The Wild One Review
While certainly influential, The Wild One is among a handful or more of "classic" films which aren't particularly good in a traditional sense yet have seeped into popular culture to the point where they're recognised and have some level of name value to even casual fans of cinema. Often such movies had a cultural impact upon release which has faded with time, and the normal evolution of moviemaking has dulled what once might have seemed novel. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is another that comes to mind. The Jazz Singer, even. Maybe Easy Rider.
Those who more or less subscribe to the auteur theory can puff our their chests in this instance. Fresh off the film adaptation of Death of a Salesman, László Benedek directed The Wild One and subsequently had a most undistinguished career - at best highlighted by the 1957 noir Affair in Havana and decades of episodic television. Meanwhile, Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause followed in 1954, a year after The Wild One, and touched a similar nerve yet remains incontrovertibly iconic (though not without its detractors). The latter picture is a classic made by a great director. By contrast, The Wild One is an 80-minute music video without the music.
One wholly unique element the film, produced and shepherded by Stanley Kramer, has going for it is the presence of Marlon Brando, playing motorcycle gang leader Johnny. This was after A Streetcar Named Desire and Viva Zapata! and prior to On the Waterfront, meaning that Brando was already a star and in the midst of perhaps the most magnetic, sustained period in his career. Those watching the movie now who have little interest in motorcycle gang culture will probably do so because of Brando, and that's a fair reduction to make. From the early shots of the actor in a leather jacket, sunglasses and biker cap riding his motorcycle with the aid of rear projection onward, he's what dominates the viewer's attention. There's so little plot of note - with a screenplay credited to John Paxton and deriving from a magazine story based on real events - that atmosphere has to dominate in order to keep any sort of interest.
Ostensibly, the narrative is about a biker gang - called the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club and abbreviated B.R.M.C. like the alternative rock band of the same name - who descends upon a smallish California town and wreaks havoc. The nuance comes in the form of Brando's Johnny, the leader, who's shown to be something of a lost soul and a quick romantic when it comes to bar girl Kathie (Mary Murphy), the daughter of the local sheriff. The subplot involving sensitive Johnny and his interest in Kathie feels very much Brando-influenced, not dissimilar to what he'd come up with in One-Eyed Jacks almost a decade later. He's an often cold, brooding figure who fully retains his masculinity.
The motorcycle subculture that this film explores and glorifies makes it a landmark entry of its ilk. The booklet essay talks about this a bit, but even something like Kenneth Anger's "Scorpio Rising" seems deeply indebted to The Wild One. The rebellious youth image the film conveys further endears it to the same generation that embraced James Dean and, to some extent, Jack Kerouac et al. Even so, it's a case of style over substance. The good news is that the 80 minutes or so tick off rather quickly. We're also treated to a dynamic supporting performance from Lee Marvin as Chino, leader of another biker gang called The Beetles (which may or may not have inspired Lennon and McCartney). "Storm the Bastille," indeed.
Marvin's part feels too short and so we have to focus elsewhere, like on the lynch mob mentality shown by the locals once the bikers overstay their welcome. Even as an imperfect picture, The Wild One still manages to give its audience something to consider once the townsfolk take justice into their own hands and attempt to hold Brando's Johnny accountable. The entire third act abandons the cool and sensitivity of the earlier portions and makes for a scary bit of conflict. The film's most notable exchange comes earlier when Johnny's asked what he's rebelling against and he quickly replies with "whaddya got?" but without any real sense of conviction. It's almost like rebellion for rebellion's sake, and that proves to not really fly by film's end. There's already a loss of innocence here. If the allure of the freedom that comes with the open road dominates the ideals of the film, the reality of its dangers fights back. A decade and a half later Easy Rider would come along to prove that the more things changed the more they stayed the same.
Powerhouse's Indicator series continues to mine the Sony vaults with its region-free Dual Format release of The Wild One. The limited edition is set at 3,000 copies. It joins a previously issued barebones iteration in the U.S. from Mill Creek.
Presented in its original Academy ratio of 1.33:1, the film looks excellent and exhibits pleasing depth and clarity. There's no damage in this high definition remaster. Grain is present but never overbearing. Black and white contrast remains consistent and impressive throughout the viewing. Indicator use the original English mono here, opting for a linear PCM track. The roars of the motorcycle engines and the jazz on the juke box sound equally inviting. Optional subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired.
The supplemental materials included by Indicator easily make this the definitive edition of the film to date (contrasting especially with the extras-free Mill Creek release).
Audio commentary by film historian and author Jeanine Basinger - researched and patient, this adds some context to the film and its impact
"The Wild One and the BBFC" (25:11) - a new interview with Richard Falcon about the film's battle with the British film classification board upon release, in which it was refused even an "X" certificate
"Karen Kramer Introduction" (1:22) - widow of producer Stanley Kramer briefly sets up the film
"Hollister, California" (27:49) - made for an earlier DVD release from 2007, this featurette looks at the town where the events which inspired The Wild One first occurred
"Brando: An Icon Is Born" (18:38) - also from those 2007 Sony extras, this piece on the actor features interviewees like Dennis Hopper and Taylor Hackford (who really seems enthusiastic about the film) waxing admiringly on Brando's influence
"Super 8 Version" (20:00) - the movie gets reduced to a quarter of its running time with this early home edition edit featuring a voiceover to explain the excised action
"Theatrical Trailer" (1:37)
"Image Gallery" - 29 images consisting of stills, publicity shots and a few posters, including a neat image of Stanley Kramer, Marlon Brando and his sister Jocelyn who was filming The Big Heat for Columbia at the time
Booklet - 40 pages' worth of writing includes a new essay by Kat Ellinger on the film and the motorcycle culture it portrays, a piece briefly exploring Leslie Halliwell's relationship with the movie, and an essay by director László Benedek from 1955 explaining why he made the picture. Excerpted reviews are also included to show the variety of critical response upon the film's release. Stills and credits round out the insert.