wild one

The Wild One

The Wild One is a 1953 outlaw biker film directed by László Benedek. It is remembered for Marlon Brando's portrayal of the gang leader Johnny Strabler as a young biker, dressed in a leather jacket and riding a 1950 Triumph Thunderbird 6T. Acting opposite Brando was Lee Marvin as a rival gang leader. This low-budget production had Brando playing a "rebel without a cause" two years before James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).


The Wild One was based on a short story, The Cyclists' Raid by Frank Rooney, in the January 1951 issue of Harper's Magazine. The story was later published in book form as part of The Best American Short Stories 1952. The story took a cue from an actual biker street party on the Fourth of July weekend in 1947 in Hollister, California that was elaborately trumped up in Life Magazine, and dubbed the Hollister riot, with staged photographs of wild motorcycle outlaw revelers. The Hollister event is now celebrated annually. In the film, the town is located somewhere in California.

For the most part, the bikers in the film are just generally rowdy in pursuit of a good time, and don't radiate the sinister menace seen in later biker movies based on the Hells Angels, some of whom actually appeared in those films. Indeed, a group of local vigilantes (led by a businessman) who try to take on the bikers are noticeably more unsympathetic (using their influence to obtain lenient treatment from law enforcement, brutally beating up Brando, and finally causing a collision in which a resident is killed and for which Brando is blamed). San Francisco Hell's Angels chapter president Frank Sadilek bought the striped shirt that Lee Marvin wore in the movie, and wore it when meeting police officials.

Trying with little success to keep things under control is the local Sheriff played by Robert Keith. He and Brando were to face each other again on opposite sides of the law in the comedy musical Guys and Dolls.


The film starts by showing the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, a group of young and boisterous bikers led by Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando), that invade the small town of Carobonville during a motorcycle race. The gang crash the race, arrogantly walking across the road that served as a racetrack. A member of gang steals the 2nd place trophy (the 1st place trophy was too big to hide) and presents it to Johnny. Throughout the film, this trophy becomes a symbol of Johnny's status and self respect - it is something that was not "won" through typical means (winning the race) as much as it was something that was "won" due to Johnny's position of authority within the gang. Countless times throughout the film, Johnny is asked whether he "won" the trophy. He does not readily reply, thereby indicating his character's internal tension. Signified by the trophy, Johnny's leadership is akin to the character he plays: he is all performance and show, there is little that he actually does: "I don't stop anything" he says. Such performances create an inner tension for Johnny. Johnny's internal tension makes him an archetypal postmodern anti-hero that reluctantly struggles with his ostensible role of leadership, a role that is as vacuous as his morality, and as aimless as his life.

As the bikers stop at a small cafe, Johnny encounters Kathie Bleeker, (Mary Murphy) the local policeman's daughter. Johnny tries to impress Kathie by bragging that he has won the stolen trophy. Attempting to court her in a traditional way that he does not understand, he asks her out to a dance that is being held that night. Kathy refuses. However she is visibly intrigued by Johnny's dark, brooding personality. As the gang causes more trouble, the local residents complain to Harry Bleeker (Robert Keith) who tries to confront Johnny and his gang and force them to leave. Johnny considers leaving when a rival biker gang arrives. The leader of the gang is Chino, (Lee Marvin) who has a personal hatred towards Johnny, even though Chino wants to reconcile. It is revealed that Johnny and Chino used to be a part of one large gang before Johnny broke away to start his own. The two begin to fight each other and Johnny defeats Chino. When one of the town's residents hits a parked motorcycle while trying to leave, Chino pulls him from the car to rough him up and his gang threatens to overturn the car. Harry intervenes and begins to arrest both Chino and the resident, but, when Harry realizes arresting the resident will cause problems for him in the future, he only takes Chino to the station. Johnny then returns to the cafe and asks Kathie out but she again refuses, partly due to the fact that she has discovered that Johnny had stolen the trophy he claimed to have won in a race; Johnny is shown to have feet of clay. Later that night, Chino's gang abducts the resident and put him in the jail cell, intending to release Chino, but he is too drunk to leave. When the resident is later released by the local vigilantes, Chino escapes as well. Later on, Chino's gang chases and surrounds Kathy only to be rescued by Johnny. After Johnny and Kathy part, the vigilantes catch Johnny and beat him mercilessly but he escapes when the mob is confronted by Harry. Johnny flees on his motorcycle, however, while being chased by the mob he is hit by a thrown tire iron and his cycle strikes and kills an elderly onlooker. Johnny is initially arrested and will be charged for manslaughter, but is released after Mary and another witness corroborates Johnny's version of the story; Johnny mutely declines to thank them for their help. Before he leaves town, Johnny returns to the cafe to say goodbye to Kathie one final time. He does this by offering her the trophy and smiling (the only time that he smiles throughout the entire film).

Banned in the UK

Deemed scandalous and dangerous, the film was banned by the British Board of Film Censors from showing in the United Kingdom for fourteen years. Its first UK public showing was at the 59 Club in Paddington, London in 1968, to a mostly Rocker audience.

Primary cast

In popular culture

The Beatles took their name from the motorcycle club led by Lee Marvin, the Beetles, as referred to in the Beatles Anthology.

The rock group Black Rebel Motorcycle Club got its name from the name of Brando's motorcycle gang, although in the film, the gang is referred to as "Black Rebels Motorcycle Club".

Just as Brando's character in A Streetcar Named Desire caused a national craze of men wearing T shirts, "The Wild One" greatly boosted sales of black leather motorcycle jackets, jeans, white caps, and sun glasses.

In Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, as Anthony is pulled over by the police in the episode "Mexico/US Border", he turns to the camera and says, "What are you rebelling against? What've you got?"

When Shia LaBeouf's character, Mutt Williams, first appears in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, he's wearing the same biker gear Johnny Strabler wears, right down to the tilted cap.

In a Bloom County episode Cutter John, a wheelchair-bound Vietnam War veteran, asks his girlfriend Bobbi whether she had seen last nights late movie, an old 50's classic with Marlon Brando playing "the leader of this outlaw wheelchair gang that rides into this sleepy midwestern town and terrorizes all the citizenry". Bobbi doesn't seem to be interested, so he adds: "It's called The Wheeled One."

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