The Wild One

The Wild One (1953 USA 79 mins)

Prod Co: Stanley Kramer Productions/Columbia Pictures Prod: Stanley Kramer Dir: László Benedek Scr: John Paxton, based on the novel The Cyclists’ Raid by Frank Rooney Phot: Hal Mohr Ed: Al Clark Art Dir: Walter Holscher Mus: Leith Stevens

Cast: Marlon Brando, Mary Murphy, Robert Keith, Lee Marvin, Jay C. Flippen, Peggy Maley

I’m just a man
Not even a great one
I’m too vain for greatness

– “Saturday Night”, The Thrills

I’ve always been attracted to things that have an element of risk. And cycling is a beautiful feeling; you and the bike become a single unit. You ride with other people, but they’re all doing it alone. The sound of the pipes obliterates the sound of the world around you

– Lee Marvin (1)

Lee Marvin is in The Wild One for less than ten minutes. The film – like The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953), The Raid (Hugo Fregonese, 1954) and Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955) – belongs to that early part of his career playing what Richard Warren Lewis called “belligerent bull[ies]” (2). Such villainous roles must be differentiated from one-dimensional thugs such as those repeated by a pre-Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955) Ernest Borgnine. Marvin’s bad guys are capable of shocking, sadistic violence – most notoriously Vince Stone’s scalding of Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) with boiling coffee in The Big Heat; but this violence is rooted in interesting psychological traits, for example cowardice, neurosis, boredom, fatigue, insecure homosociability or ambition. These traits are often masked by hyper-stylised performances of more positive ones – control, charm, intelligence, respectability, an unnerving articulacy (what Brynn White calls “a singular mode of elocution […] laden with punctuation in all the right-wrong spots” [3]); it’s the flaws slashing through the masks that generate the violence.

His Chino in The Wild One is different in conception, and not really a villain at all. His role-playing balance between comedy and brutality looks forward to Marvin’s breakthrough dual role in Cat Ballou (Elliot Silverstein, 1965). Chino functions primarily as the most outrageous of the masculine models anti-hero Johnny (Marlon Brando) must confront and reject in The Wild One. He is tall, thin and mercurial as a boxer, where Johnny is stocky and deliberate; dressed as a kind of hairy, vagabond beatnik, where clean-shaven Johnny is encased in the leather armour of his cohorts; comfortable with women as fellow bikers where Johnny’s outfit is exclusively male; abrasive, mockingly verbal and jumping in and out of roles, where Johnny is silent (an ex-girlfriend cries “Can’t ya say something?!”) or incoherent, scrambling to maintain what he thinks is his identity; always trying to move centre stage, to provoke action, where Johnny watches, acting only when pushed by perceived injustice, condescension or hypocrisy. In Shakespearean terms Chino is a boisterous, younger Falstaff; Johnny is Prince Hal, biding his time with disreputable inferiors until he can “break […] through the foule and vgly mists of vapours that did seem to strangle him” (4).

This story of two biker gangs who wreak havoc on a small Californian town was once considered such a threat to the status quo that it was banned or severely cut in many countries (5). For a long time, though, it has been fashionable to dismiss The Wild One as “slightly dated, tame and quaint” (6). But like most of Brando’s films up until The Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn, 1976), it is essential viewing, though not because of any excellence in story, script or direction.

Brando was the male Greta Garbo. There were superficial similarities between the two stars – their reclusive unwillingness to play the Hollywood game; the symbolic, iconic status popular culture has given their acting; the overall mediocrity of their filmographies. But both needed bad films so nothing could distract from their acting. In the early phases of each career, both were acclaimed for the new emotional realism and defiant androgyny they brought to their roles, and that was often compared to the staid professionalism of their contemporaries. That very originality would itself soon be dismissed as mannerism. Both opinions miss the point. Both Garbo and Brando were the auteurs of their films, dramatising their own mise en scène. Both created space for themselves, adapting the rhythms of a given film to their private music. Look at the scene in The Wild One where Johnny first enters Bleeker’s café; escaping a hubbub of fast motorcycling, cars crashing, mob fighting and shouting, Brando decelerates the mood, insolent and sportive, his eyes at once evasive and penetrating. He thinks and feels through his physical movements, which get slower and heavier until the moment where he slouches on a bar stool and ponderously places his hand palm down on the counter.

It is at this point we realise that the film’s ostensible purpose as a social picture examining “moral responsibility” (7) will be subverted. The Wild One was produced by Stanley Kramer, the worthy figure behind issue-driven films such as The Men (Fred Zinnemann, 1950, with Brando in his first screen role) about post-war paraplegics, Judgement at Nuremberg (Kramer, 1961) about Nazi war criminals, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (Kramer, 1967) about racism. The clash between the film’s social agenda and Brando’s idiosyncracy results in a fascinating schizophrenia, a doubleness marked from the start by the contrast between the Production Code-demanded opening titles (“This is a shocking story…. It is a public challenge not to let it happen again”) (8) and Johnny’s monologue, a confused attempt to summarise the narrative to come.

This clash motivates the script’s convincing narrative volte-face, where a study of one form of fascism – the uniformed army who disrupt a town with intimidation and violence – becomes that of another, more sinister form, where local leaders bypass the law when their authority, status and privileges are threatened, and resort to mob rule to eliminate the outsider. Scenes of near-lynching – with a sequence of Johnny being tortured continuing the strain of exhibitionist masochism in Brando’s work – remind us that The Wild One is a transposed Western: a band of black-clad outlaws descends on a dusty one-street town with a “saloon”; a weak lawman is unable to prevent a prisoner being sprung from jail; the bikers-as-Red-Indians circle a young virgin; one of the boys even wears a Davy Crockett-like hat.

Like the great Westerns of the 1950s by Budd Boetticher, John Ford and Anthony Mann, The Wild One shows a genre – and a nation – that has turned in on itself, with violence that was previously spent on easily recognisable, external enemies, forced to implode. The wordless finale, where Johnny finally gives a stolen trophy to Kathie (Mary Murphy), might be seen as his ultimate gesture of conformity, coming as it does after a policeman’s (Jay C. Flippen) lecture which seems to be intended as the film’s “moral”; but it could also be read as a gesture of youthful complicity, with Johnny and Kathie bypassing inadequate adults and forming a pact, much as the teenagers in Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) do, a superior film The Wild One made possible.

Endnotes

  1. Richard Warren Lewis, “Playboy Interview: Lee Marvin”, Playboy January 1969, p. 64.
  2. Lewis, p. 59.
  3. Brynn White, “Ballad of a Soldier”, Film Comment vol. 43, no. 3, May-June 2007.
  4. William Shakespeare, The Shakespeare Folios: Henry IV, part one, Nick Hem, London, 2004, p. 21.
  5. For more on the domestic and international reception of The Wild One, see Daniel Biltereyst, “American Juvenile Delinquency Movies and the European Censors: The Cross-Cultural Reception and Censorship of The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause”, Youth Culture in Global Cinema, ed. Timothy Shary and Alexandra Seibel, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2007, pp. 9-26.
  6. Tim Dirks, “Greatest Films: The Wild One”, Filmsite.
  7. Karen Lund, “Candidates for the National Film Registry: The Wild One and Gimme Shelter”, The Library of Congress.
  8. Biltereyst, p. 13.