Rebel Without a Clue

Text: Robert Smith • Photography:

It's the B-movie western we've all seen a hundred times. Outlaws ride into town, get drunk in the saloon and clash with the locals. The ineffectual, alcoholic sheriff won't intervene; his daughter, meanwhile, falls for the gang leader. The locals form a lynch mob, and the sheriff, shamed into action, tries to intervene. There's an escape, a chase, and a death. The marshal arrives to sort out the mess, and the daughter's love goes unrequited.

Substitute motorcycles for horses, and you have The Wild One.

In 1947, the members of a motorcycle club called the Boozefighters descended on the small California town of Hollister. And though the resulting drunken scuffles with the townsfolk were greatly exaggerated by enterprising press photographers, the shiftless, unemployed ex-servicemen who made up the Boozefighters became the prototypical outlaw motorcycle gang. It didn't take Hollywood long to exploit these new antiheroes of the west.

The Hollister riots inspired Frank Rooney's novel The Cyclists' Raid, which John Paxton turned into a screenplay. Marlon Brando had just starred in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, and his sullen moodiness seemed just right for producer Stanley J. Kramer's latest project.

The Story
Brando is Johnny, leader of the Black Rebels. Gate-crashing a motorcycle race, Johnny "acquires" one of the trophies, which becomes his talisman. In the next town, a crash sidelines a gang member, and during his hospitalization the rest of the gang take over Bleeker's saloon. That's where Johnny falls for Kathie Bleeker (Mary Murphy) and their Romeo-and-Juliet love affair begins. Kathie sees right through Johnny's rebellious façade to the broken child underneath, yet in desperation for anything to brighten her humdrum existence, she idly flirts with him. Their initial dialogue contrasts his trying-too-hard worldliness and her small-town naiveté:

"What do you do?" she asks. "I mean, do you just ride around, or do you go on some sort of picnic or something?"

"A picnic!? Man, you are too square. I have to straighten you out. Now listen. You don't go any one special place: that's cornball style. You just go! Bunch gets together after all week - it builds up - the idea is to have a ball. Now if you wants to stay cool, you got to wail, you got to put something down, you got to make some jive... Don't you know what I'm talking about?"

"Yes, I know what you mean."

"Well that's all I'm sayin'."

"My father was going to take me on a fishing trip to Canada once."


"We didn't go."


Johnny rescues Kathie from the unwelcome attentions of drunken gang members, sweeping her onto the seat of his bike and riding off with her into remote woodland. The subsequent, demure love scene (though pretty racy for 1953) includes Johnny's forceful kiss, which fails to dent Kathie's air of languid indifference; yet it also shows her suggestively caressing the front forks of Johnny's bike.

"I've never ridden on a motorcycle before. It's fast. It scared me. But I forgot everything. It felt good."

There's a subplot involving the gang's former leader Chino (Lee Marvin), but it's little more than an excuse for a fight scene. Meanwhile, the drunken rowdiness rouses local business-folk, who decide to take it out on the gang leader. Johnny is captured and beaten, but he remains defiant ("My dad used to hit harder than that!"), perhaps the movie's only indication of a motive for Johnny's nihilism and rootlessness.

Escaping on his bike, Johnny is downed by a thrown tire iron. The riderless bike then kills a bystander. The marshal arrives in time to save Johnny's hide from the vigilante mob. But until the truth emerges, Johnny is facing a murder charge and even when freed, he can't find the words to thank his benefactors. In the last scene, while offering his stolen trophy to Kathie, he breaks into his only smile of the movie. The gang rides into the sunset, Johnny still at its front.

The context
Tame though it seems now, The Wild One broke considerable new ground in 1953, and was even banned in Britain for 15 years! It captured the disaffection and aimlessness of the post-war generation. Three years before Rock 'n' Roll, adolescents were caught in an adult world that failed to understand or even recognize their search for identity and their angst. As James Dean would characterize in 1955, they were "rebels without a cause." The line that best captures this limbo is when the waitress at Bleeker's bar asks, "So what are you rebelling against, Johnny?" His reply: "Whattaya got?" The next decade, the sixties, would provide more than enough answers to Johnnie's question.

The bikes
Aside from its star, its resonance with the times, and its period shock value, what makes The Wild One a biker classic are the motorcycles. Revisionist modern reviewers have sometimes wrongly claimed Johnny's bike is a "Harley," but it's actually a Triumph Thunderbird 650. The T-bird was the most popular of the new British 650 twins aimed at the American market, spurring the sole (by 1954) US bike-maker to create its lightweight K-series Sportsters.

The rest of the bikes featured in the movie are a mix of British and American. Johnny's leadership challenger, Chino, rides a Harley, perhaps symbolizing the real-life racetrack rivalry between the two brands. Many of the American bikes shown have been "bobbed" in the fashion of the time. Front fenders have been removed, rear fenders shortened, and other unnecessary extras ditched. The result was a lighter, sportier looking bike, closer to the lean and lithe British twins. Bobbers would become more and more customized over time, eventually morphing into the choppers of the sixties.

Although The Wild One is often credited with being the first "bike-sploitation" movie, it's really a western with motorcycles. And other than the appeal to motorcycle fans, horses probably would have worked just as well. As a western, though, the movie would never have made the grade: the bikes and Brando's screen presence are the only aspects that set it apart.

RoadRUNNER rating: 4/5