Arts

Cult Movie: Cool images of The Wild One considered incendiary stuff in 1950s

Marlon Brando as as Johnny Strabler, the coolest man ever to mumble a line, in The Wild One
Ralph McLean

AS SOCIETY continues to trundle relentlessly on its downward spiral to hell in a multicoloured, freewheeling handcart it's worth remembering that back in 1953 people had something that was really worth worrying about.

That something was kids on motorbikes. Well, if The Wild One is to be believed, at any rate.

Now you could be forgiven for thinking that a very reasonable fear of imminent nuclear destruction might have taken precedence over the threat of a gang of bike-straddling hoodlums for many back in 53 but Laszlo Benedek's tale of small-town rebellion was convinced that society was about to be wrenched from its hinges by its own children clad in dangerous black leather and tootling around aimlessly on motorbikes.

The fact they were led by Marlon Brando as Johnny Strabler, the coolest man ever to mumble a line, only added to the threat. Clad in his iconic black jacket, white T-shirt and jauntily angled cap, he represented everything that the quivering moral majority of middle America feared most. It was an unforgettable image that wound up plastered over teenagers' walls for years to come.

In that chunky onscreen persona was everything that was scary about the youth of post-war society. He was a rebel, a directionless layabout and he showed no intention of doffing his biker's cap to authority of any kind. He was also so good looking he could stop traffic and he was cooler than an Eskimo's ice box, never a good combination when the fate of America's youth is at stake.

It may seem like something the authorities could sort out with a swift court order these days but in 1953 this was serious stuff. The story itself is simple.

Johnny and his gang of moody motorcyclists roll into a small Californian town and immediately stir up terror with the locals. Johnny swiftly falls for the town cop's daughter (Mary Murphy) but the challenge of a rival within his own gang (Lee Marvin) and the growing hatred of the townsfolk mean that violence is on its way.

Watching the recent Indicator DVD release of the film, it's impossible not to be impressed by the images on screen. Brando is at his nonchalant best as the mean and moody Johnny and pretty much defines onscreen rebellion for an entire generation with his 'really can't be a**ed' demeanour. There's also no denying that the film itself is a bit on the clunky side, though.

Benedek shoots it all with a reasonable amount of skill without ever providing any real thrills or unexpected plot twists and everything feels cheap and hastily knocked together.

The real pleasure is in appreciating just how much controversy The Wild One stirred up on its original release. The British Board of Film Censors banned it for an astonishing 14 years, thereby making it a must-see for rebellion-minded teens for decades and proving how censorship only fans the flame of infamy at times.

It may seem tame today but The Wild One was rebellion in a film can 64 years ago.

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