Acting as antecedent to the lurid motorcycle cinema of the 1960s, The Wild One constructed a template for its forthcoming homages, particularizing the parlance, fashion and customs of the “one percenter,” fostering conflict from a delicate balance between allegiance and anarchy. Its throng of acolytes were hip to the chaos and street slang, revelling in willful criminality and broad characterization at the expense of ambience and authenticity, furnishing product that exploited the outlaw lifestyle without interpreting its desire for detachment. Through Johnny Strabler, Marlon Brando imparted a vulnerability and coy sexuality that evaded his crudest imitators, winnowing away at a coarse, macho exterior to expose the wounded, betrayed child at the heart of the American malcontent and the hypocrisy inherent in social order.
As commander of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Johnny upholds his cabal’s zealous belligerence with a dispassionate shrug, veiling his discontent for the whole lot beneath a brooding pose and pounds of creased leather. Championing delinquency over politics or moral agenda, his clamorous outfit is comprised of smart alecks and anti-authoritarians, sustaining themselves on the promise of cold swill and the adrenaline rush of a street fight. Standing in stark contrast, Johnny is nearly mute and rarely animated, gazing boyishly from beneath his conductor’s cap with an immiscible coupling of hubris and insecurity.
Nervously spinning quarters on a laminate countertop and flirting with the subtle roll of his eyes, Johnny captures the attention of a lonely sodajerk, alluring her with erroneous tales of second-place victories and the guise of individualistic freedom. His sarcastic smile acts both as erotic fantasy and escape plan for the stir-crazy Kathie (Mary Murphy), functioning as a diversion from a self-imposed prison of small-town servitude and counterpoint to the concessions of her spineless, police-chief father. Sadly, her swell of hormonal desire can’t compensate for Johnny’s inferiority complex and any attempt at sexual compatibility leads him into a frenzied surge of physical aggression and verbal dehumanization.
Brando’s gesticulatory performance wavers between this nuanced stoicism and domineering irascibility at a whim, finding verity in a range of unbound emotion, transforming manic episodes from disorderly conduct to juvenile defense mechanism. This structural flexibility extends from his performance to the narrative, jettisoning conventionality for a moody and capricious exchange of loyalty, fluctuating between biker and burgher based on their capacity for corruption.
Reinterpreting the generation gap as a grave miscommunication, Frank Rooney and his screenwriters use codified language as cultural currency, treating outlaw argot as underworld passport and bourgeois rhetoric as justification for malefaction. The fact that both parties only share a figurative vocabulary in the midst of transgression elucidates the bond of brutality between “upstanding” citizen and non-conformist, aligning humanity under an umbrella of its basest instincts. If unity through barbarity seems like the bleakest of philosophies, the slightest glimmer of hope blossoms from Johnny and Kathie’s awkward attempts at coupling, demonstrating that transcendence survives despite our solipsistic nature.
The Wild One (Columbia Pictures, 1953)
Directed by Laslo Benedek
Written by Frank Rooney (story), John Paxton (screenplay) and Ben Maddow (screenplay)
Photographed by Hal Mohr