When released in 1953, the Laszlo Benedek film ‘The Wild One’ starring Marlon Brando as Johnny caused a sensation. Its story of a group of bikers terrorising a small American town was something new, fresh and exciting in cinema and it aroused such controversy that it was even banned in the United Kingdom for over a decade.
The film’s lasting impact was signified by Brando on a motorcycle becoming one of the iconic images of Hollywood cinema; indeed it was common to see posters of that Brando image as a symbol of rebellion and cool.
But over 60 years have passed since the film’s release and what was once shocking is now very tame; indeed in a recent television screening in Australia it was deemed fine for children to watch (albeit with parental guidance).
Take away the shock factor and the bannings and the imagery, how does ‘The Wild One’ stack up today as an artistic work?
After the memorable pre-credits scene of the group of bikers (called The Black Rebels) whizzing by our eyes on an open road, the film starts off very strongly with a brief scene in a Californian town of Carbonville where The Black Rebels interrupt a motorcycle race and are booted out of town. The film impressively conveys on one hand the disruption the bikers cause and on the other hand the understandable resentment the bikers have towards the oppressive authority figures such as the policeman who smugly orders them out for what was in truth pretty minor stuff. It’s a great summation of the conformity of 1950s life and what the rebellion of the bikers would become much more substantial and widespread in the following decade.
However the rest of the film is set in another small town of Wrightsville and that seems like a replication of what already was conveyed in the Carbonville segment, except for much longer and to generally lesser effect. Most of the bikers and townsfolk remain one-note stock characters and as a result make little impact.
Even at the short running time of 79 minutes, The Wild One feels somewhat overstretched as it is a mishmash of overlapping storylines, ranging from the relationship between Johnny and the daughter of the police chief (played blandly by Mary Murphy) to the arrival of a rival motorcycle gang to The Black Rebels with its leader played by Lee Marvin. And yet after being built up in significance, Marvin’s character is largely forgotten in the film’s latter stages.
One of the most surprising things about the film is that even though it’s one of Brando’s most iconic roles, he actually is somewhat miscast. His brooding, surly persona actually seems at odds with the rest of his gang who have energy to burn and act like hyperactive, naughty kids. As someone who seems like a loner, it’s hard to believe he would ever become the leader of a gang like this.
In contrast, in his brief role Lee Marvin not only seems a much better fit as a leader of a bikie gang, but his effervescent, boisterous performance almost steals the film. It’s a shame he’s so underused.
In terms of style, The Wild One feels like a mixture of being a breath of fresh air into early 1950s Hollywood cinema, as well as being rather stagey and old-fashioned at times during certain scenes.
This is well demonstrated in the film’s pre-credits sequence. The opening shot is a ground-level view of an initially peaceful open road which then is overtaken by a cyclone of motorcycles roaring past. This dazzling and seminal opening is however followed up by our first view of Marlon Brando which is obviously in back projection, severely diluting its impact. Here we see the use of fresh new realism clash with clumsy and cheap studio techniques.
Overall director Benedek does a good job. His direction is often vivid and arresting, not only in the Carbonville sequence impressive, but also as night falls in Wrightsville as he uses intercutting and tempo (and no dialogue) to create a sense of dread that things are about to fall apart in the town. He also makes relatively convincing the sequence of the townsfolk turning to vigilante behaviour and in fact becoming more dangerous than the bikers ever.
So after six decades does The Wild One still hold up? Not really, but it’s still an interesting and entertaining film worth watching. It’s just a shame that it didn’t have Lee Marvin in the main role.