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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.
My son-in-law recently saw "Easy Rider" for the first time and became
totally confused. "What's that all about?" he asked me. What could I
say? I replied, "You just had to have lived through those times to
understand and appreciate the movie." The same can be said of "The Wild
One." Before "Blackboard Jungle," before "Rebel Without A Cause,"
before "Look Back in Anger," there was "The Wild One." "What are you
rebelling against?" "Whatcha got?" That certainly sounds like James
Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" but, no, it's Johnny (Brando) in "The
Wild One." I saw this movie for the first time when I was 13 and was
mesmerized by it. Apparently it was distributed again after "Blackboard
Jungle" and "Rebel Without a Cause" came out because I saw it the same
year I saw the other two. As far as fascination of the three, this one
effected me most. Almost as good as Brando is Lee Marvin. I've read
conflicting accounts of how The Beatles came up with their name. One,
they so admired Buddy Holly and the Crickets that they adopted Beatles
as a replacement for Crickets. The other story is that John Lennon so
admired "The Wild One" that he took the name of the rival bikers and
gave it a new spelling. Whatever the case, Lee Marvin is a good foil
My favorite part of the movie is the opening. The open highway is a symbol for the movie. The highway is a means of passage for new ideas, new challenges, new life styles. The highway can bring evil as well as good. It is symbolic of freedom and a carefree way of life. It's not surprising that trucks began replacing freight trains as the major means of transport for goods and services following World War II. The highway also began replacing the rails as the major means of escape for the socially and spiritually oppressed among us. The viewer sees the blacktop for what seems to be several minutes. Suddenly, something appears on the horizon. Before the viewer knows it, rebels in the form of bikers are headed directly toward the camera. Then it seems they actually run through the camera and come out of the screen into the audience. What a piece of cinematography. Hungarian-born Laszlo Benedek mainly concentrated on television after this film. Being such a gifted director, one wishes he had done more films.
There is actually not much of a story in this movie. Supposedly based on a true account of a biker gang taking possession of a small California town, it's mainly a comment on changing times and mores in post-war America. But from the first roar of bikes journeying down the pavement, the viewer is hooked and stays spellbound to the very end. One thing puzzles me about the film's history: How does a movie get banned in Finland?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The 1950's was a period of review and questioning, as a new postwar
generation sensed that much was wrong but could not grasp what it was
nor offer any solution... It was, in fact, a generation with a
sensitive exposed nerve that gave constant pain...
Marlon Brando, a young 'Method' actor (the "Method' was itself a manifestation of the times) began his film career with 'The Men' (1950) and continued with 'A Streetcar Named Desire' (1951), 'Viva Zapata' (1952) and 'Julius Caesar' (1953), all roles concerned with rebellion... Then, in 1953, he made 'The Wild One' and his rebel image crystallized...
Brando plays Johnny, leader of a motorcycle gang calling itself the Black Rebels, which terrorizes Wrightsville, a little American town...
The gang members release their frustrated emotions by racing, overturning a car, and by vicariously participating in a savage fight between Johnny and Chino (Lee Marvin), formerly a part of Johnny's gang but now a rival club...
Violence escalates when the town forms a vigilante committee, and inevitably there is an accidental killing... Johnny is saved from wrongful arrest by Kathie (Mary Murphy), a local girl who, in spite of herself, falls in love with him, as he does with her... She senses beneath his cruel exterior an innate gentleness, and is attracted by his sexuality, an element that was increasingly to become a factor in the evolution of the rebel hero...
Johnny and the gang finally leave town and life returns to normal, but many questions that the film poses were left unanswered...
Brooding, and compulsive, the film created a noisy tumult partly because it failed to show 'why' youths were this way, ending up, in the words of one critics "violent for violence's sake." However it is an important film... It reflected the problems of the period and it marked a step in the progress of the rebel hero... It also introduced the motorcycle as the symbol of youth rebellion foretelling such films as 'Wild Angels' (1966) and 'Easy Rider' (1969).
Although it might look quite tame compared to todays standards at the time
of it's release The Wild One was considered ground breaking stuff which
upset it's fair share of people (it was banned in Britain for 14 years).
However it helped inspire the era of rebellion which lead to such classics
as the James Dean epic Rebel Without a Cause. It is also memorable for
Brando giving one of his greatest performances as Johnny Strabler, leader of
the rebellious biker gang the "Black Rebels". True he didn't receive an
academy award nomination for his role but there's still no doubting the
standard of his performance.
At the start of the film we are introduced to Johnny and his gang as they interrupt a race taking place. This leads to a confrontation with the local sheriff which results in them leaving elsewhere to cause trouble. However just as they leave one of the members of the gang steals a trophy that would be presented to the runner up of the race (the first prize trophy was too big to steal)and gives it to Johnny. This represents the respect the gang has for Johnny. Soon after the gang arrives in the small town of Wrightsville, it is here that the film divides into two stories. The first one focuses on the relationship that develops between Johnny and a local girl called Kathie. At first it appears that the two couldn't be anymore different, he's a rebellious free spirit and she's lead quite a sheltered life going by rules and discipline. But it is through Kathie that we get to know the real Johnny as it is revealed that behind all the macho bravado he is quite a lost insecure soul unable to emotionally communicate with anyone, which explains why he behaves as he does. It is a credit to Brando's performance as to how he is able to draw sympathy from the viewer for his character. As Kathie has lead a sheltered life she has always been looking in from the outside, she has a father who is the sheriff of the town but isn't respected by the other residents and is considered something of a joke.It seems he is just there to make up the numbers and shows no signs of law enforcement skills when called to deal with a problem. Kathie sees him as a fraud, just as she sees Johnny. The second story focuses on the conflict that develops between the residents of the town and Johnny and his gang,during which it is the residents of the town who come off as the bad guys and not the black rebels.
As i previously mentioned while this film might look quite tame compared to todays standards it is still worth a look if you get a chance. If not to see what all the fuss was about at the time, then just for Brando's performance which really is in a league of it's own.
An early Brando vehicle, The Wild One has the air of a local genre for the
postwar American youth, determined to strike out and be different from the
previous generation - despite little idea of what the alternative is. Of
course, there is no real genre at work in this sort of movie but the rise of
the youthful celebrity typified by Brando and the obvious climate for
generational schism brought by the end of the war specifically midwived
films such as this.
Brando is very watchable - I particularly like an early sequence, where, despite his determination to defy any expectation, he gets trapped into following a bargirl (Mary Murphy) around like a puppy. His aimlessness is well calibrated, offset with the defining line of the movie: 'What are you rebelling against?' asks a local. 'What have you got?' ripostes Brando's Johnny.
Also popping up on screen is a necessarily over the top Lee Marvin as an amigo/antagonist counterpart to Johnny and a brilliantly ineffectual yet despondently wise town Sheriff, given by Robert Keith. He alone sees the ever-turning circle of young growing up but is rendered powerless by the very circumstance that gives this study in the unassuming, self-education of youth its ring of temporal genre. With equally committed performances across the rest of the ensemble, the film becomes more than a document though. 6/10
Brando is his archetypal mean and moody self, as the original rebel on a
motorcycle terrorising smalltown America. The enduring iconic images from
the film have weathered better than the film itself, however, but it still
stands up as a paean to disaffected youth.
When Johnny and the boys ride into town all hell breaks loose, with a culture clash between themselves and the 'squares', resulting in tragedy and some reconciliation. These boys look tame compared to today's standards (they even pay for their own beer!) but they don't fit in and so are immediately ostracised by a grown-up world that doesn't understand their jive-talking, anti-social behaviour. Johnny's reply when asked, "What are you rebelling against?" says it all..."Whatta you got?", with a sneer for good measure.
Time hasn't been kind to the film, and it's hard to see why it was banned in the UK for 18 years (mainly down to the lack of any retribution for the gang), but there is still a tight story and strong characterisation. It's a pity the film descends needlessly into melodrama, losing much of it's credibility in the process.
Every so often that movie comes along that defies everything, everyone
all expectations. It reaches beyond the realms of mere big screen
entertainment and constructs iconography and archetypes that are so
that to this day they are relevant and have an effect. Make no mistake
about it, The Wild One is THE first movie to represent a youth culture
any description. People cite Rebel Without A Cause as the first youth
culture movie BUT this movie came before and in my opinion, is by far
The story centres on Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando) and his motorcycle gang who terrorise a small California town alongside another motorcycle gang led by Chino (a young Lee Marvin). After Chino's arrest for out of hand antics, the gangs run wild during the night, doing with the town as they please, from attacking the telephone operator, freeing Chino from prison to attacking a citizens house whom they believe responsible for Chino's arrest and accosting just about every female in the town. While Johnny is not totally blameless for this he is most definitely NOT the instigator that everyone makes him out to be. This does not stop the townspeople adopting a mob mentality and going at Johnny with all guns blazing. However while they are planning this there is a love story unfolding between Johnny and the daughter of a cop, a love story that is never truly consummated. The cops daughter had intrigued Johnny since the beginning since she had appeared untouchable. He saves her from the wrath of the rest of the B.R.M.C. (the name given to Johnny's motorcycle gang) and takes her to a forest where, after some heated Academy Award flavoured dialogue and a kiss and a slap, the cops daughter runs from Johnny, although not FROM Johnny. The running stands for a metaphor related to suburban societal entrapment. Johnny is later caught and battered by the mob until the towns cop unknowingly stalls the mob for Johnny to escape. Johnny grabs his motorcycle and attempts to ride out when something (a tyre iron) is thrown at the wheel of his moving bike and causing is to fly out of control and into an elderly citizen. And when it seems that Johnny is going to go to jail for an extremely LONG time, a couple of towns people including the cops daughter decide to tell a few truths that help Johnny get out of it. Johnny and his boys leave town never to return.
The mere storyline of this movie is simply not enough to translate exactly what it is that this movie stands for and is responsible for. A scene that is, and forever shall be ingrained into the Hollywood psyche is when Johnny is standing by a jukebox and one of his gang members is dancing with a girl and she asks, `B.R.M.C., what does that stand for?'. Johnny's gang member replies `The Black Rebels Motorcycle Club' and she replies `Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?' and he replies, in what could very possibly be the most career defining sentence that has ever been uttered on-screen, `Whaddya got?'. Now in this day and age that comes across as incredibly trite and corny but in those days, in that social environment that existed in Western Culture, that movie was called incendiary and ran into censorship troubles (cue The Hayes Code) and in England was banned outright until sometime in the mid 70s. While watching this movie one must remain totally and utterly aware of the context of this movie.
Another the scene that was the cause of many a raised eyebrow and was exactly what makes every kid on earth that's ever been condescended to by teacher and parents and the like, totally empathise is the scene where the cops daughter and the cop have saved Johnny's life and Johnny is being read the riot act by the Sheriff and he just sits there, looking at the floor (c'mon guys, u know you've been in that position before) totally listening but appearing as if he isn't. As Johnny is strutting out of the room the cop stop him by asking if he has anything to say to these people who have basically saved his life (at least from jail). The cop even prompts him so far as to say `You could at least say 'Thank You'. Johnny doesn't move, doesn't turn to look at them, doesn't speak. This silence is broken by the cops daughter who says `It's OK, he doesn't know how'. This on it's own cements John Strabler and the most archetypal rebel. The key here is in relating to the character. Everybody, from your typical f***ed-up suburban teenager, to your urban delinquents to a three year old can understand the complexities and the moral stand that is taken by someone when they decide that they will not do things like apologise or thank people.
Youth rebellion was a complete and utter non entity in the 50s, no one could fathom kids doing things like this. Kids up until the 50s merely did what there parents did. This movie was the first to challenge all this, to challenge class oppression and gender roles even, as there are women (shock, horror) as members of Chino's motorcycle gang. This could be the most exceptional piece of filmmaking that EVER happened. I guarantee you that in no matter what town you live in that if you walk down the street you will see some degree of influence from this movie on the people you encounter. Without this movie the following things would not be the same in society:
1) There would be no Rockabilly music of the same fashionable kind 2) There would have to be ANOTHER image of the rebel, possibly the James Dean created image of the rebel because this one would not be 3) There would be no movies the way they are today in terms of youth rebellion (this movie challenged censorship sensibilities) 4) The punk rock movement would be utterly different (Jesus Christ, Sid Vicious has Marlon Brando's jacket, not to mention The Ramones) 5) A lot of modern music, The B.R.M.C. for instance would not be the band they are
The point being made here is that the effect of this movie is beyond mere moviedom. It defined a times, it defined an actor (Marlon Brando), is was fresh and vibrant, it was a kick in the ass for those censors, those self appointed guardians of morality who dare to tell us what to watch and how to watch it and when to watch it. Since this movie a million movies in its vein have emerged, all defining their era. For the 60s there was Easy Rider and Head, for the 70s there was Stayin Alive, and Saturday Night Fever, For the 80s there was Falling Down and for the 90s there was a torrent of them, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Human Traffic BUT, The Wild One was the first, the unadulterated masterpiece that is now an indelible mark on Hollywood, no American, no Western Culture that will for ever stand testament to the fact that, WE ARE SO F***ING COOL!!! (kids that is JJ)
Marlon Brando's leather jacket is the star of this dated vehicle, a movie which has aged terribly. His biker outfit has become a symbol of rebellion, but the movie behind the costume doesn't have much going for it. None of the bikers in this picture seem particularly menacing. The gangs in "West Side Story" are probably more cause for concern. Seriously, how can you be bothered by a gang of bikers which includes Mr. Kimball from "Green Acres" fame?
The movies I've saw with Marlon Brando have always sparked emotion in me.
His movies like Down on the Water Front and now The Wild One. A viewer might
watch this movie and think it has no plot. However I believe the plot of
this movie is is the character Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando. It's not
about the motorcycle or the destruction they cause or the vigilante
citizens. Its really about getting into the psyche of Johnny Strabler. I
love movies that really dig deep into character development and this movie
After I finished watching this movie I felt I knew Johnny. I don't think he really had ever been loved, so he never learned to express love. In the movie he expressed love the only way he knew, that was through physical interation. He had a heart harden by a lot of pain and lies. I thought I saw a tear in his eye a few times. He truly just didn't know how to express emotion. But the gesture he showed at the end was the closet he'd ever get to saying, I love you.
A very romantic movie...
MARLON BRANDO rides into town leading a pack of wild motorcycle riders
who proceed to terrorize a hick town before LEE MARVIN shows up and
gets into a drunken fight with Brando (as Johnny). Meantime, Johnny
flirts dangerously with a cop's daughter (MARY MURPHY) who runs a cafe.
Her father is played by ROBERT KEITH, a lawman who's reticent about
using his authority with a bunch of motorcycle thugs.
Tension builds when Keith manages to haul Lee Marvin off to jail. Brando's buddies manage to get a hold of one of the town bullies and put him in the jail cell with the drunken Marvin who has passed out. They then go on a wild rampage but not before some of the town's men decide to form a vigilante squad and go after Brando. Brando has a brief romantic fling with the girl who realizes loving him is a lost cause.
***** POSSIBLE SPOILER AHEAD ***** The plot moves swiftly to a conclusion once the girl is able to convince the authorities that he wasn't responsible for the death of an elderly bystander hit by a motorcycle.
Stanley Kramer production has a nice, tense background score by Leith Stevens.
Summing up: Early Brando is impressive to watch, but much of the dialog is very dated and anchored firmly in the 1950s by the slang and be-bop expressions and overall concept of the film.
Famous for the moment when a girl taunts him with: "What are you rebelling against?"
Brando's terse reply: "What have you got?"
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