The Wild One Review

Biker gangs and vicious intent stormed America in the immediate post-war period. An outlandish cry for help and grasp at freedom for the young souls who were lucky enough to return from overseas. Best known were perhaps the Hell’s Angels, who tormented the smaller towns and rural roads of America for decades. The Wild One is not so much about the Hell’s Angels, but what they would soon become. As the amoral Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando) bike gang leader rolls into town, the ambiguity of his moral circumference is rightly noted by director László Benedek as his primary draw. But it is what he does with this that should surprise and shake audiences to their core.

That much is done with a keen iconography. What motorcycles were once for, and now what they represent. An opening that sees greasers in leather jackets and jeans wander through to a race of old-school motorbike enthusiasts showcases the clear difference and the cultural shift. A lack of respect is duly noted, and Strabler leads that villainous gang with an expected, cocky attitude. They wander across the track, grab those who dare stand up to them and feel as though they are entitled to whatever they like. Who are they to put up with the “square” mentality? Huey Lewis may believe it is hip to be one, but Brando makes a convincing argument against it.

Brando gives a superb leading performance. He does not lower himself to the name-calling and ridicule those within his gang offer but has a solemnity that shows he means business beyond public disruption. Theft and vagrancy are what he is best at, but even then, Benedek and Brando establish a softer heart for the gang leader. He has romance on the mind, yet they are not wholly committed to displaying that as anything more than a distraction from his duties as a low-level criminal. Biker stereotypes are built up within The Wild One, and rightly so. It utilises its noir themes rather poorly, but the reliance it has on the peace-disturbing drinkers is an accurate one that is buoyed well for those interested in the Hollister riot and other deadly encounters with biker gangs.

“It is a public challenge not to let it happen again,” says the opening crawl. Too true. Although, it did get worse. Far worse than what The Wild One wishes to depict. That depravity that catered to the mindset of biker gangs and their leaders is explored well by Benedek, but not deeply. With some sure-fire influence on Easy Rider, brief encounters within The Wild One are difficult to stomach. Not because of what Brando does or what Benedek shows, but of what knowing audiences can infer about these characters and their interactions. The heightened intensity that comes with the music, a road crawling with petrol heads and leather-jacket commandos coming down the road with nothing but hate on the mind. That much is brought to life with intensity and honesty, although the oversized cap and small aviator glasses have not. We cannot win all the battles. Not least against the costume department.

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