Led by Johnny (Marlon Brando), the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are riding around California aimlessly, looking for something to do until trouble finds them. They turn up at a motorcycle race, riding through the track and generally getting in the way, but it's high spirits they're fuelled by, the mayhem being almost incidental. After dismounting and wandering across the track towards the table holding the trophies, they are stopped by a mechanic who tells them to clear off in no uncertain terms, but they just make a joke out of him, that is until the police arrive and if there's one thing that Johnny doesn't like, it's the cops. They reluctantly return to their motorbikes and drive away, but not before one of the club presents Johnny with a pilfered trophy - second prize as the first prize was to big to conceal. The club's next port of call is a small town not too far away, yet they'll come to regret going there...
Famously banned in Britain until 1968 for the possible corruption of the nation's youth it may or may not have caused, The Wild One was the first of the rebellious youth films of the nineteen-fifties to make an impact with the moviegoers of the time. It was also the first real biker movie, based on a true incident of a gang of four thousand bikers who turned up in a California town in 1947, and by association it presented its star Brando as an outlaw figure, a man who didn't compromise and trod his own path, an image that he never really shook off, even if he'd wanted to. Scripted by John Paxton from a story by Frank Rooney based on the original incident it also held up bikers as symbols of rebellion, something that did their confidence no end of good.
Although Johnny would deny it, being the leader he has a measure of depth that the others in his gang are not afforded. This doesn't prevent a disapproving attitude towards them from the filmmakers - you can almost hear them tut-tutting at each further act of bad behaviour - and when they arrive in the small town their raucousness is rewarded with grumbling protests from the locals. What makes them stick around is when one of their number crashes his cycle into a car driven by an elderly gent who demands the gang are arrested, but the Sheriff (Robert Keith) is an ineffectual sort who would rather leave them be. So while the injured biker is fixed up at the doctor's his fellows retire to the bar to drink as much beer as possible, dance to the jukebox (here's a film that needed rock and roll on its soundtrack) and generally party.
This atmosphere gives rise to the most famous lines; one girl asks Johnny what he's rebelling against, and Brando replies, "Whattaya got?", making him the rebel without a cause before James Dean made his mark. In this bar, the waitress is Kathie (Mary Murphy), the daughter of the Sheriff, and when Johnny finds this out he goes right off her. But not for long. There's a mutual attraction between them which Johnny is too inarticulate to admit and Kathie is too proper to accept, but whatever passes between them will have to wait when a rival gang, The Beetles led by Chino (Lee Marvin almost stealing the film), roar into town looking for a fight. Where the B.R.M.C. have their names carefully stencilled on their leather jackets, the Beetles are like their embarrassing relatives, uncouth and unpleasant.
One thing leads to another and Chino is imprisoned for an assault on a furious motorist who demands he be locked up, and the townsfolk show themselves up to be just as antisocial as the bikers when they want their revenge. The bikers are no help to the situation when they kidnap the motorist from his home and put him in the jail cell with Chino, who's sleeping off the effects of alcohol. There's a disparity between the attitude towards the locals and the invaders, as if they're both to blame for the tragedy that follows, but the finger wagging is at least even-handed - lack of discipline seems to be the cause of the trouble. Brando is a memorable antihero, slightly camp in his slouching, don't care posture, impudence and little cap and leathers (with his name on the jacket), and if the heavy going message takes over (Stanley Kramer was the producer), then at least the antics of the bikers have provided entertainment value, and are certainly revelled in here. Music by Leith Stevens.