makers depend. While exercising today, I found myself sucked into an airing of The Wild One from 1953. (Anything to distract me from the mindlessness of moving on an elliptical!)The plot is predictable – a rebellious young man as the central character, riding his motorcycle, leading a gaggle of motorcycle riders, the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club. It has been described as a “landmark film of 50s rebellion” and the film paved the way for a sub-genre of outlaw biker films. Marlon Brando portrays the sneering central character, sassy Johnny Strabler, who also provides narration.
The film was originally released with the name Hot Blood and it’s highly rated (80%) at Rotten Tomatoes. The black and white film definitely feels dated, seeming almost a parody. Negative behavior portrayed in the film is mild compared to what is depicted on the screen today. Actions of a criminal or immoral nature are implied but never shown on screen. If the film was shocking for its time (it was banned in the UK until 1968), it lacks the power to impress today.
In the years since the movie came out, motorcycles and motorcyclists have earned respectability. Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve posted about the huge motorcycle rally that takes place every year in our community. There’s also a non-profit group known as A.B.A.T.E. of Arkansas (Arkansas Bikers Aiming Towards Education) that teaches motorcycle safety and engages in community service projects.
In its review of the movie, The New York Times reviewer notes that the “image of Marlon Brando astride his Triumph has entered movie folklore” but they also lament, saying it’s “too bad that The Wild One isn’t a more worthy vehicle for Brando’s talents.”
Frankly, I’ve never been a fan of Marlon Brando. He had The Wild One sneer down pat, I barely tolerated him in A Streetcar Named Desire, and I enjoyed him as The Godfather. By my recollection, he seemed perfectly cast as Napoleon Bonaparte in the 1954 film Désirée, but I haven’t seen that film since high school and if I saw the film today, I might rethink my point of view.
Speaking only of The Wild One, Brando should never have been clad in jeans with rolled-up pant legs. He looks dumpy and the jeans accentuate his bountiful behind. (Maybe the casting director failed to catch a glimpse of Brando from the rear?) Truth be told, in one of the final scenes where Johnny/Brando is alone next to his overturned bike, as he gazed heavenward, I half-expected to hear him shriek “Stella!” at the top of his lungs.
Since I didn’t view the opening credits of The Wild One, I didn’t expect to see Lee Marvin ride into town with a rival motorcycle club, The Beetles. Marvin played Chino, a mouthy and sarcastic blowhard who brawls in the street with Brando. In my view, he stole the show … yes, even though his part wasn’t a large one.
I mentioned in my first paragraph predominant stereotypes. This was a motorcycle movie, yes, but the stereotypes were glaring. The way this film depicted small towns is an insult to all small towns in America. When the townspeople form a mindless mob, it becomes a ridiculous cliché. Were movie viewers that gullible in 1953? The subplot of a “romance” between Johnny and a town girl (Kathie) is awkward and silly and implausible. Yuk!
It stretches credibility to know the initial tagline for the movie was “Hot feelings hit terrifying heights in a story that really boils over!” I worked up a sweat on my elliptical, but at best, this film was lukewarm.