The Wild One Review

It is hard nowadays to appreciate just how exciting the arrival of Marlon Brando onto cinema screens was in the early 1950s. Separated by half a century’s cultural descent into ever-more insouciant attitudes on display in general society the raw impact and shock value of his first few roles is diminished now, called to mind only in a historical context which has little to do with the adrenaline rush that (mostly young) audiences felt at the time (of course, the knowledge of the sad corpulent figure he was to become doesn’t help either). His magnetism on screen is still there to behold in all its glory, but the element of daring is quite gone. This is illustrated particularly clearly in The Wild One, his 1953 film which sparked outrage in its day (indeed, it was effectively banned in Britain until 1968) but which to modern eyes now looks both a little tame and, dare one say it, childish?

Brando is Johnny Strabler, the leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, a group of about forty youths who ride around invading local towns in the mid-west to cause trouble, pose in their leather pants and thumb their noses at small-town America while chattering away in modern jive talk before riding off to their next destination, wherever that may be. In one such town a member of their group has an accident which causes them to hang around while the local doctor treats him. Johnny strikes up a flirtation with local girl Kathie (Mary Murphy) but events start to spiral out of control when a rival gang, led by Chino (Lee Marvin), someone Johnny has a chequered past with, rides into town too, creating inevitable conflict, one in which swiftly catches the town itself in the crossfire.

Middle America found itself at a crossroads in the 1950s as the rebellion of youth finally coalesced from individuals straining at the leash into a coherent culture of its very own. The Wild One was one of the vanguard of this new culture, a wake-up call that embodied the dissatisfaction with the status quo that the first post-war generation was feeling. The problem was, although they knew they wanted to reject the old fashioned ideals that their parents embodied, they weren’t exactly sure what they should replace these values with – the film’s most famous exchange: “What are you rebelling against?” “What you got?” illustrating this. The result was a lot of restless energy being expended in doing not very much of anything, symbolised in this picture by the BRMC.

This aimless and, at times, impotent frustration at not knowing exactly what their purpose in life is both strangely pathetic and, at times, rather unattractive. The gang spend their days roaming from one small town to another, riding in and causing whatever trouble amuses them the most before running off again, regardless of the consequences of what they leave behind. This irresponsibility and casual callousness is no different from the modern lout, and while much of their vulgar cheekiness, their banter and thumbing their noses at authority, is amusing, their general modus operandi, or lack of, is not.

The film, then, was both an illustration and warning about this gradually growing subsection of society. It is embodied in the character of Johnny, an ideal role for Brando who, with his smouldering, barely contained energy and tension, is the perfect embodiment of this cool cat with no aim. As a wake-up call to both him and the generation he represents, the film works ideally – it is only when he is forced to accept the consequences of his actions for the first time, following the death of the old man, that he realises that there might be more to life than just satisfying every whim, instantly gratifying his every desire – whether it be for an attractive looking trophy or the latest girl to take his eye (in the film’s eye, the same thing) – without any consideration of what tomorrow may bring. His life is ultimately hollow – taking something without having to work at it leads to emptiness and a realisation that it is not so much the thing, but the relationship you have built up with it, that is important. Rebellion is one thing, but rebellion with no aim is pointless.

This isn’t to say that the old-fashioned ideals get off lightly either. The film is as critical of small-town hypocrisy as it is of those trying to fight against it. The town’s leading men are painted in just as unattractive a light as the BRMC, and in many ways worse – at least the Club ultimately don’t really know what they’re doing, aren’t able to analyse properly what they are about, whereas the town elders shown in this picture are fully self-aware. They claim to hold in high esteem the order of settled life but patronise the local sheriff, allowing him to command in name only, while deciding to mete out any real justice themselves with their fists. In a way, they are as responsible for the death of the barkeep as the gang themselves, but they will never admit it, too set in their ways and right-wing in their views to allow acceptance of guilt to seep in. Their rigidity is the very reason the Black Rebels and their like have come into existence. Surely, the film asks, a compromise can be reached?

This finger-wagging element to the film does feel a bit too judgemental at times, if not outright preachy. Things are very black and white, and there’s no complexity to characters on either side – this is a social commentary painted with broad strokes rather than finesse, and its use of stereotypes gives it an almost cartoonish feel. As such, it is both a little one-sided and, Brando aside, not entirely satisfying. (Two decades later George Lucas would cover the same ground with American Graffiti in a much more rounded, and admittedly more affectionate, way.) This is evidenced by the fact that, Johnny’s desire Kathie aside, there are no really sympathetic characters to be found – her father as the sheriff is too weak to inspire audience affection while the character of Johnny, with whom the audience can feel on an intellectual level, isn’t rounded enough to really emphasise with.

Murphy does a decent job of holding her own both with the character of Johnny and the charisma of Brando, the scene of them sparring in the park being the most notable example. Of the other performers, it is of course Brando who stands out – although this isn’t his most intense performance of this period (and, indeed, a couple of times there’s almost a sense of autopilot about him) the sheer power of his star is enough to carry the film single-handedly. Of the secondary performances, William Vedder as the fated Jimmy is good value and it’s easy to see why he is the one member of the older generation who seems to inspire an affection from the gang, while Lee Marvin makes the most of his small but significant part.

The screenplay, by John Paxton (based on a novel by Frank Rooney, is economical but does a good job, mirrored by Laszlo Benedek’s effective, unshowy direction. Although it’s dated insofar as what was considered daring then now just seems petulant and childish, The Wild One still works as both a social record of a turning point in American culture and, just, as a narrative in its own right. Its brief running time means it doesn’t overstay its welcome with its simple story, and with Brando at the height of his youthful powers at the centre, there is always something interesting to watch on the screen. Not one of Brando’s greatest pictures, then, but definitely in the higher tier of the second league.

The Disk
The film is presented on a single dual-layered disk. The film is presented in its original 4:3 ratio, and is subtitled but, like the On the Waterfront disk, the extras (or extra in this case) is only subtitled for languages other than English. The menu is a static mock up of a theatre lobby card for the film.

Pretty nice. There is some flicker and grain through most of the film, but the image is quite sharp most of the time and there are no obvious signs of digital artefacting. Good.

A standard transfer of an aged track, complete with a slightly muffled tone. There’s no major problem with it but you can never forget you’re watching a film over fifty years old.


US Theatrical Trailer
A fine trailer that does a good job in selling the film.

Photo Gallery
Calling this a gallery is a bit misleading, as there are only five, not especially interesting pictures included. I’d say it was a waste of disk space, but I don’t imagine it took up that much, so I'll just say it's a waste of time instead.

A page each is given to selected highlights from Brando, Murphy and Marvin’s careers. Listed in anti-chronological order, these again aren’t very useful as more than a momentary reminder, should one wish to recall the name of a film and only have the DVD to hand.

An enjoyable film gets shafted on the DVD presentation, with no extras of any quality at all. Worth getting for the film, but surely a bit more effort could have been put into this disk?

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out of 10

Last updated: 24/06/2018 12:45:06

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