“What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”… “Whaddaya got?”
That’s the line that everyone remembers from The Wild One which, along with A Streetcar Named Desire (a role he originated on stage), cemented Marlon Brando as one of the greatest actors (and biggest stars) ever seen on screen. In just his first four years of film acting, Brando would get four Academy Award nominations, taking home a much-deserved win for On the Waterfront.
Brando would have two guiding lights in his early screen career: Elia Kazan (the more famous of the two) and Stanley Kramer, a director and producer who wanted to make grown-up dramas with some kind of liberal-minded message behind them. Brando’s first on-screen role was in The Men, which is a mostly forgotten but extremely effective and affecting drama about a paralyzed war vet (played by Brando) trying to come to grips with his condition back home. It also had a profound impact on James Dean, who repeatedly watched it in 1953. Dean, of course, was heavily influenced by Brando’s acting, but also by what he believed Brando’s “lifestyle” was.
The Wild One is a film which is better-known for its visual look, specifically the image of Brando in his leather jacket, white t-shirt and cap, which unintentionally had an overt homoerotic quality. It’s no surprise that ten years later Kenneth Anger would use the very same iconic image in his 25-minute gay biker classic, Scorpio Rising. Brando also was one of the few stars who openly admitted to having gay relationships before it was legal and acceptable. This is what he said back in 1976: “Homosexuality is so much in fashion, it no longer makes news. Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed.” It’s also rumoured that he even had an S&M relationship with Dean, but Brando denied ever being friendly (much less intimate) with Dean in his autobiography.
However you look at it, The Wild One is still a pretty rock-solid piece of rebellious ’50s filmmaking. When the movie came out, it was a truly shocking piece of work: remember, this was 1953, two whole years before Elvis Presley (who was himself heavily influenced by Brando’s look in the film) and rock n’ roll, etc. The music they use in the film is bebop jazz, which was the soundtrack of the Beats, the first rebels of US post-war counterculture. It was banned in the UK till 1967 because it was believed it could inspire teddy boys, and later on rockers, to commit anti-social behaviour.
Brando is, of course, absolutely fantastic. He perfectly nails the anti-authority nature of the character of Johnny, but with emotional depth. From this role up to the early 1960s was the golden era of Brando, when he still took film work seriously. Of course he did some great work later on in the ’60s and ’70s, but it was this period that ensured he would always be considered one of the greats.
Lee Marvin, in a very early role, plays the leader of the rival motorcycle gang The Beetles (inspiration for a certain band?). Marvin actually couldn’t stand Brando, and was drunk for many of his scenes. However, you can’t tell, because Marvin was a hardcore professional and probably objected more to Brando’s Method Acting bullshit than anything else. Weirdly enough, 19 years later they were almost reunited in Deliverance, but Marvin believed they were too old for the roles so it was recast.
The film moves like a speeding motorcycle at a short 78 minutes, and was released as a double feature with Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, which also starred Lee Marvin. László Benedek directed it, and is basically forgotten for this and the first on-screen version of Death of a Salesman. However, this was led by Kramer, who is more of the auteur and handles the subject matter very sensitively. There is an attempt to understand the bikers rather than passing judgment on them as a more sensationalist film would have done.
Powerhouse has compiled a definitive package here for The Wild One. For starters, it contains a new commentary with film historian Jeanine Basinger. It also includes some featurettes on the film and Brando, which were on European Sony releases of the film, along with an intro by Stanley’s widow Karen. The best new addition is a featurette, “The Wild One and the BBFC,” based around an interview with a former BBFC examiner who talks about the long and frankly silly history of why The Wild One was banned until 1967. The disc’s features are rounded off by a 20-minute Super-8 version, an image gallery, and the theatrical trailer. The release is dual format and includes a lengthy booklet on the film.