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Birth of a legend

And a culture—or sub-culture, or counter-culture.

What Do You Got? The Wild One, The Loveless and the Biker Movie
On the fourth of July weekend in 1947, a group of bikers rode into a small California town and, depending on who you believe, either had a great party or went on an orgy of destruction. This single incident – now famous as the Hollister Invasion or the Hollister Riot – created both the abiding myth of the outlaw biker and the renegade bike gang, and inspired the movie that provided the template for every other biker movie to follow.

The occasion was the first major bike rally held by the American Motorcycle Association in California since before World War Two, and while attendance was expected to be high, nobody anticipated what would really happen. Hollister – about two hundred miles south of San Francisco and inland from Monterey and Carmel – had always been friendly to bikers, hosting regular races and hill climbs on the Bolado Racetrack.

It had, according to Tom Reynolds’ Wild Ride: How Outlaw Motorcycle Myth Conquered America, “twenty-seven bars, twenty-one gas stations and only six policemen.” It had its own bike club, the Tophatters (still in existence today) – one of dozens, probably hundreds of groups of mostly ex-servicemen who got together to ride, race, drink and raise a bit of hell just before the Hell’s Angels formed a year after Hollister and took over the image of the outlaw biker forever.

Uhh, not to pick nits or anything, but having had a few good friends flying the Red & White patch over lo, these many years—enough of them to know it actually does matter to them, if no one else—technically it’s supposed to be Hells Angels, no apostrophe. Kinda undermines the author’s credibility a wee mite, I think. A bit odd too that, in this recounting of the Hollister debacle, no mention is made of the less-hyped but way worse Laconia whoopjamboreehoo in 1965. Then again, maybe nobody’s made a movie about that one yet. Speaking of Hollister and hype, though, the iconic Life magazine photo of one of the likkered-up, violent “rioters” is instructive:

As it turns out, the provocative pic was almost certainly staged by Life’s sensationalist “photojournalist” and his assistants:

The reliability of the striking photo has been debated, with some sources suggesting that the scene was overtly staged. While the photograph was taken by Barney Petersen of the San Francisco Chronicle. the Chronicle did not run it, nor any other images, in its initial two articles covering the event. The bearded individual standing in the immediate background of the photograph, Gus Deserpa, has said he is sure that the photograph was staged by Petersen, and gave the following account: “I saw two guys scraping all these bottles together, that had been lying in the street. Then they positioned a motorcycle in the middle of the pile. After a while this drunk guy comes staggering out of the bar, and they got him to sit on the motorcycle, and started to take his picture.” Deserpa claims he deliberately tried to sabotage the staging by stepping into the shot, but to no avail.

Barney Peterson’s colleague at the Chronicle, photographer Jerry Telfer, said it was implausible that Peterson would have faked the photos. Telfer said, “Barney was not the type to fake a picture. Barney was the kind of fellow who had a very keen sense of ethics, pictorial ethics as well as word ethics.”

And you can believe just as much or as little of that as you like; surely, no “journalist” would ever lie, right? RIGHT?!? Why, it’s simply UNPOSSIBLE!!!

Anyways. Onwards.

“Nobody has ever fully explained what happened in the town on Independence Day weekend in 1947,” writes Reynolds, “because the allure of the myth is far more tantalizing than whatever facts can be gleaned from eyewitnesses or news photographs. Descriptions run from just a wild party to a rural version of the Rape of Nanking.”

Hollister would inspire a film, The Wild One (1953) – the film that Marlon Brando made between A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954) and arguably did more than either film to create Brando’s persona, both on and off the screen. Its basic plot – bike gang comes into conflict with squares, causes mayhem/destroys small town/inspires vigilante payback – is really just a western with wheels instead of hooves, which is why it would be so easy to copy for decades to follow, in films with titles like Dragstrip Riot, The Wild Angels, Devil’s Angels, The Rebel Rousers, Angels from Hell, She-Devils on Wheels, Satan’s Sadists, Angel Unchained and dozens more whose plots vary as much as their titles.

The Wild One begins with a warning: “This is a shocking story,” the boldface card explains over a shot locked off just above the asphalt of a country road stretching to the vanishing point. “It could never take place in most American towns – but it did in this one.”

The first time I watched The Wild One as a teenager I constantly wondered when I’d seen it before; every plot point and conflict worn itself into the pop culture collective memory of the “biker picture” I shared with everyone else: the combination of curiosity, excitement and revulsion when the locals encounter Johnny Strabler (Brando) and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club; the gang’s goofy mix of childish provocation and cornball hipster slang; the belligerent square john local businessman who insists they have to take matters into their own hands and teach these hoodlums a lesson.

Even Johnny’s signature line, among the most famous Brando ever uttered in his career (“Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” “What do you got?“) had been rendered as rote as pantomime by the time I finally saw it on screen and in context.

The Wild One – directed by László Benedek (Song of Russia, Death of a Salesman), produced by Stanley Kramer and based on “Cyclists’ Raid”, a short story by Frank Rooney published in Harper’s magazine – strains for relevance. Even the costume Lee Marvin wears as Chino, leader of rival bike gang The Beetles, is based on “Wino Willie” Forkner, founder of the Boozefighters, the outlaw gang that was blamed for most of the trouble in Hollister.

(Forkner was a consultant on The Wild One but quit in protest at the portrayal of bikers. The Boozefighters are still around, with chapters all over the world.)

Interestingly enough, and to my bemused astonishment when I learned of it, there’s a Boozefighters MC chapter in CLT, of all locales. I met a young fella in a Boozefighters cutoff at one of our Double Door shows, asked him about it, and saw him at several more of our shows after. Friendly, personable guy, in fact, accounting for my initial astonishment, since the original Boozefighters MC members (Wino Willie most definitely included) were notoriously some of the toughest, rowdiest, most flat-out dangerous one-percenters ever to fly a patch. Even first- and second-generation HA patch holders gave them respect, when they weren’t just avoiding them outright.

Despite my snarky dig at the author’s credibility before, it’s nonetheless a decent enough piece all in all. Certainly, his point about most of the biker-exploitation flicks being sub-par is not something I’ll dispute; I’ve seen all the ones he writes about and many more of the genre besides, and if you’re not into gazing at rip-snorting custom Harleys tearing around the landscape there ain’t much in ‘em for your average Joe Cager to enjoy.

One thing that does puzzle me a mite: contra his sniffy disdain for the biker movies of the 50s and 60s, McGinnis goes on to more-or-less gush at great length about The Loveless, characterizing it as a film with pretentions to High Art whose flaws prevent it from living up to its lofty cinematic ambitions. I saw it many years ago and thought it a real stinkburger myself, not even a patch on The Wild One, which I liked a lot back when I first saw it and still do now. Ultimately, though, even the presence of Willem DaFoe in his first starring role can’t quite redeem the flick for McGinnis:

As the film comes to its conclusion we’re waiting to see if the town is happening to the bikers or the bikers are happening to the town. The directors deliver just the right amount of sex and violence; by the time the smoke clears on the bodies they’ve made precisely the film a young man thought he was going to see when he paid for a ticket to The Wild Angels.

But the film hits its apex just before the cathartic explosion of gunshots and blood at the end, when the gang sit drunkenly around a table at the lounge, bragging about where they’re going and what they’re going to do. Dafoe’s Vance – with a straight face that hints at the talent he’d demonstrate repeatedly over the decades to follow – silences them all by bellowing out four words that impeccably sum up The Loveless:

We’re going nowhere. Fast.

As I recall, the friends with whom I watched The Loveless on VHS erupted in gales of laughter at DaFoe’s simultaneously wooden yet canned-hammy delivery of that line. “Bellowed”? Not in the movie I saw, it wasn’t. Mumbled, more like, or maybe grunted. DaFoe’s face shot adoringly from below as he runs the line; lit cigarette a-dangle from his lips; meticulously-coiffed pompadour afloat over his head like an angel’s halo; trying his very damnedest to look menacing and failing miserably: it was the best unintentionally-comedic performance of all time, hands down. He shoulda won an Oscar for it, assuming there’s a category for such. Happily for all concerned, Willem DaFoe overcame this embarrassing misfire, going on to become one of our finest actors ever.

In any event, The Loveless is as dull, flaccid, and aimless a movie as I ever did sit through. Too-pretty actors turning in lifeless performances; a shambolic, meandering plot arc; disjointed scenes in which the sole point seems to be striking sultry, cliched, wholly-unconvincing tough-guy poses for the camera; unidimensional, affectless, and un-relatable characters; a piss-poor excuse for a “script” bodged together by writers who obviously know no more about bikers than I do about writing screenplays; ludicrous, stilted dialogue no self-respecting real-world biker would ever be caught dead uttering, The Loveless does somehow pull off the cinematic quasi-miracle of being both overblown and underwhelming.

Any of y’all miscreants with a hankering some lazy summer evening to curl up on the couch with some popcorn, a cold beer, and a real, honest to God biker flick, just check out Hells Angels Forever instead, that’s my advice.

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