By: Logan Arey, creator of Winding Expressions
What initially drew my attention to the film The Wild One? Well, it’s the same thing that
drew in most youth culture of the 1950’s; it was the style and the fashion. Marlon Brando dons on a black, leather biker-jacket and some classic Levi’s 501 jeans. Hollywood was integral in making jeans into the wardrobe staple they are today and The Wild One was a cornerstone for jeans’ popularity. But The Wild One is more than just a fashion statement; it is a confused, subconscious voice trying to be heard.
In the United States, the post-war 1950’s represented a change in American society. Capitalism, commercialism, and materialism were at a boom and the demands for an “American identity” were strong. Enter in the WASPs (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants). Unfortunately, WASPs were the dominate identity of the United States and they were trying their hardest to shape American culture into what they deemed best (that’s why it’s unfortunate). The WASPs had American culture by the balls. Television shows are a good example of this. Shows like Leave it to Beaver (1957-63) and Father Knows Best (1954-60) illustrate the “perfect” nuclear family: white, “good Christians,” and a patriarchal system (making sure women stay in the domestic sphere). TV shows were there to set an example of how to be an American.
During the post-war era, though, there was the counter-culture, such as the Beat Generation, that rebelled against these new values of capitalism and the supposed American identity. This is where films like The Wild One (1953) fit in the picture. The Wild One‘s screenplay is based off of Frank Rooney’s short story “The Cyclists’ Raid.” Rooney’s story is influenced by the events of the Hollister Riot, a motorcycle event that got out of hand in Hollister, CA. The media, such as Life Magazine, shed some bad light on the event and made a monstrosity out of it. This is an example of how the media did what they could to control American identity by ostracizing anyone or anything different to the culture they deemed fit. With this brief cultural backdrop let’s get into The Wild One.
Earlier I called The Wild One a confused, subconscious voice. The reason I call it that is
because the way the plot is structured, and the way the citizens of Wrightsville/the individuals of the motorcycle gangs act, the movie can be viewed as an allegory. Let’s start with the relationship between the town’s citizens and the motorcycle gangs. When the BRMC (Black Rebels Motorcycle Club) rolls into town there is a mixed reaction. Some of the citizens are awestruck or terrified while some are amused. It’s worth noting that the little boys look upon the motorcycle gang with admiration; the gang is an influence on the younger generation. This kind of reaction is similar to what was going on culturally in 1950’s America. As stated in the intro, those who stood apart from WASP identity were ostracized and labeled immoral, reckless, and a danger to society. The BRMC stands as this fear in the town of Wrightsville.
Aside from fear, though, we have characters who are open to the new visitors. One of these characters is Frank Bleeker, Kathie’s uncle. He owns the coffee shop/bar in Wrightsville. He is open to the BRMC because he will be able to cash out on them. When the gang is settled, he invites them in to have some cold beers. The thing with Frank is that his invitation to the gang isn’t genuine. It is motivated by a capitalistic drive. All he wants to do is cash out on them much like any corporation that markets towards youth culture – something we still see today. When the bar gets out of hand, Frank wants the gang to leave. At the end of the film, he and Art Kleiner almost withhold the information about Jimmy’s death, but they eventually cave in and Johnny isn’t charged with murder any more. Frank’s motives toward the gang are purely driven by money. He doesn’t care at all about the welfare or the voices of this youthful gang but only the money they’ll give him, and we see his lack of care when he almost withholds information toward Johnny.
One of the voices of reason in the film is seen through Harry Bleeker, the town’s only police chief. In the film he’s depicted and labeled as a coward because he won’t stand up to the gang and their antics. His daughter, Kathie (Frank’s niece), even says to Johnny that her father has no business being the police chief. It’s a job that he isn’t passionate about, but it’s a job. Even if Harry doesn’t make a convincing police chief there is still something being said in the movie. Harry stands on neutral ground. He doesn’t see the gang as a threat and he’s aware of how dysfunctional the town is. This is seen when Art Kleiner swerves his car to miss one of the cyclists (who are racing at the time of the accident). Whether or not Art’s argument is legitimate (swerving to miss the cyclist thus causing his accident) Harry notes that Art’s driving record isn’t impeccable and the town knows it, but the citizens will side with Art because he isn’t the outsider. They are willing to stick up for someone who fits their mold, even if that person is at fault. Everyone is upset when Harry does nothing, but with the evidence presented to him (and with Art and his car being just fine) he can’t make that judgement. Harry is the guy that gives the motorcyclists a chance. He doesn’t dismiss them. He is like the individual who is open for change because he knows the current system is a sham. The only fault Harry has (and not because it’s his decision) is that he succumbs to societal pressure. This will be referenced later on.
On the other side of the spectrum is Charlie Thomas. He represents the individual who wants to enforce WASP identity. We see this after Art wrecks his car and the gang “resolves” it, Art says to Harry, “you let something like this go by then anything goes!” And Charlie responds, “That’s right. Go ahead and make a complaint Art.” Charlie is, of course, interested in suppressing any actions of the bikers and will hold them responsible for anything that goes wrong. He also seems to hold a prominent role in Wrightsville. We see this when Harry attempts to arrest Charlie and Chino at the same time, but the townspeople remind Harry that his job could be in jeopardy if he arrests Charlie. The societal powers of Wrightsville make it clear how they think; you can persecute an outsider but you can’t do the same to an insider. So Charlie can dodge the law because he’s a perfect mold for this society. He also forms a militia to forcefully take back the town after he knows he can’t persuade Harry “to do his job.” Charlie wants to make sure the town isn’t threatened by outsiders and he’s willing to make any precaution to do so. Even if it means ruffing up Johnny.
The biker gangs, of course, represent the counter-culture of America. The best way to sum it up is when the lady at the bar asks Johnny what he’s rebelling against and Johnny responds by saying, “Whatta you got?” In a cultural context, the bikers are rebelling against the norm of everyday life. They can see through this societal facade and try to exploit it as best as they can. Unfortunately, rebellion becomes the only identity the bikers have and things get out of hand. The gangs start thrashing Frank’s bar and they harass any woman in sight. Even Johnny sees this and he rescues Kathie from his gawking comrades. Johnny is persistent in getting everyone to leave because he sees how they are getting out of hand.
The relationship between the motorcycle gangs and Charlie’s militia is intriguing because they feed into one another and create a vicious-cycle. The two sides keep giving the other ammunition. Charlie sees it just to use the same riotous behavior that the gangs use because the gangs’ rebellion has gotten out of hand. To sum up the gangs’ rebellious attitude the Sheriff puts it in the best way possible. He says, “I don’t get you. I don’t get your act at all and I don’t think you do either. I don’t think you know what you’re trying to do or how to go about it… but a man’s dead on account of something you let get started even though you didn’t start it.” This statement showcases how mindless rebellion gets in the way of itself. It doesn’t make a statement and it only feeds the opposition with more legitimate reasons to combat it. I am not, however, associating the BRMC or The Beetles to the Beat Generation. I’m only associating the motorcycle gangs to groups with purposeless antics. This is something I’ll get back to because Charlie’s militia, too, only fuels the fire. I will end this thought by saying that both sides have legitimate claims in combating each other because they keep giving each other more legitimacy to fight. If only the could see the irony of their actions.
The last character I want to analyze is Kathie because she is the voice of reason. In this allegory she is the author’s intent. Kathie feels uneasy around Johnny and the rest of the gang, but you get the sense she likes having them in Wrightsville. When Johnny is first talking to her in the cafe, she states that she saw their motorcycles pass through town, and in a low, solemn tone she says, “but they didn’t stop.” You can see a disappointment in Kathie’s face when she says the line. Kathie seems to be indifferent to the town she lives in and appears to be open for any change to Wrightsville. She’s the perfect onlooker when Johnny and Chino fight each other. There’s no participation in the fight, but she stands to the side and looks on like she’s studying the motorcyclists behavior and analyzing a new culture.
When Harry is arresting Chino, Johnny steps in and asks why “Frog Face” (Charlie) isn’t getting arrested. The scene is interesting because Harry makes a deal to Johnny: if Johnny takes his gang and leaves, he’ll let Chino and his gang leave too. If this deal was done, it would mean the town of Wrightsville wins. The status-quo would be institutionalized and any threat to their happy community would be gone. Johnny doesn’t make the deal, of course, because he won’t give into the demands of authority. Kathie witnesses all of this and turns her back on the scene. It isn’t clear why Kathie is disgusted, but I believe she is because of how the situation turned out. Charlie wasn’t arrested and her dad tried to make a deal to bring back the status-quo because he had to in order to keep his job.
I get the sense that Kathie is unhappy because of Wrightsville, the town she grew up in. When she and Johnny are in the grove of trees together, Kathie says to Johnny, “I wish I was going some place. I wish you were going some place. We could go together.” Kathie feels trapped in her one-dimensional community, her narrow-minded environment but she also sees that Johnny’s rebellious nature is purposeless – it leads nowhere and is about nothing; it’s just destructive. She is stuck in the middle with reason and she sees this vicious-cycle. This sense of getting out is uttered again to the sheriff. When Frank tells the sheriff that she was running away from Johnny, Kathie exclaims, “I wasn’t trying to get away from him. I was trying to get away.” And she breaks down crying because she’s stressed from all the absurd events surrounding her. Kathie stands the middle ground. She knows something needs to change, but she witnesses the polar opposite. The film ends with this ambiguity because in the sense of this allegory, nothing resolves. What we get is a genuine smile to Kathie from Johnny before he leaves and Kathie reciprocates. We at least get hope.
This is the allegory in a nutshell. This, of course, could be expanded on a lot more, but the purpose of this was to be an informative blog post and not a full article.
To me, The Wild One illustrates well a culture at odds with itself. As an audience we can see the different perspectives this allegory offers, but we can’t seem to do it within our own culture. Everything I’ve outlined in this essay is as relevant today as it was in 1953. Trump is president. There is a vicious-cycle between the left and the right; they are both feeding into each other’s ideals much like the motorcycle gangs and the citizens of Wrightsville; there is a fight in what it means to be American, or how to make America “great” again. If the allegory can offer us anything, it is to be sound, just, and reasonable. But, unfortunately, our state-of-affairs is like the ending of The Wild One. Nothing is getting resolved and the cycle (pun intended) keeps spinning. But we do always have hope, I suppose. The least we can do is smile at one another.