B&W, 1953, 79 mins. 6 secs.
Directed by Laslo Benedek
Starring Marlon Brando, Mary Murphy, Robert Keith, Lee Marvin, Jay C. Flippen, Peggy Maley
Indicator (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Mill Creek (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Sony (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), (Blu-ray) (Germany R0 HD)
Ground zero for the modern biker film and a template for countless drive-in films to come for over a decade, The Wild One is a fascinating early chapter in the career of Marlon Brando. Recently rocketed to stardom in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, he was already fully immersed in Method-style acting under Stella Adler and was committed to this film as a study of wayward youths rapidly overtaking the American Southwest in biker gangs. Thanks to studio and Production Code interference it turned out more sensationalist than Brando had intended when he spent extensive time learning the mannerisms and lingo of real bikers, but the end result was still a pop culture sensation (especially via Brando's leather attire and his own Triumph Thunderbird 6T) that became widely referenced for decades in everything from Kenneth Anger's avant garde shorts to the Wally Brando character in the revival of Twin Peaks.
Very loosely based on a Harper's magazine story about the rowdy behavior of California bikers and produced by famed social issues filmmaker Stanley Kramer, our story follows the wayward path of Johnny Strabler (Brando), the volatile leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club who get kicked out of a small town for trying to steal a trophy for an upcoming race. They next set their sights on the town of Wrightsville, where the minimal law enforcement in the form of Sheriff Bleeker (Keith) allows them to stick around after an accident leaves one townsperson and one gang member injured. That gives Johnny time to start a flirtation with sheriff's daughter Kathie (Murphy) and steel himself when rival gang the Beetles pulls into town, led by the scuzzy Chino (Marvin) and itching for trouble.
Though it's easy to see this as the impetus behind the wave of biker films that continued into the '80s, The Wild One is also an intriguing dry run for the "youth gone wild" films that would soon explode with Blackboard Jungle a couple of years later and soon turned into drive-in fodder with High School Confidential! These may not be high school students, but the approach and sentiment are the same as the filmmakers are clearly baffled and hypnotized by the way the U.S. victory in World War II didn't produce a 100% happy, sunny population from coast to coast. Of course Brando is the real show here, turning his eye-catching wardrobe and sideburns into major character assets as he creates a dangerous but sympathetic rebel who led the way in a string of '50s male heartthrob roles (most famously James Dean). The portrait of a dusty small town as a volatile hotbed of mob mentality and submission is still fairly potent as well, even if the film had to pull its punches a little bit to get code approval at the time; you can imagine how shocking and sleazy this could have been if it were made several years later.
The Wild One first appeared in DVD in 2000 with only a theatrical trailer as an extra, then again in 2007 as part of Sony's Stanley Kramer Film Collection (along with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Ship of Fools, Member of the Wedding, and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (Needless to say, it's not the most representative selection of Kramer titles.) Extras on that release include a solid audio commentary by Jeanine Basinger (who lays out the film's genesis with Kramer and its odd path to bringing an unbelievable real-life story to the screen with a lot of narrative embellishments), an intro by Karen Kramer (1m23s), a collection of interviews with real-life witnesses to the original biker invasion in "Hollister, California: Bikers, Booze and the Big Picture" (27m49s), and "Brando: An Icon is Born" (18m38s), which features Garry Marshall, Dennis Hopper, Taylor Hackford, and Elizabeth Ashley waxing nostalgic about the impact of the screen legend's presence and appearance in this film. The title made its Blu-ray debut in Germany from Sony in 2013, porting over the DVD extras and adding the mostly off-topic "Stanley Kramer: Man's Search for Truth" (which is more appropriately included now on all of the Blu-ray releases of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner). Two years later, a no-frills U.S. Blu-ray was issued by Mill Creek, featuring the same immaculate Sony-sourced HD restoration with DTS-HD MA English mono audio.
In 2017, UK label Indicator gave the film its most lavish release to date with a region-free, dual-format release containing a Blu-ray and DVD with identical extras. Everything from the DVD release has been ported over here (commentary and featurettes), and the transfer looks superb with an even more finessed encoding and a richer, slightly darker presentation that's likely about as good as this will get unless someone ever gives it a 4K release down the road. This time the English audio is LPCM mono with optional English SDH subtitles. The new "The Wild One and the BBFC (25m11s) brings in former BBFC examiner Richard Falcon to cover the film's very turbulent censorship history that resulted in it being banned until the late '60s, believe it or not, and a welcome Super 8 version (20m) commissioned in the early '70s is a fascinating example of editorial economy as it uses some narration and extensive scissoring to bring the already short film down to presentable length for the format at the time. The original theatrical trailer is also included along with a gallery of stills and posters (for some reason this film never had the greatest poster art). The limited 3,000-unit edition also sports an aesthetically pleasing, hefty insert booklet with several worthwhile selections: a new essay by Kat Ellinger, "Road to Nowhere, Road to Everywhere," taking a deep look at the film's birth of rebel cinema; a look at the film's connection to renowned programmer and film writer Leslie Halliwell via a Sight & Sound piece and an autobiography excerpt; director Laslo Benedek's written defense of the film for its first BBFC submission; and a sampling of critical reviews two years after the film's initial release when it was first screened for UK critics.