Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
There's probably some conflation of Laslo Benedek's The Wild One (1953)--coming out for the first time on Blu-ray--and Nicholas Ray's (superior) Rebel Without a Cause (1955) because of this famous exchange. A young woman, enjoying the antics of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club (B.R.M.C.), asks Johnny (Marlon Brando), the ringleader, what they're rebelling against to which Johnny replies, "Whadya got?" The comparison is an interesting one. While James Dean is the height of 50's cool off screen, in Rebel Without a Cause, he plays a whiney youth in the throws of a terrible case of full-blown angst, having to deal with alienation and social phenomena he's not ready for. Why it was Dean that became the icon, despite making only three major films before he died, isn't obvious. Brando's Johnny, however, is what icons are made of with his black leather jacket, biker cap, aviator sunglasses, and an absolutely atrocious attitude. Myth, like life, favors the jerk.
Biker gangs are rough, volatile, and difficult to understand (both emotionally and verbally). Johnny (Brando) is the de facto leader of the B.R.M.C. The gang checks out (and mildly disrupts) a motorcycle race, stealing the second place trophy when the local police tell them to move along. They do move along, heading over to a small town that looks as if it's on loan from a dusty John Wayne western. Things get boisterous as the crew find their way into the local café/bar and get a few beers down. Johnny's got his eye on Kathie (Mary Murphy), the owner's innocent niece and daughter to the local cop (Robert Keith). Johnny don't like cops. Johnny don't like much of anything except Kathie and doing the opposite of whatever anyone tells him to do. After former co-BRMC'r Chino (Lee Marvin) shows up with his group of misfits, things go from boisterous to powder keg. And still, bad boy Johnny isn't going to defuse anything just because he has the power to.
At first, this routine is tolerable while we wait to see what kind of beef he's got or if he has some shred of decency. If there is a shred, it's small and not often examined. A character will regularly intone in a patronizing way that Johnny doesn't understand himself why he's so aggressive and anti-establishment. Certainly, the film doesn't try to give Johnny any credit on that score. He stands there quietly, struggling with his emotions unable to communicate or come to closure on anything other than cynicism. But to be cynical, you have to know what isn't there, how people aren't doing the right thing. A square can't understand hip, but the hip understand the square all too well. That is, unless you're making this movie for squares and are, ultimately, square yourself. One can easily imagine Hollywood liberals of the 50's writing this script, shaking their heads in disappointment at the moment of social clarity as if to say, "We know these boys and if they could only..."
There's a story that Brando used to give his directors two takes: one where is is acting technically and another where he "means it". If the director can tell the difference, Brando gives a full performance, but if not Brando will just phone it in. The Wild One seems to be one of the technical performances. The character goes undefended by the script and it is Brando who must defend him by giving us something to redeem, justify, or explain. Otherwise, all we have is one side of the story with the other relying only on a pretty face and a line about some trouble with his father. Not enough for a film that clearly hopes to provide some perspective.
Despite its pedigree of Brando, post-war Beat mentality, and produced by Stanley Kramer (who would go on to produce or direct some heavyweight classics), The Wild One is only now being released in the US in high definition. Even then, this release is as stripped down as any I've seen without bonus features or even chapter selection (probably an oversight). The film itself is either grainy or noisy, but certainly not the kind of smooth clarity you often see in black and white films. That said, a quick comparison with my DVD version of the film (from the Stanley Kramer collection) is a significant upgrade, restoring the film to its original aspect ratio and providing far better detail in those long shots.
There are no bonus features.
"The Wild One" is on sale March 17, 2015 and is rated . Drama. Directed by Laslo Benedek. Written by John Paxton. Starring Marlon Brando, Mary Murphy.