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Legacy of The Wild One

by David Soulsby

I first saw Marlon Brando’s biker classic The Wild One in 1967, a full 14 years after it was made. The movie had been banned in Britain for all that time because of its subject matter. There had been a few screenings over the years by film societies but they had been watched by only a handful of people. So, when a group of journalists, myself included, were invited to a special showing to mark its general release with an adults only X-certificate, we were keen to see and hear what all the fuss had been about.

The controversial movie had been branded as dangerous and harmful to society. There were fears that the sight of leather-clad motorcyclists running amok in a small American town would lead to copy-cat behavior among youngsters in Britain, resulting in a growth in juvenile delinquency and youth crime. The film’s director, Laszlo Benedek, had tried to get the ban lifted early on but without success. It was lifted only when it was deemed the The Wild One’s depiction of rebellion and insolence, together with its attitudes and fashions, had dated and would no longer appeal to the young. After all, it had been made in 1953, just eight years after the end of World War Two. Society had moved on apace, the Sixties had heralded a rapid change in society and its values.

There had been unrest earlier in the Sixties when groups of young people known as Mods and Rockers fought each other in British seaside towns. They were rivals, the Mods riding scooters and keen on soul and R ‘n’ B music, the leather-clad Bikers roaring around on motorbikes and fans of rock ‘n’ roll. For a while there was deep concern about where youth was heading. But things eventually calmed down and the battles and confrontations subsided and were soon forgotten, regarded as just a passing fad. Youth had had its rebellion and was now settling down. And they hadn't even see The Wild One!


So, taking all these things in to consideration how did the movie strike me? I have to confess that seeing it for the first was slightly disappointing. True, Brando was outstanding in the lead role, as was Lee Marvin as a rival biker, but the film did indeed look rather dated overall. It certainly creaked uncomfortably here and there and at times seemed boringly tame and dull. That’s not to say it didn’t exude a certain charm. I recall thinking at the time that Brando appeared slightly overweight. He was paunchy where he should have been trim and he had a generally heavy look about him that jarred at times. A petty criticism maybe, but let’s offset that by agreeing that he did grab the role by the scruff of the neck and give it gravitas. I don’t think many other actors would have been able to do that. As an aside, it was noticeable in On The Waterfront, made a year after The Wild One, how different Brando looked. He was trimmer and more rugged. He was built for the part.

Although scores of thousands of young people hadn’t seen The Wild One, they’d nonetheless embraced the film’s style with open arms over the years. The leather jacket became a must-have item among young men. Sideburns became popular. The movie’s slang crept into everyday vocabulary. Without The Wild One would we have had Elvis Presley and James Dean? Brando’s surly look and animal magnetism gave the film its iconic status and set a trend.

I do clearly recall the soundtrack being very jazzy and atmospheric. One had to remember at the time that the film was pre-rock ‘n’ roll, pre-the rise of the teenager. It was very much of its era, and its black and white photography added to its yesteryear look.

I’ve seen the film three or four times since, and the passage of time has, surprisingly, been kind. Sure, Brando to me still looks too heavy but there’s no denying his presence. I think the movie was better than many thought it was. It captured a particular point in time when young people started to seek a different world from that of their parents and indeed grandparents. There was rebellion but by no means always violent or subversive, just a yearning to do things in a new, and hopefully, better way. Brando’s character in The Wild One, when asked what he’s rebelling against, replies ‘Whaddya got?’. It’s a sweeping riposte. The biker is acting the tough guy, but deep down I think he’s lost. He wants to hit out at conformity and normality but he doesn’t quite know what to replace these with, only that there has to be something better. I’d like to think that if he’d survived into the Sixties that he would of found what he was looking for.

David SoulsbyDavid Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex, England, and is now Somewhere in the Distanceretired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.