The Wild One will never be lauded as a great movie, but it most certainly proves a seminal one even if you give a cursory glance over what would soon come in its wake. These were not only high school and gang-infused dramas of delinquency and adolescent angst, but it’s an obvious antecedent to the likes of Roger Corman pictures like The Wild Angels (1966) or even one of the most pioneering counterculture relics: Easy Rider.
A Streetcar Named Desire made Brando into an instantly revered actor, but The Wild One helped solidify him as a cult hero. A few years before James Dean — shades, leather jacket, riding a motorcycle — he’s the epitome of anti-establishment, and he found an immediate audience. Not only with the general populous but also for icons who would follow on his coattails like Dean and Elvis.
Like the gangster movies of the 1930s, The Wild One is purported to be a cautionary tale, and yet it can’t help but make the pack of motorcycle lug-heads highly intriguing. It doesn’t altogether glorify them; still, we want to watch them, and we can’t help but turn and look.
Their rank and file are made up of some unusual characters. Would you have ever thought Alvy Moore (Green Acres) and Jerry Paris (Dick Van Dyke Show) would start out in a motorcycle gang?
Aside from Johnny Strabler’s (Brando) instant tuff guy image, projected over the opening credits, their reputation is galvanized as a unit when they defiantly saunter across a racetrack in the middle of a lap. The motorcycles veer to miss them as the crowds yell for them to move it.
They nick one of the trophies on their way out as the police usher them away. They know an unruly mob when they see one. There’s nothing for it but to send them out of town so they can terrorize the next stop further down the road…
Because, of course, that’s exactly what happens. The can gets kicked down the road for someone else to deal with. They wind up bringing their pervasive mayhem wherever they go, in this case, a sleepy town’s main street. In a couple of minutes, they instigate a traffic accident and proceed to hoist the always curmudgeonly Will Wright out of his automobile like a band of obstreperous boy scouts.
The mealy-mouthed sheriff (Robert Keith) is pushed around like a sack of potatoes while a local businessman sees this as an opportunity, coaxing the boys into his establishment with cold beer, steaks, and music. They willfully oblige, led by their leader who instantly becomes smitten with the pretty waitress Kathie (Mary Murphy).
In this jukebox-filled, bar counter milieu, their brand of insurrection verges on Don and Cosmo-esque ribbing a la Singin’ in the Rain, where they pull the wool over on the “squares” with their jive and absurdly crazy lingo. They even take turns dancing with a pair of local flirts.
Who else would ride lead on a rival motorcycle mob but Lee Marvin? He plays it over the top with a healthy injection of disorderly conduct like a thuggish circus performer in stripes and goggles. Chino’s both a rival and one-time drinking companion, having it out with Johnny in the main plaza. Their point of contention: the pinched trophy.
With Chino hauled off to jail along with a local loud-mouth, the situation escalates to a precarious tipping point. The evening brings raucous insubordination as the untethered bikers run roughshod over the town with renewed abandon.
It’s slightly painful to watch if only for the extent of the overkill as they run the switchboard operator out of her office, commandeer the keys to the jail to intern a new prisoner, and generally overwhelm the city limits in every conceivable way.
Wrightsville wasn’t built to handle an incident like this. Sheriff Bleeker is in way over his head and his well-meaning but diffident demeanor has no reign over the chaos. It’s taking them to the brink.
The hoodlums systematically pull the beauty salon apart, dancing and prancing and goofing off. But it’s also premeditated. Because this sets the stage for them to chase after the most attractive and genteel girl in town, first mobbing her and then chasing after her on their motorcycle as she flees down the street. It’s a different type of social terror and especially in the modern-day, it’s particularly perturbing to be complicit to the moment even as a powerless viewer.
That’s the one key to Brando’s portrayal. He’s a nonconformist against all forms of authority, and yet he still manages to cleave rather nonchalantly to some kind of romantic code of conduct. In a sense, he rescues her only to whisk her off on his motorcycle to some deserted park. She’s tired, not ready to put up any sort of fight. The progression from here seems obvious.
And yet in some curious about-face, The Wild One flips its primary stereotype on its head creating a curious aside. Kathie intimidates him with her breeding, and then, she simultaneously wants to go off somewhere with Johnny and leave the town behind. Both developments feel unexpected. It happens so fast, too fast even, if this wasn’t the heightened reality of a B-picture. For this reason alone with can forgive the moment.
Because the movie constantly corkscrews its logic this way and that to a dizzying degree. The out-of-towners began as the obvious aggressors only for the townspeople to turn on them, giving them a taste of their own medicine. Nothing lines up in terms of what is fair or just. All that is rational spins further and further out of control. It’s part of the intrigue of the movie — a bit like gawking at a car accident — you can’t turn away.
The town, which has sat passively by for some time, is bent on taking retribution into their own hands. They form a posse and go after Johnny pummeling him and taking him to what can only be called their lair. Their tactics have turned ugly as well, and they categorically fail in carrying out justice until a real authoritarian figure (Jay C. Flippen) comes in to excavate the truth.
As it stands, one man is dead and Johnny is accused of murder. The irony is in this drastic turn. Half an hour before we would have convicted Johnny ourselves on reputation alone. Now he is made to look the victim — albeit an ungrateful and belligerent one.
The Wild One concedes in a final moment where Brando finally cracks a smile. The words “Thank You” still don’t come out of his mouth, but he relinquishes a bit of his bad-boy aura momentarily. However, it’s the movie leading up to this point that would help propel the outlaw biker genre forward and make Brando more than a mere stage phenomenon.
Laslo Benedek is not a well-remembered director, and yet he puts together a brassy picture utterly alive with punk sentiment. However, equally importantly, its sense of grungy low-budget drama is not completely devoid of streaks of good humor. For its day, you can see the spikes, and now it’s a simple pleasure for how conspicuous it feels. It’s ripe for parody, yes, but it was also a template for its many descendants. You can hardly consider one without the other.