Director Stanley Kramer hired real biker gangs to play themselves. When Kramer asked one of them what they were rebelling against, one cyclist cracked, "Well, what ya got?" That was incorporated into the script and became one of the film's most quoted lines.
Based on a 1951 short story in Harper's Magazine entitled "The Cyclists' Raid," which in turn was based upon a real-life incident in Hollister, California, in 1947. The actual incident, however, bore little resemblance to the events depicted in the movie. Although spirited, the cyclists did not run amok or become violent. In fact, they were invited back to Hollister over the July 4, 1997 weekend for a 50th-anniversary celebration of the original incident.
The name of Lee Marvin's motorcycle gang is "The Beetles." Although it has never formally been acknowledged as an inspiration for the name of the 1960s rock band, the scene from the movie where Marvin introduces The Beetles is used at the beginning of The Beatles' "Anthology."
Harry Cohn hated the completed film but so did Marlon Brando for different reasons. The latter said, "We started out to do something worthwhile, to explain the psychology of the hipster. But somewhere along the way we went off the track. The result was that instead of finding why young people tend to bunch into groups that seek expression, all that we did was show the violence."
Pigeon, a member of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club led by Johnny Strabler, is played by an uncredited Alvy Moore. Moore would achieve greater recognition some 12 years later playing absent-minded county agricultural agent Hank Kimball on Green Acres (1965).
Marlon Brando's motorcycle is a 650cc Triumph Thunderbird. From stills, its registration number looks like 63632. Lee Marvin also owned a Triumph 200cc Tiger Cub, upon which he competed in desert races. Gil Stratton was featured in a print advertisement for Triumph motorcycles in 1963. He later became a well-known TV sports reporter in Los Angeles for decades.
To prepare for his role, Marlon Brando renewed his love for motorcycles, practicing his cycling technique and selecting his own wardrobe, which he wore to and from the studio. Brando also spent time with the real-life biker gangs to absorb their mannerisms and speech.
Stanley Kramer recalled: "I gathered together a band of motorcyclists . . . [Marlon Brando] and I talked to them, and then the writer [Ben Maddow] was brought in. But he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee so John Paxton took over the script. These guys were a new breed, and there weren't many of them around . . . A lot of the dialogue is taken from our actual conversations with them. All the talk about 'We gotta go, that's all . . . just gotta move on' was something we heard over and over again. And one of the most famous lines in the film came from my conversation with them, too. I asked one of the kids, 'What are you rebelling against?' and he answered, 'What have you got?'".
A popular still from the film shows an off-set Marlon Brando astride a Matchless twin-cylinder motorcycle, its "M" logo gas tank badge being secured upside-down to resemble a "W". This was stunt rider Wally Albright's motorcycle.
According to the book "Triumph Motorcycle In America", Johnson Motors--which imported Triumph bikes into the US--objected to the prominent use of them in the film. However, later, Gil Stratton, who played "Mouse" in the film, advertised Triumph motorcycles in the 1960s when he was a famous TV sports announcer. As of 2014, the manufacturers were publicly identifying Marlon Brando as a celebrity who had helped to "cement the Triumph legend".
Reflecting on the movie in his autobiography, Marlon Brando concluded that it had not aged very well but said, "More than most parts I've played in the movies or onstage, I related to Johnny, and because of this, I believe I played him as more sensitive and sympathetic than the script envisioned. There's a line in the picture where he snarls, 'Nobody tells me what to do.' That's exactly how I've felt all my life".
Lee Marvin could not ride a motorcycle at the time of filming but, determined not to be bettered by Marlon Brando, he quickly learned, later becoming a keen competitor on his Triumph 200cc Tiger Cub in desert races.
As has been pointed out, the BBFC refused this film a certificate in 1954. At the time the highest rating for a film was an "X" certificate, which in those days meant 16 or over. However, it is not true to say that the film was banned. The authority over film exhibition lies with the local authority. Most accept the BBFC rulings but any local authority can view a film and issue its own rating. In the case of this film, it was shown in the UK in 1954 at the Rex Cinema in Cambridge, managed at the time by Leslie Halliwell of Halliwell's Film Guide fame. He arranged for the local watch committee to view the film and they gave it a local "X" certificate. It played for two weeks to indifferent business as recounted in Halliwell's autobiography "Seats in All Parts" (apparently it also got a local "X" in Maesteg, South Wales).
The producers wanted to film on location, but Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn nixed this idea and ordered them to shoot it on Columbia's ranch in Burbank. He also wanted the film made in black-and-white.
This was the first film in which the manufacturer's logo on motorcycles was not blanked out. Johnson Motors, which imported Triumphs into the US, protested at its product being linked with Marlon Brando and his Black Rebels, but the association served them well.
More on the original British release: far from being banned out of sight, the film was shown at no fewer than 23 venues. Following the premiere run at the Rex, Cambridge (three weeks from Sunday, 10 April 1955), it then moved to Wales and Northern Ireland with simultaneous six-day engagements at the New Theatre, Maesteg, and the Royal Hippodrome, Belfast, both commencing Monday, 16 May 1955. By far the most successful run was in Glasgow, where it opened at the Grand Central on 15 January 1956 and ran five weeks. Elsewhere in Scotland, Lanarkshire County Council allowed the film to be shown at the Regal (ABC), Coatbridge and Rex (ABC), Motherwell (both 1 October 1956 for three days) and at the Regal (ABC), Hamilton, (1 November 1956 for three days). The London premiere was at the National Film Theatre on 29 August 1957. Additionally, film clubs did not have to adhere to BBFC decisions, so some 14 local film societies showed the film during the period December 1956 to February 1958, namely those at Anglesey, Bolton, Canterbury, Edinburgh, Grimsby, Hassocks, Hove, Ilford, Slough, Tooting, Torquay, Woolwich, Worthing and York. Finally, in London's West End, the Continentale's Monday film club gave three showings on Monday, 14 March 1960.
Due to the subject matter, Stanley Kramer had numerous problems with the studio over dialogue and specific scenes that were deemed unacceptable by the Breen office (Hollywood's self-imposed censorship board).
In an episode of "Happy Days", Joanie says to Fonzie, "I saw The Wild One'," to which Fonzie replies, "Crummy flick . . . if I was Lee Marvin, I'd've cracked Brando's skull with that trophy". NOTE: Jerry Paris, who was a producer/director on "Happy Days", had a small pat in "The Wild One" as one of Brando's gang.
Marlon Brando claimed that the few positive aspects of making the film was that it released some of his inner violence and frustration at his father. "Before The Wild One (1953), I thought about killing my father. After The Wild One (1953), I decided that I shouldn't actually kill him, but pull out his corneas".