“The Wild One” (1953)

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Co-Stars: Mary Murphy, Robert Keith, Lee Marvin

Character: Johnny Strabler

Although this film was neither nominated for, nor won, any major awards, it was a film that influenced an entire generation of young people. Shot by shot, it almost feels like it was set up to become an iconic picture, with several extended close-ups of Brando cruising on his motorcycle, looking like he couldn’t give a fuck. Incredibly tame by today’s standards, it now feels almost like a period piece about our grandparent’s rebellion.

The film starts with Johnny’s voice narrating, from the future, his regrets about what is about to happen. Soon, the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club comes ripping down the highway, lead by Brando, looking like the epitome of all that is bad ass. They head into Carbonville, California, where they disrupt an ongoing motorcycle race. They are ordered to leave by local law enforcement, but not before one of the gang members steals Johnny the second place trophy (because the first one was too large).  In the next scene, the gang is back on the road, but this time Johnny has the second place trophy mounted on the front of his bike. They head into Wrightsville, California to gas up, but when a few of them decide to “drag for beers” they cause an accident with a local, and one of the cyclists get hurt. Through the film so far, Johnny has seemed like an aloof observer, stepping in and speaking up only to defend members of his gang from law enforcement.

Johnny spots a young pretty waitress on the street, and follows her into the restaurant she works at, in order to meet her. Kathie is shy and a bit of a “square”, and when Johnny orders a beer he is instructed to the other side of the cafe. He goes to the jukebox, starts playing a boisterous jazz record, and begins to snap his fingers and tap his foot. It almost comes off guard, but this film came out 3 years before Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”. In his rough and belligerent way, Johnny flirts with Kathie, who brushes off his advances.

Shortly, members of Johnny’s gang come in and ask if they should wait for their friend who was in the accident or leave him. Still intrigued by Kathie, Johnny gives the order to stay. So the gang does, and they enter the bar Kathie works in and begin to tear up the joint. Many beers are ordered, jazz music plays raucously on the jukebox, as Johnny watches from a near distance. He spends most of his time following Kathie around, almost puppy like, and invites her to a dance the squares in Carbonville are having. She declines, but he persists. Soon, the towns only cop comes in and orders a coffee, and tries to establish peace with Johnny. Johnny rejects the truce, and it is revealed Kathie is the cop’s daughter. Johnny then tells the gang they are leaving.

Outside the bar, a rival gang known as The Beetles arrive in Wrightsville, lead by Chino. The Beetles and the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club used to be one gang, until Johnny split the group. Chino steals Johnny’s trophy, and when the Rebels go outside, a fight breaks out between the two leaders. Not surprisingly, Johnny wins the fight. Right after, Chino and a local break into a fight, and only Chino is arrested at the insistence of the townsfolk. The Rebels continue to stay in town, as do the Beetles. As the day turns to night, the crowd gets rowdier, and start to rip the bar and the town apart.

While walking home later in the film, Kathie is surrounded and harassed by the other bikers. Johnny comes to her aid, and takes her off to a park that appears to be tailor made for romantic trysts. Kathie, too tired to resist Johnny anymore, begins to talk of feelings and insecurities, and eventually throws herself at him. He rejects her, and she runs off. He follows to apologize to her, but she slaps him, and he drives off. All of a sudden, a group of vigilante locals attack Johnny, pulling him away from his bike and carrying him off to someones place to knock some sense into him.

The local men attempt to beat the crap out of Johnny, but luckily Kathie has seen them take him and alerts her dad. The cop breaks up the attack, and while the men are talking, he breaks away and runs off. The men chase him down, but he manages to make it back to his bike. He breaks down a bit, exhausted and in pain, and we see him stare off hopelessly into the night sky for a moment, as we see the wounded boy beneath the pissed off young man’s surface.

The film is a short one, clocking in at just 75 minutes. But those 75 minutes influenced the style and attitude of a generation. Suddenly, motorcycle jackets (dubbed the “Brando”), caps, sunglasses, jeans, and white t-shirts were flying off the shelves. The long sideburns Brando wore became popular too, with guys like James Dean and Elvis sporting them. Triumph also received a significant sales boost, even though they didn’t initially like the depiction of their bikes in the film. However, the current factory uses images from the film in their advertisements. They even released a replica “Johnny” jacket for their 2009/10 season.

Marlon drove his own Triumph Thunderbird 6T in the film. Curiously, this film probably said the most about the young Brando. Johnny is a deeply sensitive young man hiding behind a mask of anger and toughness, probably from the years spent at the hands of abusive people in places of power, such as his father. Johnny rebels at everything and nothing, and is difficult for the sake of being difficult. Yet in flashes throughout the film, we see that he is capable of, and thoroughly enjoys, silliness and fun. That sounds like our man Brando, who suffered in childhood at the hands of his viciously abusive alcoholic father, who’s presence he must have drawn upon to create the character of  the brutal Stanley Kowalski.

The film is dated, and is definitely cheesy now. It is however, a highly enjoyable romp with a lot of genuine laughs (although it wasn’t a comedy- oops). Brando plays Johnny Strabler to iconic perfection, inspiring many an impersonation. The film is also notable for inspiring the name of the band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and as one legend goes, a little band named The Beatles (though this is almost certainly myth). This is the second time I’ve watched it, and certainly not the last. It’s a ton of fun, and could potentially be turned into a rousing drinking game (I’ll work on that one though). Definite thumbs up.

Quotes: “Yo!”

Mildred “What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?”
Johnny “Whaddya got?”

“Nobody tells me what to do.”

“Man, you are too square.”

“I’m afraid of you? Are you cracked? ”

“My old man used to hit harder than that.”

Brando and canine friend. Just sticking this in here for kicks.

Triumph Motorcycles

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