Summary: The ‘Popcorn Movie’ of The 50s: Every Viewer Will Love Something Or The Other in The Movie. This is The Reason It Has Become A Part of Pop Culture
The most suitable way to describe ‘The Wild One‘ is that it is the “popcorn movie of the 50s”. This is one of those films which you can watch repeatedly and be entertained each and every time. It has characters and dialogs worthy and memorable enough of becoming a part of pop culture, and so even after many years of the film’s release, I think people must’ve said ‘Hey look, they’re showing The Wild One! You remember Johnny… and Kathy?’ whenever the movie was shown on television. You can attribute the adjective ‘cool’ to ‘The Wild One’, which is surprising because there aren’t many old films a person today would term ‘cool’.
The film is also important because it is a manifestation of the changing carefree rebellious and reckless attitudes of the young generation in the 50s, and so some of the modern viewers might be taken aback watching some of the scenes (such as one in which a biker kids around with the barman by talking in a beatnik accent) in an old black and white film like this. Although very mild in comparison to many of the films of this age, for a 50s movie, The Wild One is pretty bad-ass.
When ‘The Wild One’ begins, we see a cautionary message of the controversial event we are about to witness. There was frankly no need for any such message, and the film could have started with Brando’s narration directly as the presence of an explicitly stated warning makes ‘The Wild One’ seem for a moment like the ridiculous Ed Wood film ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space‘ (the laughably bad opening sequence in Plan 9 has a man warning us about the event we are about to witness). There are chances the censor board in those days compelled the director Laslo Benedik to include this ‘do not try this at home’ like warning so as to forestall any imitation of the acts seen in the movie.
After the message disappears, we see many bikes driving down the highway roads, as a bunch of outlaw bikers led by Johnny (played by Brando) make their way to a motorcycle race and steal the second prize trophy. The group is perennially at loggerheads with the authority and find themselves just drifting from one place to another without any sense of direction. When they enter a small town called Wrightsville, the bikers decide to explore and exploit the town facilities by creating a ruckus and disturbing peace. The small town Chief Harry Bleaker (played by Robert Keith) is ineffective in controlling the situation of the bikers, and there is growing agitation amongst some of the townsmen who cannot stand the presence of the unruly bikers. There is a romantic angle that blooms between Johnny and Harry’s beautiful demure daughter Kathie (played by Mary Murphy).
The Wild One proves that when you have actors of superior caliber and a well intentioned script, you can make a seemingly light-weight subject matter seem important, as if you are there to make a point. The 80s too had films with similar themes but many faltered in their execution, and so we don’t talk much about such films very seriously today, labeling them ‘cheesy’. The themes explored in The Wild One is not that light- weight actually, and I was quite impressed with the social commentary I could perceive in the movie – we see how direction-less the young rebels were, hanging together without understanding about each other and priding themselves in wrongfully obtaining things they didn’t really earn; we also hear about the ambitions of the small-town women, their secret urge to escape but reluctance in leaving.
Laslo Benedik allows us to listen to the different groups and their attitudes towards a particular event; for example, when Johnny and rival biker group leader Chino come to blows, the camera cuts to different groups which includes a) Kathie who is concerned about Johnny b) townsmen who condemn the bikers c) elder Jimmy who comments slightingly about outlaw life and d) the bikers themselves who cheer and incite their fighting leaders. Hence the film in no way glorifies any of the violence or behavior of the bikers, but it only makes an attempt to understand (and make us understand) their lifestyle.
Marlon Brando shows why the technique of method has such relevance in cinema and theater – method when done rigorously and meticulously gives a performance that settles perfectly with the rest of the picture. We hence watch a performance, however strong, becoming a part of the film rather than forming a separate identity. The latter happens with actors like Meryl Streep whose performances are movies in themselves, and so we experience two movies running simultaneously, one being the film itself and the second being the creation of Streep’s character’s life. Before I get bashed, let me clarify that I am equally excited about Streep films and the statement is just to point out how different acting approaches can create different experiences. What Brando does is he injects the persona of the character he is playing in him and then works out his role, and so we always get a variety of memorable characters from him, whether it is Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, or Don Corleone in The Godfather Part 1, or Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront. Mary Murphy plays Johnny’s girl, and she is both beautiful and expressive.
One ends up loving something about The Wild One, whether it is Brando’s Johnny and his characteristics or mannerisms or wardrobe (loved how he wore that cap), or the biker’s attire (jacket and jeans), or the action or the love story. But there isn’t one thing to really hate about the film. This is perhaps why the film had become a big part of pop culture and is still seen as one of Brando’s most known movies.