Retro Film Review: The Wild One (1953)

in film •  20 days ago 


Generational conflicts were constant of the human history, but Hollywood appeared to become aware of them only in 1950s. In that time new generations that were enjoying unprecedented post-war prosperity had hard time to adapt to the values cherished by their parents who had grown up during the hardships of Great Depression and WW2. The first major film to deal with such phenomenon is The Wild One, 1953 drama by Laslo Benedek, also known as the great grand-daddy of biker films.

Plot, which is based on the real events in Hollister, California in 1947, deals with "Black Rebels Motorcycle Club", gang of leather-clad bikers that spend all their time roaming around small towns in California searching for fun. But, sometimes, instead of fun they find trouble and that would happen when they come to small town of Wrightsville. At first, citizens are only slightly annoyed by bikers who cruise up and down the main street only to spend their time and money in the local bar. Harry Bleeker (played by Robert Keith), town's only policeman, doesn't intervene after first minor incidents, hoping that the bikers would just go away. But it doesn't happen because Johnny (played by Marlon Brando), unofficial leader of the gang, falls in love with his daughter Kathie (played by Mary Murphy). In the meantime, rival group of bikers, led by Chino (played by Lee Marvin) comes to town. Bleeker finally decides to do something, but it is too late to prevent the escalation of violence.

Events presented in this film might have seemed shocking to 1950s audience or parents could think about bikers in The Wild One giving bad example to their children (which led to this film being banned in some countries). But, the audience of today would have to watch this film extremely carefully to find any trace of nonconformist tendencies in its script. This film is actually very conservative, taking the side of the "squares" and using their fears to provide strong "law and order" message. Lawlessness, even in its mildest forms, will always escalate into violent anarchy, so social rules must be obeyed, no matter how absurd, expensive or unenforceable they might seem.

Conservative message of the film was muted thanks to the fact that the bad guys actually looked quite appealing, at least compared to their conformist adversaries. Marlon Brando in his black leather jacket and cynical look became the embodiment of Bad Boy, and the image he radiated in The Wild One became one of the most recognisable visual icons of 1950s youth rebellion, equal only to James Dean or Elvis Presley. Brando contributed to the reputation of this film not only with his looks, but also with great acting abilities. His role of Johnny, young man doomed by his machistic pride, is one of the rare things worth watching in this, otherwise forgettable exploitation film. The other thing is Lee Marvin in brief but unusual role of his rival who provides additional fun for those who like to seek for the hidden homosexual overtones in the relationships between movie characters. Actually, this film, which is awfully dated, provides a lot unintentional laughs. Without them, The Wild One, with its overcliched and sometimes ridiculous characters and situations, plot holes, script flaws and generally bad acting, could be less than pleasant viewing experience.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on December 17th 1999)

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