Wild One (1953): Brando, Hollywood Seductive Rebel

In the summer of 1947, a wandering motorcycle gang descended on the quiet town of Hollister, California. At first, they just drank beer and engaged in small acts of vandalism.  However, before they left, the town had been ransacked with various acts of violence.

When the story broke the national newspapers, screenwriter John Paxton decided to make a socially relevant picture about the the rising problem of alienated youth gangs in post-WWII America.

Paxton presented a script to Stanley Kramer, a producer known for making controversial, sociological message films, including Marlon Barndo’s screen debut, “The Men,” directed by Fred Zinnemann.

“The Wild One” was the film’s working title, and only one actor was considered for the role of Johnny, the rebellious, drifting leader of the cyclists, Brando, the most exciting actor in the 1950s after his seminal performance in Kazan’s 1951 “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Visually, the film opens with a long shot of an empty road.  Gradually, the tiny figures of cyclists appear in the distance, and the camera holds the shot until they get closer to it. Decked out in black leather jackets, they are seen tearing across the road in a tight-knit squadron.

Johnny’s voiceover narration frames the story as one he won’t soon forget.  His gang is then shown as it goes into a motorcycle competition, from which they’re quickly thrown out, but not before stealing the first-prize trophy on their way.

The gang invades the dormant, provincial town of Wrightsville, where they stop to rest.  The town’s cop Harry Bleeker (Robert Keith) is ineffective at stopping the escalating violence, though Johnny decides to keep things in control after realizing that Bleeker is the father of Kathie (Mary Murphy), a cafe waitress he is attracted to.

Tension escalates and all hell breaks loose when another gang, led by Johnny’s rival Chino (Lee Marvin), arrives on the scene, looking for a rumble.

“The Wild One” was intended as a study of a new social problem, but inadvertently created a romantic aura around it.

In 1953, there was undeniable allure to black leather jackets, jive talk, and swaggering arrogance of alienated troublemakers.

As a result, the picture was criticized for adding to the new problem by glorifying Brando as the gang’s leader.  Kramer later said that his film did not set out to attack or defend the hoodlum-hipsters, only to depict their lifestyle by juxtaposing it against the depressing daily routine of the small-town residents.

When the clean-cut Kathie, having thus far resisted Johnny’s advances, allows him (under the spell of the moonlight) to lift her up behind him on his huge bike.  As they ride out of town together, Kathie puts her arms around his chest, while her hair blows wildly.  She is transformed into a more vivacious woman, who for a brief moment succumbs to Brando’s temptation because it rescues her from boredom.

In the film’s most telling scene, Johnny is asked, while guzzling beer with his men at a roadside tavern, “What are you rebelling against”  With a nonchalant shrug of shoulders, he replies, “What’ve you got.”  By delivering that phrase, Brando unwittingly became the spokesman for the “Beat Generation.”

Detailed Plot

The Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, a gang led by Johnny Strabler (Brando), rides into Carbonville, California during a motorcycle race, invading the town and causing trouble.  Gang member Mouse steals the second-place trophy (the first place is too large to hide) and presents it to their leader, Johnny.

Ordered to leave, the bikers head to Wrightsville, making the residents nervous, and the lawman Chief Harry Bleeker tries to maintain order. When their antics lead to Art Kleiner’s car crash, he demands that “something be done,” but Harry is reluctant to act, which is perceived as sign of weakness.

The gang stays longer in town; one member injures himself falling off his motorcycle.  Although the young men are boisterous, they are welcomed by Harry’s brother Frank, who runs the local cafe and employs Harry’s daughter, Kathie, and the elderly Jimmy. At Frank’s cafe, Johnny meets Kathie and asks her out to a dance, but  she turns him down, even though she is intrigued by him.

When Mildred, a local girl, asks him, “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”he answers “Whaddaya got?” Johnny is attracted to Kathie and decides to stay for a while. However, when he learns that she is the policeman’s daughter, he changes his mind.

A rival biker gang, the Beetles, arrive in town with their leader, Chino, who bears grudges against Johnny. The two groups used to be one gang before Johnny split it up. When Chino takes Johnny’s trophy, a fight ensues and Johnny wins.

When local resident Charlie Thomas tries to drive through, he injures Meatball, one of Chino’s bikers. Chino pulls Charlie out, and tries to excite both gangs to overturn his car. Harry intervenes, planning to arrest Chino and Charlie, but he only takes Chino to the station.

Later that night, the Beetles harass the telephone switchboard operator, thus disrupting the communication center. The BRMC abducts Charlie and puts him in the same jail cell as Chino.

The gangs wreck the town and intimidate its inhabitants. Some bikers led by Gringo chase Kathie, but Johnny rescues her, taking her on a long ride in the countryside. Frightened at first, Kathie comes to see that Johnny is attracted to her and means no harm. When Kathie asks Johnny to take her away, he rejects her, and she runs away. Johnny then drives off to search for her.

Art misinterprets this as an attack, and the vigilantes led by Charlie beat Johnny mercilessly, but he escapes on his motorcycle when Harry confronts the mob. Johnny is hit by a thrown tire iron, and his motorcycle (riderless) strikes and kills Jimmy.

Sheriff Stew Singer arrives with his deputies to restore order.  Johnny is initially arrested for Jimmy’s death, but Kathie pleads on his behalf.  Art and Frank then testify that Johnny was not responsible for the death.

The Sheriff tells Johnny: “At least say thank you,” but he is unable to thank them publicly, and it’s Kathie who articulates his feelings by saying “He doesn’t know how.”

The motorcyclists are ordered to leave the county. Returning alone to Wrightsville, however, Johnny re-visits the cafe to bid farewell.  Genuinely smiling for the first time, he places the stolen trophy and exits the place.


Marlon Brando as Johnny Strabler

Mary Murphy as Kathie Bleeker

Robert Keith as Police Chief Harry Bleeker

Lee Marvin as Chino

Jay C. Flippen as Sheriff Stew Singer

Peggy Maley as Mildred

Hugh Sander as Charlie Thomas

Ray Teal as Frank Bleeker

John Brown as Bill Hannegan

Will Wright as Art Kleiner

Yvonne Doughty as Britches

Keith Clarke as Gringo

Brando’s Reaction

Brando was not happy with being so closely associated with the character of Johnny.  For him, The Wild One was just an interesting, challenging role; he didn’t want to be identified off screen as the motorcycle punk he was playing on screen.  But, alas, for several years, Brando (like his contemporaries– Montgomery Clift and James Dean–was destined to play sensitive, inarticulate heroes.


Stanley Kramer Production

Directed by Laslo Benedek

Screenplay by John Paxton, based on a story by Frank Rooney.