The Wild One

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For other uses, see The Wild One (disambiguation).
The Wild One
Original release poster
Directed by László Benedek
Produced by Stanley Kramer
Screenplay by John Paxton
Ben Maddow
Based on "The Cyclists' Raid" 
by Frank Rooney
Starring Marlon Brando
Mary Murphy
Robert Keith
Narrated by Marlon Brando
Music by Leith Stevens
Cinematography Hal Mohr
Edited by Al Clark
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • December 30, 1953 (1953-12-30)
Running time
79 minutes
Country United States
Language English

The Wild One is a 1953 American film directed by László Benedek and produced by Stanley Kramer. It is famed for Marlon Brando's iconic portrayal of a motorcycle gang leader Johnny Strabler, and is considered the original outlaw biker film, and the first to examine American outlaw motorcycle gang violence.[1][2][3]

The film's screenplay was based on Frank Rooney's short story "The Cyclists' Raid", published in the January 1951 Harper's Magazine and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1952. Rooney's story was inspired by sensationalistic media coverage of an American Motorcyclist Association motorcycle rally that got out of hand on the Fourth of July weekend in 1947 in Hollister, California. The overcrowding, drinking and street stunting were given national attention in the July 21, 1947 issue of Life Magazine, with a staged photograph of a wild drunken man on a motorcycle.[4] The events, conflated with the newspaper and magazine reports, Rooney's short story, and the film The Wild One are part of the legend of the Hollister riot.


The Black Rebels Motorcycle Club (BRMC), a gang led by Johnny Strabler,[5][6] rides into Carbonville, California during a motorcycle race and causes trouble. A member of the gang, Mouse, steals the second-place trophy (the first place one being too large to hide) and presents it to Johnny. Stewards and policemen order them to leave.

The bikers head to Wrightsville, which only has one elderly, conciliatory lawman, Chief Harry Bleeker, to maintain order. The residents are uneasy, but mostly willing to put up with their visitors. When their antics cause Art Kleiner to swerve and crash his car, he demands that something be done, but Harry is reluctant to act, a weakness that is not lost on the interlopers. This accident results in the gang having to stay longer in town, as one member injured himself falling off his motorcycle. Although the young men become more and more boisterous, their custom is enthusiastically welcomed by Harry's brother Frank who runs the local cafe-bar, employing Harry's daughter, Kathie, and the elderly Jimmy.

At Frank's cafe, Johnny meets Kathie and asks her out to a dance being held that night. Kathie politely turns him down, but Johnny's dark, brooding personality visibly intrigues her. When Mildred, another local girl, asks him, "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?", he answers "Whaddaya got?" Johnny is attracted to Kathie and decides to stay a while. However, when he learns that she is the policeman's daughter, he changes his mind. A rival biker gang, the Beetles, arrive and their leader, Chino, bears a grudge against Johnny. Chino reveals the two groups used to be one large gang before Johnny split it up. When Chino takes Johnny's trophy, the two start fighting and Johnny wins.

Meanwhile, local Charlie Thomas stubbornly tries to drive through, he hits a parked motorcycle and injures Meatball, one of Chino's bikers. Chino pulls Charlie out and leads both gangs to overturn his car. Harry intervenes and starts arresting Chino and Charlie, but when other townspeople remind Harry that Charlie would cause problems for him in the future, he only takes Chino to the station. Later that night some Beetles members harass the telephone switchboard operator into leaving, thereby disrupting the townspeople's communication, while the BRMC abducts Charlie and puts him in the same jail cell as Chino, who is too drunk to leave with the gang.

Later, as both gangs wreck the town and intimidate the inhabitants, some bikers led by Gringo chase and surround Kathie, but Johnny rescues her and takes her on a long ride in the countryside. Frightened at first, Kathie comes to see that Johnny is genuinely attracted to her and means her no harm. When she opens up to him and asks to go with him, he rejects her. Crying, she runs away. Johnny drives off to search for her. Art sees and misinterprets this as an attack. The townspeople have had enough. Johnny's supposed assault on Kathie is the last straw. Vigilantes led by Charlie chase and catch Johnny and beat him mercilessly, but he escapes on his motorcycle when Harry confronts the mob. The mob give chase, but Johnny is hit by a thrown tire iron and falls. His riderless motorcycle strikes and kills Jimmy.

Sheriff Stew Singer arrives with his deputies and restores order. Johnny is initially arrested for Jimmy's death, with Kathie pleading on his behalf. Seeing this, Art and Frank step forward and testify that Johnny was not responsible for the tragedy, with Johnny being unable to thank them. The motorcyclists are ordered to leave the county, albeit paying for all damage. Returning alone to Wrightsville, however, Johnny re-visits the cafe to say goodbye to Kathie one final time. He acts as though he's leaving after getting a cup of coffee, but he returns, genuinely smiles, and offers her his stolen trophy before exiting.



Critical reception[edit]

Replica of Marlon Brando's 1950 6T Triumph Thunderbird with publicity stills from the film.

The Wild One was well received by film critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 80% critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.1/10.[7] Dave Kehr of The Chicago Reader wrote: "Legions of Brando impersonators have turned his performance in this seminal 1954 motorcycle movie into self-parody, but it's still a sleazy good time."[8] Variety noted that the film "is long on suspense, brutality and sadism ... All performances are highly competent."[9]


In the United Kingdom, the film was banned by the British Board of Film Censors for fourteen years.[10] On November 21, 1967, the film received an 'X' certificate[11][12] and was first seen by the UK public at the 59 Club in Paddington, London in 1968.[13]

Madame Tussauds waxwork exhibit of Marlon Brando in The Wild One albeit with a later 1957/8 model Triumph Thunderbird

According to the book, Triumph Motorcycle In America, Triumph motorcycle's then-importers, Johnson Motors, objected to the prominent use of Triumph motorcycles in the film. However, later, Gil Stratton Jr, who played "Mouse" in the film, advertised Triumph motorcycles in the 1960s when he was a famous TV sports announcer. As of 2014, the manufacturers were publicly identifying Brando as a celebrity who had helped to "cement the Triumph legend".[14]

Influence on popular culture[edit]

Brando's image[edit]

Brando's portrayal of Johnny has become an iconic image. His character wears long sideburns, a Perfecto-style motorcycle jacket and a tilted cap; he rides a 1950 Triumph Thunderbird 6T. Brando's haircut inspired a craze for sideburns, followed by James Dean and Elvis Presley, among others.[15] Brando's image from the film is one of dozens of celebrities on The Beatles' Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.[citation needed]

Presley also used Johnny's image as a model for his role in Jailhouse Rock.[16]

James Dean bought a Triumph TR5 Trophy motorcycle to mimic Brando's own Triumph Thunderbird 6T motorcycle that he used in the film.[15]

Brando's image remains potent today. In the mid-1990s, Yamaha used lookalikes of Mary Murphy's and Marlon Brando's characters to advertise their cruiser range of motorcycles.[citation needed] In the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Shia LaBeouf's character, Mutt Williams, first appears in the same outfit as Strabler, right down to the tilted cap.[citation needed] For 2010, Triumph motorcycles introduced a range of clothing and promotional items inspired by Brando's image from The Wild One.[citation needed]

Pop culture references[edit]

The film and Brando's biker character have been the subject of parody and homage numerous times.

The rock group Black Rebel Motorcycle Club got its name from the name of Brando's gang, although in the film, the gang is referred to as "Black Rebels Motorcycle Club".[citation needed]

One story maintains that The Beatles took their name from the other motorcycle club led by Lee Marvin, the Beetles, as referred to in The Beatles Anthology (though as aforementioned, the film was banned in Britain until 1967).[17]

The exchange is also parodied in The Simpsons episode "Separate Vocations".[18]


  1. ^ Pratt, Alan R. (2006), "6 Motorcycling, Nihilism, and the Price of Cool", in Rollin, Bernard E.; Gray, Carolyn M.; Mommer, Kerri; et al., Harley-Davidson and Philosophy: Full-Throttle Aristotle, Open Court, p. 25 
  2. ^ Veno, Arthur; Gannon, Ed (2002), The Brotherhoods: Inside the Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs, Allen & Unwin, pp. 25–26, ISBN 9781865086989 
  3. ^ Dixon, Wheeler Winston; Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey (2008), A Short History of Film, Rutgers University Press, p. 190, ISBN 9780813544755 
  4. ^ "Cyclist's Holiday; He and his friends terrorize a town", Life (Time Inc), July 21, 1947: 31, ISSN 0024-3019, retrieved January 22, 2015 
  5. ^ Tim Dirks, "Filmsite movie review: The Wild One", AMC Filmsite, retrieved 2015-01-22, It was the first feature film to examine outlaw motorcycle gang violence in America. 
  6. ^ Christopher Gair (2007). The American Counterculture. Edinburgh University Press. p. 105. ISBN 978-0-7486-1989-4. 
  7. ^ "The Wild One". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. 
  8. ^ Movie Review: The Wild One.
  9. ^ The Wild One.
  10. ^ "THE WILD ONE (N/A)". British Board of Film Classification. January 18, 1954. Retrieved December 11, 2014. 
  11. ^ "THE WILD ONE (X)". British Board of Film Classification. November 21, 1967. Retrieved December 11, 2014. 
  12. ^ Timothy Shary; Alexandra Seibel (2007). Youth culture in global cinema. University of Texas Press. p. 17. 
  13. ^ Gary Robertson (2007). Gangs of Dundee. Luath Press Ltd. p. 22. 
  14. ^ Triumph Heritage at Triumph Motorcycles official website. Accessed 18 October 2014
  15. ^ a b Dr. Martin H. Levinson (2011), Brooklyn Boomer: Growing Up in the Fifties, iUniverse, ISBN 1-4620-1712-6, p.81.
  16. ^ Burton I. Kaufman & Diane Kaufman (2009), The A to Z of the Eisenhower Era, Scarecrow Press, ISBN 0-8108-7150-5, p.38.
  17. ^ Dave Persails (1994). The Beatles: What's In A Name. Retrieved September 3, 2011.
  18. ^ Groening, Matt (1997). Richmond, Ray; Coffman, Antonia, eds. The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family. Created by Matt Groening; edited by Ray Richmond and Antonia Coffman. (1st ed.). New York: HarperPerennial. ISBN 0060952520. LCCN 98141857. OCLC 37796735. OL 433519M. ISBN 0-06-095252-0, 978-0-06-095252-5. p. 83.

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