Motorcycle Movie Myth
Laszlo Benedek’s film "The Wild One," starring Marlon Brando, is generally credited with cementing the image of the motorcyclist, and the Harley-Davidson motorcycle rider in particular, as a lawless, violent rebel. The fact that Brando rode a Triumph in the film didn’t matter, nor did the fact that the film contained no profanity. America drew the conclusions that it wanted to, and the image was set. What followed, from the mid-1950s through the 1960s, were a series of biker films with titles like "Dragstrip Riot," "The Wild Angels" and "The Damned." All played off "The Wild One" image of the biker as young and lawless. But no one seemed to question how Benedek came up with this image, and more importantly, if it was true.
The truth, it turned out, was not as it seemed. Both the myth and the reality can be traced back to World War II. After the war, returning veterans found it difficult to adjust to the relative calm and prosperity that followed. This post-war angst was dramatized in William Wyler’s "The Best Years of Our Lives." This film followed a group of veterans whose shift back to civilian life involved negative challenges. Many veterans attempted to relieve their dissatisfaction by turning to motorcycling. The machines provided a way to relive the excitement of war and combat the confinement of civilian life. The motorcycle became their expression of personal freedom from a society into which they no longer fit.
The myth that these motorcycle groups were law-breaking hellions began with the July 21, 1947 issue of "LIFE" magazine. It featured a full-page photo of a seemingly drunken man sitting on a motorcycle surrounded by empty beer bottles. The headline read "Cyclist’s Holiday – He and Friends Terrorize a Town." In fact, the story and the inflammatory photo were staged, and the "riot" in the article, was really a peaceful, party-filled event. But the "LIFE" story spread like wildfire, tainting the image of the 1950s biker. Fear of the marauding motorcycle gang had entered the American psyche.
When Laszlo Benedek made "The Wild One" in 1954, he was capturing the myth of the lawless motorcycle gang. But again, the image was not based on reality. In his film, the riders in the gangs were not veterans. Instead, they were alienated and restless young people. Their main motivation as bikers was voiced by Brando’s character, who, when asked what he is rebelling against, said, "What have you got?" Rebellion, not freedom, was their creed.
In "The Wild One," Benedek was tapping into the myth of the biker gang, but he was also grafting on an emerging societal fear – that of rebellious youth. Benedek was among the first to put on film the beginnings of the postwar youth rebellion movement that would dramatically alter American culture and society. But by making it a fictional story, he was able to take the myth of the motorcycle gang, and combine it with the newly emerging reality of youth rebellion. The result was an even bigger myth – the young lawless motorcycle gang. In a few years, society began to recognize the youth rebellion movement, and the cinema became littered with films that focused on juvenile delinquents and the havoc they wrought on society. But because "The Wild One" was perhaps the first and most prominent of the films to present the concept of the lawless youths, and because they were shown on motorcycles, this was an image that stuck.
The myth continued, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of riders throughout the history of Harley-Davidson were law-abiding citizens. Even those who felt a certain alienation from society, like the WWII veterans, were not lawless anarchists, but people who saw the motorcycle as a way to express both their freedom and their identity. It is a noble testament to Harley-Davidson motorcycles and the riders that the myth never conquered the reality.
Photographs courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives.