Director: László Benedek
Screenplay: John Paxton and Ben Maddow
Based on the story by: Frank Rooney
Producers: Stanley Kramer
Starring: Marlon Brando, Mary Murphy, Robert Keith
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 79 mins
The Wild One came roaring into the 1950s with disruption and controversy in its wake. Brando’s original rebel-without-a-cause sparked a revolution, ushering in decades of brooding outsiders (most notably James Dean). At the time of its release, The Wild One shocked and appalled; today, it’s a testament to a bygone age, presenting a seemingly picture perfect 1950s America where a gang of rowdy young men was enough to overturn the status quo. If you’re looking for relevance to today, there’s a serious side too; perhaps without meaning to, The Wild One reveals the violence that can simmer under a veneer of conservative respectability.
Based on the Hollister riot, a biker gang led by Johnny (Marlon Brando) disrupts a motorcycle rally, aggravating officials and stealing one of the prizes. After being forced to leave, they arrive in Wrightsville, and stay there while an injured gang member recovers. Relations with the law are strained but mostly amicable, as the gang provides the local cafe bar with custom and even brings excitement to the mundane lives of the town’s inhabitants. However, after numerous accidents the tensions rise to breaking point, and the town becomes a battleground with townsfolk taking to the streets to deal with the menace of two motorcycle gangs. Through it all Johnny balances his status as gang leader with his interest in local girl Kathie, both of them knowing and resigned to the fact that his gang only ever passes through.
Although the antics of the gangs seem fairly tame today, the pace of the film still grips. It’s an exciting ride, with surprisingly compelling characters and some brilliant action scenes that are enjoyable because of their familiarity. The Western-esque stand-off between the two gang leaders, the quintessentially ‘50s diner, even the sudden lurch into real danger at the climax of the film all give the audience exactly what they want.
One area in which the film has not aged well is in the treatment of its female lead. Mary Murphy’s Kathie Bleeker is a hard-working waitress, surrounded by the mundane but secretly dreaming of romance. Unfortunately for her, in this film romance looks like being harassed in the workplace and being terrorised by a motorcycle gang; the sequence of Kathie fleeing, pursued by a large group of grabby men on bikes is frightening to those who know that situation all too well.
This aside, Johnny’s relationship with Kathie gives the film its emotional heart, their chemistry brilliantly conveying the push and pull between twin desires of danger and comfort. Brando’s dark, brooding anti-hero affects coolness, but it’s clear Johnny’s out of his depth with Murphy’s mix of innocence and wisdom. Their interactions often betray the time period – nothing says romance like threatening to knock a woman down – but ultimately this can be forgiven as a glimpse at how empty Johnny’s rough tough persona really is. In many of their scenes – particularly when he is unable to thank her at a key moment – Brando’s vulnerability adds another dimension to the film, saving it from being all thoughtless action. It’s easy to be cynical, but I guess I’m a romantic; the film’s bittersweet resolution did make me smile.
Let’s not kid ourselves though; this movie is not famous for its incisive social commentary. What it does do is capture the zeitgeist of the 1950s in a narrative that is today equal parts enjoyment and nostalgia. It’s escapism to a fictional world where the issues of the day weren’t desperate life and death struggles: where the answer to the question “What are you rebelling against?” could be simply, “Whaddya got?”
The Wild One is out now on Dual Format Blu-ray & DVD from Powerhouse Films Ltd. Digitally remastered, it looks beautiful. There’s a wealth of extras too, making this release incredibly comprehensive (and it’s limited edition, so a must-have for fans).
- Audio commentary by author and film historian Jeanine Basinger
- The Wild One and the BBFC (2017, 25 mins): ex-BBFC examiner Richard Falcon discusses the film’s history with the British censor
- Introduction to the film by Karen Kramer (2007, 1 min)
- Hollister, California: Bikers, Booze and the Big Picture (2007, 28 mins): a look back at the real life events that inspired the film
- Brando: An Icon is Born (2007, 19 mins): a documentary exploring the life and career of the legendary actor
- Super 8 version (1973, 19 mins): original cut-down home cinema presentation with unique narration
- Original theatrical trailer
- Image gallery
- Exclusive 40-page booklet with a new essay by Kat Ellinger, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and Laslo Benedek’s 1955 article ‘Why I Made The Wild One‘