Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Wild One

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

Sorry, I don’t have a holiday movie to discuss. But you’re probably tired of seeing them on TV at this time of the year anyway.

Marlon Brando is the original rebel without a cause in this 1954 motorcycle gang film.  The actor plays the pack's leader, Johnny, who speaks few words in this movie, but conveys a great deal with his face and actions. He shows his cool with his detached manner, but shows his anger toward the "squares" who make up society, and in particular with the police. 


Although the movie seems dated now with its lingo and relative lack of violence, it does mirror the conflicts that were gestating during the 1950's between the established authority and the discontented youth. When the gang drives into town, they disrupt a motorcycle race sanctioned by the citizens. The same activity is either accepted or rejected depending on who is running the event. The bikers mock the race's organizers who want to tell them what they can't do. As they ride in, the youth of the town are shown to be excited as they watch the cool looking bikes. The faces of their elders reflect fear. The local bartender is an exception because he is willing to forget their anti-establishment ways if he can make a buck off of them by selling beer. 

Small actions or words illustrate the themes of the film. The slang and music show the lack of communication between the generations. When Johnny is given a glass for his beer, he ignores it, and drinks from the bottle. Somebody asks Johnny, "What are you rebelling against?" His total rejection of society is revealed when he responds, "What've you got?" Johnny is attracted to the police chief's daughter, Kathy. He asks her what happens in her town. She says that roses grow, people get married, and her father once promised to take her fishing, but it didn't happen. The banal life she is leading makes her attracted to the bad boy Johnny. He tells his friends that they will stay in the town for a while to "wait for crazy." He and his gang can only exist in chaos.

The bikers' rowdy behavior creates destruction at the bar and a hair salon. They are noisy and harass girls. Ironically, they are accused of crimes they do not commit. A double legal standard exists in the town. The citizens want Lee Marvin's rival biker to go to jail during a confrontation, but want the driver of a car who hits a biker to be set free.  Kathy's father keeps trying to smooth things over, taking the path of least resistance, and only arrests Marvin. The bikers exact justice by putting the civilian in jail, too. They take the place of the ineffective police. Then, the citizens go outside the law as vigilantes when the police don't crack down. They throw a tire iron at Johnny, who falls off his bike. The out-of-control bike (symbolizing the whole town at this point) kills one of its elderly citizens. Johnny is wrongly accused of killing the man, until a few fair citizens come to his rescue.

 When Kathy is harassed by the gang, Johnny rescues her, and rides her away into a park area, a kind of sanctuary far from the confrontations. He is a torn individual. He admits during a beating that his father hit him hard, so we get a glimpse of an abused childhood that may have set him on his path. He may reject society, yet he clings to a stolen motorcycle race trophy, showing his desire to be accepted by society. He rejects a biker girl in favor of the "square" Kathy, but he treats her roughly, despite her admitting her attraction to him and his life. She is a policeman's daughter, and he says "you think you're too good for me." She represents what he wants, acceptance, and what he despises, the authority of the "square" world.

Since they are from worlds at war, they cannot be together. But, Johnny finds some peace with the fact that he is justly set free and has found a person in Kathy from the other camp who understands him. Since he feels accepted for the moment at least, he no longer needs the trophy, gives it to Kathy, and shows his only smile in the film as he rides off.

Many actors feel that Brando was the ultimate actor. Do you agree with them?

Next week’s film is Midnight Cowboy.

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