The Wild One (1953) Laslo Benedek

The Wild One may be the first film to exploit the misunderstood youth vs. the establishment gap. As you watch the film you realized how ingrained so many of the images of Brando with his sideburns wearing   his leather jacket, jeans and a cap have become over the years. Before Wyatt and Bill in “Easy Rider”, before Elvis in “Jailhouse Rock” and before James Dean in anything the image of the young rebel without a cause was cemented in the 1953 Stanley Kramer production.

“What are you rebelling against, Johnny.”

“Whatta got.”

Under the layer of the post war white picket fence traditionalism of the Eisenhower years, the white collar, nine to five, man in the gray flannel suit conformity laid a slow ticking bomb that would explode into a revolution in the sixties. In New York’s Greenwich Village artist like Jackson Pollack and DeKoonig were up heaving the status quo in the art world. Jack Kerouac and the Beats were on the road living and writing life’s experiences. The Weavers and other folk musicians were filling the coffee houses. White teenagers were beginning to listen on the radio to black music stations and in Memphis a young white kid named Elvis signed a contract with Sun Records. Parents, glad the war was over were happy to sit at home with a fairly new invention called television watching and trying to emulate families they saw on the boob tube like Ozzie and Harriet.      

In New York in late December 1953 and in theaters across the country in 1954 a new picture premiered. The screen opens up on an empty country highway. The camera is low to the ground.  A written prologue appears saying what you are about to see really happened in a small town and the public needs to not let it happen again. Then we hear the voice, Brando’s voice, he says “it began for me on this road…it couldn’t happen again in a million years…Maybe I could have stopped it early. But once the trouble was on its way, I Just went with it.”

Slowly we see and hear in the distance a roaring sound. As the visuals come closer the camera is engulfed by forty to fifty members of a motorcycle gang speeding over us. Leading the way in dark sun glasses and sideburns is Johnny Strabler (Brando).  The close up of Brando on his bike is the first of many now iconic images of the brooding sullen itinerant rebel that have been embedded into  our pop culture consciousness.

“The Wild One” plays like a later day version of a western. A group of outlaws come into town and cause havoc. The town’s people decide to take things into their own hands when they believe one of the young women, in this case young Kathy Bleeker (Mary Murphy), has been assaulted. The town’s men beat Johnny up but he manages to get away and back to his cycle. On the way out of town, the vigilante crowd chases after him. A tire iron is thrown, hitting Johnny who falls from his cycle. The out of control bike hits and kills one of the kinder townsfolk. The county sheriff (Jay C. Flippen) and his men arrive and naturally arrest Johnny for murder. The townsfolk are so blood thirsty and law-biding they are ready to practically send Johnny to the electric chair until it comes out that it was the throwing of the tire iron by one of their own town people that caused the death of the old man. The sheriff lets Johnny go but not before spewing a morality lesson on the young delinquent.

If the young in the film are wild and rebellious, the adults are shown violent reactionaries too willing to take the law into their own hands to fight for right, or at least their version of what’s right.

The first film to directly deal with disaffected youth and the motorcycle culture, “The Wild One” was controversial for its time, conservative groups saw the film as a plot to undermine America’s youth and fear arose in some towns that some youth gangs would imitate what they saw on screen. In England, the film was banned by the British censors and not released until 1968!

This was Brando’s fifth appearance on the screen and he acting is still powerful. Just watch the little nuances in his performance. They fill the screen each second he is on. Brando agreed to do the film after reading the original script. Always on the side of the underdog he, along with producer Stanley Kramer, saw the film as an indictment on society’s response to the increasing problem of violence among the youth in America.  Problems began after the script was turned down as unacceptable by the Breen Office. The censors viewed the story as too sympathetic toward the motorcycle gang members and glorified the violence in the story. The script was changed most evident in the introductory narration Brando now had to say at the opening of the film where he would utter the words that this only happened once and could never happen again effectively obliterating  everything that followed.  

The film was not a huge success at the time of its release but over the years has gained an influential reputation beginning with Brando’s wardrobe. That young Memphis singer with the odd name of Elvis found an image to go with his music, leather jacket sales exploded across the country and posters of Brando became best sellers.  Also in the cast was Lee Marvin, still in the early part of his career, here he appears as Chino the gang leader of a second gang. Many of Marvin’s parts at this time were brutal low life’s (The Big Heat) though here there are bits of humor in his performance that are missing from just about anything else he did up to this time but  point his comedic ability that would shine later in “Cat Ballou.”        

The film was based on a real incident that happened in Hollister, California in 1947 over the 4th of July weekend. A story of the incident appeared in a 1951 issue of Harper’s Magazine called “The Cyclist’s Raid” by Frank Rooney. The screenplay was written by john Paxton and was directed by Laslo Benedek who previously worked with producer Stanley Kramer on the 1951 film version of “Death of a Salesman.”

***1/2

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18 comments on “The Wild One (1953) Laslo Benedek

  1. David R. Crosby says:

    This commentary on “The Wild One” could use a thorough proof-reading and an untangling of syntax in various spots. And while historical information is certainly welcome (story source, problems with the Breen office, the British ban on the film until 1968, etc.), it should be expressed in precise language. What, for example, does it mean to say that the film was not a “huge success” on first release? It failed to make enough money to recover costs? It made a great deal of money but not as much as other successful films of that year? It made a great deal of money but failed to win the favor of critics?

    Further, the analysis of theme is superficial, a simplistic rehash of elements in American culture during the postwar years that fails to uncover anything new. It seemed that the author might be on to something with violence coming primarily from reactionary townspeople rather than from the cycle gang, but he failed to investigate further.

    Movies were the greatest art form of the 20th century and surely they deserve a better examination than exhibited here.

    • Sam Juliano says:

      “What, for example, does it mean to say that the film was not a “huge success” on first release?”

      Apparently, English is not Mr. Crosby’s first language. Otherwise the intelligibility of John Greco’s statement wouldn’t have been taken to task with inexplicable cries for clarification. If Mr. Greco deemed it necessary to elaborate, he surely would have. The author was stating a historical fact in assessing the film’s initial reception.

      But let’s face, Mr. Crosby came here with his poison pen, going as far as to call the analysis of the theme “superficial” when in fact Mr. Greco’s intentions throughout were to give a general overview, not to pen a lengthy analytical discourse (which he has done with other films at this sites most impressively) This trip down memory lane was an engaging read with fluid use of syntax which encourages further reading. Mr. Greco’s astonishly prolific work here is a testament to a remarkable passion, appreciation and knowledge of the form, which can’t be remotely compromised by such mean-spirited and incompetant criticism.

    • John Greco says:

      Mr. Crosby, I do not mind receiving constructive criticism, even encourage it, but that is not what was being offered here.

      To clear up my fuzzy “huge success” statement I leave you with this line from BRANDO, a biography by Charles Higham that hopefully clears it up for you. “THE WILD ONE was not one of the big successes of its period at the box office.”

  2. Frank Gallo says:

    “Movies were the greatest art form of the 20th century and surely they deserve a better examination than exhibited here.”

    I didn’t realize that Mr. Greco was reviewing the entire 20th Century in film; I thought he was reviewing one film, “The Wild One”. This Crosby fellow isn’t pompous now, is he?

  3. Judy says:

    Hi John, I saw this movie a year or so ago and was impressed by Brando – I agree with you that there are a lot of little nuances which really make his performance. I also liked seeing Lee Marvin here at the outset of his career. Enjoyed your review and the great choice of stills – I didn’t realise this was based on a real-life incident, which is interesting to know.

    Since I knew the film had been banned in the UK for many years, I was expecting something more explosive and was quite surprised that Johnny actually seems quite a gentle character a lot of the time, who is misunderstood by the townspeople. It seems a mystery why this was banned on my side of the Atlantic for so long when other more violent films were allowed, but I suppose the answer is probably fear of copycat incidents involving bikers.

    • John Greco says:

      Judy, I am sure it was anti-climatic by the time the ban was lifted. Strange the way in Europe, in general, violence in films always caused more censorship problems than sex and nudity,while here in the States it has always been the opposite.

  4. Peter says:

    Outstanding review of a film that may well be considered dated now, but still contains some great acting and individual sequences. Benedek’s greatest work was on ‘Death of a Salesman,’ which you bring up, but this film is seen by any as a telling depiction of its era. Brando was a force of nature.

    • John Greco says:

      Peter, thank you for your comments. Brando in the fifties was definitely at his peak years. So many fine performances.

  5. David R. Crosby says:

    Thank you, Mr. Greco, for your commentary on “The Fugitive Kind,” a much neglected film. It is indeed a feast for lovers of good acting and, more importantly, it gives us an insight into Williams’s early dramatic preoccupations and a means thereby of better judging his increasing subtlety over the years.

    • John Greco says:

      Good points Mr. Crosby. The talent in this film is extraordinary. Hopefully with the new release it will receive more recognition. Thanks again!

  6. [...] John Greco’s stream of excellent reviews continues at Twenty-Four Frames, where his latest is on Lazlo Benedek’s Marlon Brando classic The Wild One, with Chabrol’s La Femme Infidel right under it: http://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2010/06/02/the-wild-one-1953-laslo-benedek/ [...]

  7. Guy Budziak says:

    As I read through this write-up I was waiting to see some mention of Lee Marvin’s role as the rival gang leader. This film is definitely a product of its time, as its depiction of a biker gang has them looking pretty wholesome as compared to the genuine article. Marvin’s Chino seems more like the real deal, unshaven, unwashed, more the unfettered type as compared to the immaculately uptight Brando. In fact the look Brando sports in the film may have been the inspiration for the art of Tom of Finland, the celebrated illustrator of gay erotica (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Love Chino’s skull cap with the straps hanging down and the goggles, not to mention the Apache dancer shirt he wears. Yeah, if I were faced with the chance to choose between drinking beers with Johnny or Chino it would no doubt be the latter. Chino just seems like he’d be more fun.

  8. Dave Crosby says:

    I’m sorry this comes at such a late date, but I confess my thorough shame for my poison-pen comment above. There was no excuse for it. I say this not to excuse it but to offer a bit of explanation— I was in the worst mood of my life after a number of dreadful failures and took it out on a man who doesn’t deserve it. John Greco has been doing a wonderful job in bringing to the attention of film lovers (me included and gratefully so) films of interest, many of them unfamiliar and long forgotten, and should be congratulated for such admirable work. I apologize to you, John, and to all others who read my awful comment. It offended everyone and I am really very regretful. I’ve been reading your comments for a long time now and I want you to know that I admire what you’ve been doing immensely. I humbly ask for your forgiveneness.

    • John Greco says:

      Dave,

      No need to, it is long forgotten. Your superb and informative commentary on so many other entries have long since overshadowed this. In fact, and I will leave this up to you, if you want I will delete all the comments pertaining to the original entry or we can just leave it. As I said it is up to you and you are always welcome here at 24 frames to comment. Your thoughts and knowledge, espically on Hitch, are a welcome addition. Thank you for reaching out.

  9. […] Armeeveteranen ihre Maschinen in ihr privates Leben übernahmen. Marlon Brando führte in “The Wild One” 1952 eine Motorradgang. Der Ersatz des Pferdes kommt in etlichen Filmen unterschwellig oder […]

  10. […] took their machines for private use. Marlon Brando was the leader of a motorbike gang in “The Wild One” 1952. Its substitution for the horse is referred to subliminally or quite strikingly in many […]

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