Rebellion, sadism, delinquency and an ultra-cool Marlon Brando. These are just some of the terms associated with Laslo Benedek’s classic film The Wild One. Not only did this 1954 movie cement Brando’s role as a cultural icon, but it is also considered the original “motorcycle rebellion” film.
A landmark movie in general, The Wild One introduced audiences to the biker gang subculture, which they would have otherwise been unaware of. Simply put, The Wild One did for the biker genre what Rocky did for boxing. It’s just that important.
The Wild One was based on a short story titled The Cyclists’ Raid, written by Frank Rooney. Written in 1951, the story was originally published an issue of Harper’s Magazine. The tale was actually partly inspired by true events, which took place during a Fourth of July weekend in Hollister, California. Nicknamed the Hollister Riot, the event involved a group of motorcyclists who got a little too rowdy after a weekend of drinking and carousing (albeit not a riot).
As for the plot of The Wild One, the story revolves around two rival biker gangs that intimidate a small California town. Brando plays Johnny Strabler, leader of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, while Lee Marvin (Chino) portrays the head of a rival gang known as The Beetles. Chaos ensues, as these two biker gangs mix it up. Though not the most sophisticated storyline, it is highly effective.
Motorcycles In The Wild One
Aside from stirring performances from Brando and Marvin, the real stars of the film are the bikes. Brando rides a 1950 Triumph Thunderbird T6, which was actually his personal motorcycle at the time.
Unlike Brando’s gang, which rode Triumphs, Marvin’s crew opted for Harley-Davidsons. Despite riding a Harley in the film, Marvin owned a Triumph 200cc Tiger Cub in real life. Although he did not know how to ride prior to filming, Marvin successfully mastered it and even competed in desert races in the years following The Wild One.
It can be argued that without The Wild One, the biker exploitation genre wouldn’t have emerged until much later on, if at all. The film single handedly inspired both the character of Jim Stark, played by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Elvis Presley’s role as Vince Everett in Jailhouse Rock (1957).
The success of The Wild One even resulted in spikes in motorcycle sales and popularity. Triumph models similar to the one used by Brando would go on to be featured in 50s and 60s classic flicks like The Blob, On Any Sunday and The Great Escape, all of which starred biker enthusiast Steve McQueen, Rebel Without a Cause, Coogan’s Bluff (Clint Eastwood), and Stay Away Joe (Elvis Presley).
Aside from popularizing Triumphs, Brando’s brooding Johnny Strabler persona also revitalized the leather jacket industry, particularly the Schott brand. In the film, Brando dons a Schott Perfecto leather jacket, the same one that would later be worn by Dean both on and off screen. Even though the recognition of Schott went up, sales decreased because leather jackets were banned in schools across the country due to their connection with hoodlums and crime.
- American rock band, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is named after the famous gang portrayed in the film.
- In 2010, Triumph motorcycles introduced a clothing line inspired by Brando's image from The Wild One.
- The motorcycle jacket worn by Marlon Brando is a Schott Perfecto 618 customized with stars added to the epaulets.
- Brando’s sideburns in the film inspired both James Dean and Elvis Presley to adopt a similar look.
- Although it has never been officially acknowledged, the name of the iconic rock and roll band The Beatles was inspired by the name of the motorcycle gang led by Lee Marvin's character.
- Lee Marvin based his character on Willie "Wino Willy" Forkner, a legendary member of the Booze Fighters Motorcycle Club.
- The film was rejected by the British Board of Film Classification and banned due to fears that it would incite the youth to riot. The ban was not lifted until 1967 when it was released with an X Certificate, which labeled it as suitable forviewers aged 16 and older.
In case you are not convinced on the relevance of The Wild One, check it out for yourself. This must see movie deserves a spot atop even the most casual motorcycle enthusiast’s list.