Movies We Like
The Wild One
Though that amazing string of performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, and On the Waterfront earned Marlon Brando four straight Oscar nominations (finally winning for Waterfront) and made him the most celebrated acting talent of his generation, it’s actually his work as Johnny in The Wild One that made him an icon of rebellion and helped inspire the youth culture that was just beginning to emerge in America (and abroad). The Wild One was the first “biker picture” to penetrate mainstream consciousness, a genre that would become very popular in independent film ten lean years later.
Though produced by issue-director/producer Stanley Kramer, giving the film an overly dramatic “this is important” vibe, it’s actually a really fun B-movie, carried by Brando’s cocky performance. His Johnny leads his biker gang almost like a cult leader. The gang, with their rowdy antics, tries to impress their messiah, but Johnny, with his southern/ be-bop accent, is a man of few words. Hitting the road looking for kicks, Brando and his gang stumble on a small town where they instantly catch the attention of the law and some uptight citizens, and a saloon owner invites them to stay for beer and sandwiches. The innocent young barmaid Kathie (the very beautiful Mary Murphy) catches Johnny’s eye. It doesn’t help when he declares “I don’t like cops,” even though her dad is the town’s sheriff (Robert Keith, father of Brian), and is actually very evenhanded and sympathetic to Johnny and his pals.
In the film’s most quoted moment, a dancing teeny-bopper asks Johnny what he’s rebelling against and Brando in full-cool mode, both disinterested and yet committed, replies “What have you got?” The real fun and heavy rebellion kicks in when Chino (Lee Marvin) and his gang, The Beetles, pull into town (supposedly that’s where The Beatles got their name from). It seems that the controlled Johnny and excitable Chino were once buds, but are now rivals, and they have a nasty street fight that gets Chino thrown in the clink. Johnny and Kathie go off to be alone, but the wildness of the two gangs scares the naive townie and she runs off making the local citizens think Johnny tried to take advantage of her. They give the misunderstood Johnny a good beating (a trademark in Brando performances, his characters are often victims of brutes). Eventually the state troopers roll into town to clean up the mess. They are going to arrest Johnny, but at the last moment Kathie and her cop father intercede and explain that he didn’t do anything wrong. The trooper suggests that Johnny thank them for saving his butt and he stands muted while she explains, “It’s alright. He doesn’t know how.”
Brando’s performance, style, and manor have been celebrated and copied for decades, from Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack to Mickey Rourke in Rumble Fish. Besides the mumble they also would don the same haircuts as Brando in The Wild One. Two years later in 1955, James Dean would break out in East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause. Kids would fight their teachers in Blackboard Jungle, Bill Haley & The Comets would sing the theme song to Rock Around The Clock and Elvis would record “Heartbreak Hotel.” The transformation from the adult world to the youth market culture would be complete (actually instantly dating much of The Wild One’s hip jive lingo). By the mid-sixties BBS Productions and Roger Corman were all making big bucks off the biker craze, all acknowledging the debt they owed to The Wild One. Even as the original film may have become passé and corny, Brando and the myth of Brando would live on. Though his film career would take a nosedive, his personal politics would keep him at the forefront of rebellion (taking deep stands for civil rights and the American Indian movement). Like images of Che Guevara, the image of Brando on his motorcycle is still a standard for anyone who takes their rebellion seriously, well, or just needs a cool way to decorate their dorm room.