Monday, May 26, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Wild One" (1953)

Yes, Brando again. There's quite a bit of bullshit associated with the now-iconic movie "The Wild One." Almost everything about it is fake or contrived. Yet it remains one of Brando's most remembered roles, and its style more or less defined the look of the 1950s youth movement.

First of all, the movie was a huge flop when it came out. Brando had already had his breakout role in "A Streetcar Named Desire," and had just appeared as Mark Antony in "Julius Caesar" prior to this film. Yet people often regard "The Wild One" as an influential commercial hit. Laslo Benedek directed from a script by John Paxton.

Second, it was based on an event that happened in real life in 1947 that was greatly exaggerated by Life Magazine. Some bikers came to Hollister, Calif., for a motorcycle rally. There was some rowdiness, a great deal of drinking, some arrests and a few injuries as serious as a broken bone. But it was nothing like the sordid tales of a mob of biker thugs "taking over" a small, peaceful town.

Journalists trumped up a good story, and Hollywood decided to trump that one.

It's also interesting that the hooligans in "The Wild One" are constantly referred to as very young punks. Brando's character, Johnny Stabler, is almost always described by the older townsfolks as a "boy," even though the actor was nearly 30 years old at the time. The joking, smirking members of Johnny's gang, the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, sneeringly refer to their elders as "Dad" or "Pops." Even if the actors portraying them were much older -- there's one guy glimpsed in the mix who must be middle-aged -- I think the BRMCers are supposed to be teenagers.

This sets up a question of who exactly the bikers are supposed to represent. The real Hollister "rioters" were grown men, indeed probably many of them veterans returning from the war who were looking for a chance to cut loose after their nightmarish experiences. Teenagers in 1953, though, would put the BRMC firmly amidst the "Silent Generation" born during the Great Depression to World War II. Even the threat of being drafted into the Korean War was winding down by the time the movie came out.

It's the difference between those who earned our freedom with a debt of blood and the kids who grew up benefiting from the bravery of their forebears.

There's also the notion that "The Wild One" is a celebration of youthful rebellion. When you really drill down into the story, though -- a straightforward, terse affair at a mere 79 minutes -- you find that the filmmakers are essentially shaking their heads at the wayward nihilism of Johnny and his loyal followers. It's closer to "Reefer Madness" than "Bonnie and Clyde." It's more cautionary tale than free-for-all.

Most everyone knows the most famous line of dialogue from the film: When Johnny is asked what he's rebelling against, he responds "Whaddya got?". But it's not delivered during a defiant staredown against an authority figure in the streets, but a shugged moment of casual flippancy while flirting with some town girls in a bar.

Personally, I think the most telling lines come at the beginning and end of the movie, delivered by older men dismissing Johnny and the BRMC with world-weary contempt. In one of the last scenes, after a small army of deputies have arrived to quell the uprising, the sheriff squints at Johnny and alleges -- accurately -- that he doesn't get his shtick, and what's more, he doesn't think Johnny really understands it himself.

Helpfully, another exchange supplies most of the answers. When the BRMC fails to break up the local motorcycle races -- their criminality only gets as far as stealing a second-place trophy -- a pair of men shake their heads after successfully driving off Johnny & Co.:

Mechanic: "I don't think they even know where they're going. Termites! Nutty! Ten guys like that gives people the idea everybody drives a motorcycle is crazy. What are they trying to prove anyway?"
Cop: "Beats me. Looking for somebody to push them around so they can get sore and show how tough they are. They usually find it someplace, sooner or later."

Note the language in that second line: the bikers aren't looking to push people around, but to annoy others until they themselves get pushed around, just so they can push back twice as hard. They instigate and then go crazy when provoked. That's why Johnny and the BRMC are best described as rebels without a cause, since they're reacting to the order around them with slouch-shouldered chaos.

Speaking of rebels and causes, it's undeniable that "The Wild One" influenced other film icons. Elvis Presley and James Dean copied their long sideburn haircuts from Brando, and Dean reputedly bought a Triumph motorcycle because of the one Johnny drives in the movie (which was actually Brando's own personal motorcycle, according to legend). The look of tight jeans, boots and black leather zippered jacket also became instantly ensconced in pop culture.

Brando is his usual charismatic self, chewing his dialogue and glaring balefully at authority figures. Johnny despises cops because, he says, he once trusted one and it came back to bite him. He takes a shine to local good girl Kathie (Mary Murphy), but dumps her cold upon learning her father is the ineffectual town sheriff (Robert Keith).

Lee Marvin makes one of his notable early career appearances as Chino, the boisterous leader of a rival motorcycle gang called the Beetles. They show up in the same town as the BRMC, and Chino and Johnny promptly have a throw-down over Johnny's stolen racing trophy. Moments later, Chino is laughing and ready to buy him a beer. We learn that two gangs used to be one until Johnny's group splintered.

That trophy is emblematic of the entire film. It means nothing to Johnny -- just a hunk of gold-plated tin one of his boys absconded with -- until someone else tries to lay a claim on it, and then he's ready to spill blood over the trinket. He offers it to Kathie moments after meeting her, and she refuses, thinking he won it legitimately.

The movie ends with Johnny, defeated and humiliated, giving the trophy to her right before riding out of town for good. Of course, he can't just hand it to her nicely, but sets it on the counter of the coffee shop where she works, and pokes it toward her with a finger. It's a result of his burning desire to be different, to disparage and denigrate the societal norms others place value upon.

"The Wild One" is the story of untamed youth with nowhere to go and nothing to fight for, except the fighting itself.

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