Movie Review – The Wild One (1953)

Director: Laslo Benedek

Stars: Marlon Brando, Mary Murphy, Robert Keith, Lee Marvin, Hugh Sanders, Ray Teal, Jay C Flippen, Peggy Maley, Will Wright

Johnny (Brando) is the leader of a bike gang. They roar into a small town and disrupt the local life. Some people don’t take kindly to them, and the film examines the generational schism that occurred in America.

I loved the style of this movie. Some of the shots were excellent, especially the opening with the bikes swarming the camera, really giving a sense that this gang was going to overwhelm you. The threat was looming and just the sheer number of them is unsettling, but we’re quickly shown that they aren’t the main threat. They are loutish and some of their behaviour is inexcusable but it’s the quick judgements of the townspeople that spark the confrontation. They rush to condemn Johnny and his friends because he’s different and strange to them, and if they had just tried to understand each other perhaps it could have all been averted.

It’s funny really because the threat of these biker gangs isn’t one that exists any more. As a concept it’s somewhat anachronistic and in modern films they’re mainly used for laughs, like in Wild Hogs. I thought at times this film was a bit over-the-top in depicting the youth culture. There was so much slang thrown about and I’m not sure anyone actually talked like that. But I did like how both sides were shown to be wrong and right. The biker gang should have been more respectful, while the townspeople should have treated everyone in the same manner.

The Wild One is uneven in places. Where it excels is the casting of Brando. He’s exceptional as Johnny, the tortured guy who clings to a stolen trophy as his only real achievement in life. He’s a pretender, and wears his rebellious machismo as a suit of armour. In lesser hands the role cold have been an empty one but Brando imbued him with a lot of depth and it’s interesting to see the way he walks around the set and how his subdued manner and soft voice contrasts with the rest of his gang.

The leading lady is Kathie (Murphy) and at first I thought she was a good match to Brando, standing up to Johnny and confronting his mask. However, quickly she descended into a rather hysterical woman and she literally fell at his feet, which felt a bit much. There were a few shots of her where she appeared submissive as well, and I can imagine these must have angered the censors. One particularly tense shot was of her being chased by the gang, eventually rescued by Johnny. Later on there’s a parallel where Johnny is hounded by the people of the town, and yet there’s no-one to look out for him.

The Sheriff (Keith) is the most pathetic figure, bemoaning his lack of power. “What can I do?” is his repeated cry, and in some ways you sympathise with him because he is just one man and the only power he has is from his badge, and if people don’t respect that then he has nothing. But you also find him pitiful as well, confronted by this enigma that he simply can’t crack and can’t control. He’s in way over his head and he has no idea how to adapt to the situation.

I found the resolution to be lacking. The truth only came out because Kathie cried, and this made the men sympathetic. It seemed too neat and sudden. Overall though I really enjoyed The Wild One. At times it is a sensationalistic and over-the-top but it spins around the composed performance of Brando who is incredible.

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