The Wild One may have been 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, his leather jacket, jeans and a cap have become over the years. Before Wyatt and Billy 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.” he answers.
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 the youth culture revolution of the sixties. In New York’s Greenwich Village, artist like Jackson Pollack and DeKoonig were upheaving 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, like Ozzie and Harriet, x they saw on the boob tube.
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 in the distance we see a hazy vision and hear distance a roaring sound. As the visuals come closer, the camera becomes engulfed by forty to fifty members of a motorcycle gang. The bikes and its riders seemingly roaring 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 the 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, however. he manages to get away and back to his cycle. Heading out of town, the vigilante crowd chases after him. A tire iron is thrown. It hits 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 immediately arrest Johnny for murder. The townsfolk are so blood thirsty 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 as 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 Wild One is first film to directly deal with disaffected youth and the motorcycle culture. It was controversial for its time. Conservative groups saw the film as a plot to undermine America’s youth and fear grew 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 to watch even today. Just watch the little nuances in his performance. They fill the screen each second he is on screen. 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 with the film began after the script was first turned down as unacceptable by the Breen Office. The censors viewed the story as too sympathetic toward the motorcycle gang. Gang members and glorified and the violence was excessive. 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 phase 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, Shack Out on 101) 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 to 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 about 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.