For Day 3 of our Spotlight on Marlon Brando, we’ll be discussing The Wild One from 1953.
Brando plays Johnny, the rough-and-tough leader of a motorcycle gang. They ride from town to town and cause all kinds of ruckus and mayhem, though generally, they leave before it gets too crazy. In one particularly small town, however, a rival gang shows up and tensions begin to mount. That gang’s leader, Chino (played by Lee Marvin), has a history with Johnny and after a brawl in the street between them, Chino ends up being arrested. At this point, all Hell breaks loose. Both gangs are destroying the city in retaliation for the arrest, while Johnny is torn because he’s fallen for the sheriff’s daughter, Kathie (Mary Murphy), and he can’t quite decide whether to do the right thing and help or just leave the city behind like he always does. It’s the classic question of can the “good girl” tame the “bad boy.”
This is one of those movies that I feel straddles the line between popular and being lost to the ages. It certainly feels like it should be well known, but it hasn’t aged well at all. There’s a certain amount of sensationalism that may have been shocking in the 50s, but comes across as mild and… dare I say… cheesy. The opening even has a title card that reads:
“This is a shocking story. It could never take place in most American towns – but it did in this one. It is a public challenge not to let it happen again.”
Knowing this is a 50s movie, my natural proclivity is to roll my eyes and expect a ridiculously campy story with strong morals and bad effects. “A public challenge??” Yes, I have a certain amount of disdain for this kind of high judgement thing, and the opening narration that immediately begins after certainly doesn’t help (especially since there’s no other narration throughout the rest of the film):
So, why am I still giving this movie 3 stars?
Well, Brando, of course (though, to be fair, I do also love that the motorcycle almost hits the camera in that opening shot. Not sure if that was on purpose or not, but it did temporarily make me think the movie might actually be, you know, shocking).
Brando alone makes this movie worth watching. He plays Johnny as a kind soul, someone who knows right from wrong, someone who is introspective and thoughtful, but doesn’t always allow himself to do the right thing. He’s had bad experiences with cops and that has tainted so much of his life that even when the best solution is staring him in the face, he can’t force himself to compromise on silly stubborn ideal he’s created for himself. But Kathie is more than just the average girl to him, and he can see that she really wants to get out of the town, too. For her, it’s too small and too suffocating. She’s certainly a big fish in a small pond and that presents an interesting dynamic because she is shown to be strong and knows exactly what she wants out of life. Johnny, on the other hand, is apparently rebelling just to rebel, unsure of what he’s doing with his life.
That, of course, is one of the movie’s most famous lines (and maybe the only famous line from it) making it perhaps Brando’s version of Rebel Without a Cause (which is ironic because he auditioned for that movie and didn’t get the part).
Still, watch this one only for Brando… and maybe the restrained and nuanced ending (which actually surprised me a bit).
For Day 4 tomorrow, Kelley will be back with her review of On the Waterfront as we continue our spotlight on Marlon Brando!!