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Gil Stratton Jr's motorcycle changes from a Triumph from when he leaves the races to a Matchless when he arrives in Wrightsville. See more »
One of the more famous early films depicting youthful rebellion, The Wild One is as interesting now for its embrace of past cultural tokens, which provides an odd mixture for modern viewers, as it is for its more timeless, universal themes. It is a mostly successful film that only avoids getting a 10 because of its embrace of some filmic stereotypes of the era.
Marlon Brando stars as Johnny Strabler, the leader of a leather-jacketed motorcycle gang called the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club (the backs of their jackets say "BRMC"), in one of his early, iconic roles. The film begins with the BRMC wreaking havoc with a motorcycle race in a small town. They ride into the middle of the "track" (really just the town's streets), they harass the crowd, and eventually they even harass the officials. A cop finally kicks them out, but not before BRMC members they steal a trophy meant for the motorcycle race and give it to Johnny.
Amusingly, it's a second place trophy, but Johnny still ties it up to the front of his bike--which happened to be Brando's real-life Triumph motorcycle. Wanting to avoid trouble with the law, and acting like they're bored anyway, they ride on to a nearby town, Wrightsville, which is even smaller. The citizens of Wrightsville seem a lot more amenable to the BRMC, even though they cause a minor car accident when they first arrive. The sole Wrightsville policeman remains cordial, and the townsfolk mostly seem to be happy to have "tourists" who might boost business a bit. Johnny quickly falls for Kathie (Mary Murphy), who works at Bleekers, the local bar/diner, and so decides to stick around in Wrightsville for a bit. When a splinter group of the BRMC shows up--the Beetles, led by Chino (Lee Marvin)--an old, semi-friendly rivalry flares, leading to rowdiness and resentment from the citizens of Wrightsville. The situation goes from bad to worse.
Brando deserves all of the accolades he's received over the years from this role. He could have easily carried the film on his own. He's charismatic, cool, and complex, and he only becomes more complex and darker as the film goes on. Eventually he says more through silence than most actors do through long monologues.
A lot of this is aided by good direction from László Benedek and a good script by John Paxton and Ben Maddow, adapted from a short story by Frank Rooney about a real-life motorcycle club known as the "Booze Fighters". The script, and Benedek's direction, is chock full of subtle symbolism. One of the more obvious symbolic elements is the trophy. It may seem corny at first that Johnny would tie this to the front of his motorcycle, but we learn later that he wants to surmount his present position in life, or his present disposition in life. The trophy represents that hoped-for transcendence.
It's also fitting that it's only a second place trophy. That speaks both to Johnny's psychological roots (we learn about this in more detail later), which perhaps won't allow him to reach the transcendence he craves, and to his need to be a perpetual underdog. This is also tied in with him being a rebel. It's something he both needs and desires--it confirms his self-imposed martyrdom. The rightfully famous exchange of dialogue where a girl asks Johnny what he's rebelling against and he answers, "Whaddya got?" isn't just a glib remark. That's Johnny's character in a nutshell.
More subtle symbolism can pop up in the most seemingly innocuous shots--such as Johnny slamming his beer down on the bar and having it bubble up and brim over. There is both a general emotional symbolism there--Johnny feeling the desire to burst out of his present reality, or transcend his present boundaries, and a sexual symbolism because of the context. He's at the bar where Kathie works. He's pining for her, but she's basically brushing him off. Similarly, take a close look at Kathie's fondling of Johnny's motorcycle when they're in the park. If you made a mental note to watch with this in mind, you could probably catch additional symbolism in most nooks and crannies every time you rewatched The Wild One.
Even though Brando could easily carry the film on his own if he needed to, he doesn't need to. There are plenty of other fine performances, including Marvin, Murphy, Robert Keith as the Wrightsville Sheriff, and some fun bit part appearances by people who later became quite famous, such as Alvy Moore and Jerry Paris.
If The Wild One has a flaw, it is its slight "corny" embrace of rebel stereotypes. There is a twinge of Reefer Madness (1936) or the later Blackboard Jungle (1955) in the film's portrayal of the bikers.
But some of what now seems to be a bit of goofiness is part of the attraction, too. Since this is the early 1950s, the bikers listen and dance to jazz, not rock 'n' roll. They also embrace beatnik culture, particularly in their lingo. At one point, two BRMC members start doing a kind of jive-talking' beatnik rap. At another point, Brando plays bongos on a jukebox. It may be goofy, but it's a lot of fun.
I often jokingly say, "It's a love story!" no matter what kind of film I'm watching, as the vast majority of films have some kind of love/romance subplot. The Wild One is no exception. It could be seen as a romance as much as a film in any other genre. As such, it is notable in that while it doesn't exactly have a happy ending for a romance film, it certainly has a poignant ending, as Johnny gives up two symbols of martyrdom and rebellion (the less obvious symbol given up arises in how he travels), perhaps indicating that he's transcended his previous self after all.
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