The Brief Ride of the Biker Movie
For a brief historical moment, bikers took center screen. “Outlaw” motorcycle clubs were the subject of approximately forty movies released between 1966 and 1974. Although the films varied in popularity, eight successfully made Variety’s annual top box-office rental list. Produced by small independent film companies, these movies marked the most recent releases of filmmakers who had looked to the nation’s youth as their audience. Since the mid-1950s, studios such as American International Pictures (AIP) had made features specifically for teenagers, typically shown in drive-in theaters. Initially, these movies were genre pictures—westerns, science fiction stories, horror movies—that supplanted adult roles with teens. By the early 1960s, teen films focused on an idealized and optimistic vision of teen life, perhaps best embodied by the Beach Party series inaugurated in 1963. By 1965, however, the studios recognized that the decade’s idealism had shifted to pessimism and rebellion. Wanting to make “protest pictures,” they turned to the nation’s headlines for inspiration (“From Sand in Bikini” 4). The motorcycle clubs who recently had incurred the ire of the authorities and the affection of the counterculture seemed the ideal subject matter.
By the mid-1960s, motorcycle clubs had become celebrities of sorts, attracting the attention of journalists nationwide and earning alternate reputations as cultural predators and as counter-cultural heroes. California Attorney General Thomas Lynch, in March 1965, issued a report detailing the activities of “outlaw” bikers in his state. News organizations across the nation subsequently turned their attention to the new social threat posed by these “hoodlums.” Publications such as the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek vilified the motorcycle clubs for months as violent degenerates and a public nuisance, as dangerous criminals who continuously sought “new nadirs of sordid behavior” (Donovan 23). In a May 1965 article in The Nation, journalist Hunter S. Thompson depicted the Hells Angels as “losers and outsiders,” while presenting the bikers as perverse talismans of a bankrupt culture. The Saturday Evening Post ran a cover story on the Hells Angels in November of that year; journalist William Murray, who had interviewed members of the Angels, police officers, and California citizens, attested to their potential for violence, while overwhelmingly characterizing the infamous motorcyclists as more pathetic than threatening.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, motorcyclists were the “holy primitives” of Haight-Ashbury, befriending groups like the Diggers and serving as security at the Fillmore. In 1965, Allen Ginsberg composed two poems about the Hells Angels, Ken Kesey invited bikers to his home in La Honda, and executives at small independent film studios such as AIP and Joe Solomon’s Fanfare Films began production on feature-length films about “outlaw” motorcycle clubs. AIP’s The Wild Angels (1966) became the first entry in the biker movie cycle, and became the studio’s highest grossing feature to that date, the thirteenth highest box office rental film of the year, and an American entry in the Venice film festival. Its enormous popularity encouraged the production of a cycle of biker movies.
Although critics derided the movies as “[b]ereft of social purpose, satire, or meaning,” young audiences disagreed (Alpert 40). As Joan Didion identified, biker movies became a “folk literature of sorts” for the youth of the 1960s and early 1970s (4). These cinematic bikers defied social norms, refused to participate in the capitalist economy, celebrated the freedom to make their own rules; these motorcyclist characters presented appropriate heroes to a youth culture embroiled in a generation gap. That mainstream publications were vilifying the very sort of people these movies depicted only furthered their appeal to the nation’s young.
However, as this essay will show, these movies also were conduits to reevaluate American myths at this moment of social upheaval. Biker movies were “westerns on wheels.” They borrowed the conventions and narratives of the western genre, but reinterpreted their meanings in light of the changes in the American cultural landscape. By the ending years of the 1960s, the western’s popularity was dwindling. When westerns did appear on screen, they often were self-reflexive critiques of the form or ironic renderings of an outdated story. If the western is an affirmation of American ideological principles, then logically during this period when some Americans doubted the legitimacy of these values, these narratives would seem anachronistic at best, grossly chauvinistic and dangerous at worse. Specifically, as American participation in the Vietnam War escalated and domestic social tensions became inflamed, the heretofore privileged place of violence within American mythology became suspect. The biker movie, as an extension of the western, participated in a larger redefinition of this foundational American narrative. The very face of heroism was changing, and the hero of the biker movies was an important entry into the iconic grab bag of the sixties. Responding to the mounting pessimism and cynicism of the nation’s youth, biker movies updated this seminal American narrative by interrogating the salience of its very premise.
Origins of the Biker Movie
The Wild One (1953) first introduced film audiences to the “outlaw” motorcycle club. The film is based on a 1951 short story, “Cyclist’s Raid” by Frank Rooney, which, in turn, is a fictionalized account of the events of July 4th weekend in Hollister, CA in 1947. That weekend, motorcycle clubs had interrupted an American Motorcycle Association race and stirred up a little trouble in the town. The event may have gone unnoticed had it not been for a San Francisco Chronicle photographer at the scene. In its July 21 issue, Life ran a full-page photo of one of the “delinquent” motorcyclists. It was an image of a biker leaning back on his motorcycle, mouth gaping open, beer bottles scattered all around him. Although the photo was staged and the accompanying article exaggerated, they combined to create the first American image of the “outlaw” motorcyclist.
Members of the Boozefighters, one of the clubs in Hollister that day, objected to the presentation of events in The Wild One, claiming that the townspeople had greeted the motorcyclists with “open arms,” and not the trepidation that the film depicts (Krikorian 1). Ironically, it is this very story that producer Stanley Kramer wished to tell in his film. Kramer intended to focus on the degradations of the townspeople, not solely the threat posed by the bikers. Specifically, he wanted his movie to show the town welcoming the bikers because of the potential profits to be made from them. If, at the end of the day, the town was a mess, then Kramer was going to illustrate how the citizens equally participated in its destruction (Kramer 53-54).
The Production Code Administration (PCA) of the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) disapproved of the film. Since The Wild One was a Columbia Pictures release, Kramer needed to get it approved by the PCA to be able to exhibit it. The PCA asserted that the movie had an anti-capitalistic stance, that its message was anti-American, and that the film was thus unacceptable. To get a code seal of approval, the PCA insisted that Kramer remove his overt condemnation of the town’s business owners, and instead highlight the degeneracy of the bikers. Kramer grudgingly complied, eliminating material and tacking on a segment at the end in which a law officer denounces the club (Kramer 56-57).
Labeled The Sun Also Rises for bikers, The Wild One was the first major popular cultural representation of the “outlaw motorcyclist”—a new post-war breed of outlaw. Marlon Brando’s Johnny and Lee Marvin’s Chino became totem figures to a subculture gradually gaining momentum during the 1950s. The Wild One was a site of iconic origins. Many of the films in the biker movie cycle incorporated elements of this film into their narratives. Specifically, its emphasis on the cohesion of the biker family and its characterization of the motorcyclists’ disdain for the “conventional” lifestyle would reoccur in later biker movies. It is the final resolutions of the films and in their depiction of townspeople where these stories strayed from The Wild One model.
Historians often link The Wild One with Rebel without a Cause (1955)and Blackboard Jungle (1955), understanding it as a film that addressed the ubiquitous post-war concern over juvenile delinquency. As in these other ’50s narratives, by the end of The Wild One law and order has been restored and social unrest has been quelled. Although starring teen idols like Brando and James Dean, these movies ultimately expose the antics of the youths as hazardous and valorize the authority figures who counter them. The Wild One became less of a meditation on the cultural rebellion expressed by members of motorcycle clubs and more of a chastisement of its consequences.
While fears over delinquency would continue to concern motion pictures, motorcycle clubs would not be featured again until the early 1960s. Avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger released Scorpio Rising in 1964, an experimental film composed of thirteen segments set against the soundtrack of thirteen pop songs. Over the course of the film, Scorpio (Bruce Byron) shifts from passively viewing images of motorcyclists to becoming a participating member in the rites of a motorcycle club. Anger splices in iconic images throughout the film, beginning with pop culture figures like Brando and Dean and ending with charismatic leaders. As scholar Juan Suarez illustrates, Scorpio Rising aligned itself with other avant-garde movies of the 1960s, using film as a medium to explore the interaction between mass culture and the consumer public (162).
Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho! (1965) centers on a motorcycling trio of villains that preys upon unsuspecting victims. The leader of the group, Brahmin (Stephen Oliver), turns out to be a psychotic and delusional war veteran. Ultimately, all three die—Brahmin kills his cohorts, and the film’s hero Cory (Alex Rocco) kills Brahmin. Essentially, in Motorpsycho! Meyer fuses the “forgotten man” war veteran trope with that of the biker “outlaw.” In this movie, not only does the veteran not fit into American culture, he has become a predator upon it. To amplify the film’s punchline, Cory is a veterinarian; it is this type of “vet,” in the end, that the film celebrates.
Significant entries into the catalogue of images of bikers presented to the American public, Scorpio Rising and Motorpsycho! differ from the biker movies detailed in the next section. The biker exploitation movies that followed share narrative conventions and tropes, comprising a sub-genre of their own. Ostensibly detailing the activities of actual motorcycle clubs, these films presented themselves as ethnographies on bikers to exploit the mounting interest in motorcyclists at this time. Additionally, as modern-day westerns, these films consistently drew upon the popularity on motorcycle clubs and evaluated their protagonists to comment on the mythic role of the biker.
Biker Movies and the Western
Reflecting back on The Wild Angels (1966), director Roger Corman writes, “I saw the Hell’s Angel riding free as a modern-day cowboy. The chopper was his horse” (133). Corman and screenwriter Chuck Griffith had interviewed members of the Hells Angels before making The Wild Angels. Everything in the film, according to Corman, was based on the stories they had been told by the club (Canby 15, Corman 132-33). And yet in the act of putting them on screen, Corman and other filmmakers transformed motorcycle clubs into mythic figures, “modern-day cowboys,” allowing their stories to comment on the overhaul of cultural assumptions taking place in this period—at least for some of the nation’s youth. Just as the cinematic gunfighter steadily was disappearing into a fading sunset, the cinematic biker roared onto the screen and assumed his place as the Westerner’s mythic successor.
The conflict which rests at the center of the western—the tension between civilization and savagery—speaks both to the way in which Americans have viewed their past and to the current issues facing them presently. In other words, as historian Richard Slotkin has shown, Americans continuously have used this conflict as an ideological tool to process current events. By invoking frontier iconography, by reading contemporary problems as manifestations of the civilization/savagery dichotomy, Americans confirm the vitality of the narrative while applying its lessons to new issues. Though this conflict can be represented racially—white vs. Indian—this is but one of the manifestations open to the cinematic western narrative. The hero, like James Fenimore Cooper’s Hawkeye before him, is attracted to both civilization and savagery. If the hero is to be our hero, he must choose civilization. The story often ends with a final act of violence, through which the hero both physically eliminates the threat of savagery for the community and destroys the attraction to the “dark side” within him. This act of violence is a spiritual purging, what Slotkin refers to as “regeneration through violence” (352).
The films of the biker movie cycle are what cultural historian John Cawelti would term post-westerns—films that borrow the symbols, tropes, and narrative concerns of the western but situate them in a new setting and context (102). Indeed, the biker movies examine what happens after the Westerner has established law and order and paved the way for civilization to flourish. Essentially, an underlying premise of the biker movie is that the Westerner did his job too well. The outcome of his efforts is a world of confines and restrictions, of immorality and conformity. If westerns center on the bringing of civilization to a savage world, then the biker films examine what happens when the symbols of civilization prove to be morally bankrupt, to be savage. If westerns tout the individualism of their hero, then the biker movies celebrate the fraternity of the motorcycle club that forms the narrative focal point of their stories. If westerns emphatically take place in a mythic past, then biker movies are of the contemporary moment. If the western traverses the barren wilderness, then the terrain of the biker movie is the mechanized highway. If the violence in the western is validated by its role in establishing civilization while purging savagery, then the violence in the biker movie is ambiguous—simultaneously valid and excessive. The cowboy of yore has become the contemporary biker; no longer is he the agent of civilization, but the man whom civilized society has left behind.
The biker movies center on outlaw motorcycle clubs. Typically, one member of the club stands apart from the rest. By the end of the narrative, he will conclude that the biker lifestyle is unsatisfactory and leave the club. The films do not make clear where he will go or what he will do after leaving the club. He stands at the movies’ conclusion as an existential hero. In The Wild Angels, Blues (Peter Fonda) kneels alone at the end of the film; to his girlfriend’s request to go, he responds “There’s nowhere to go.” In Devil’s Angels (1967), Cody (John Cassavetes) wanders through a biker-besieged town in mute torment; he ultimately mounts his motorcycle and rides off by himself to some unknown destination. In these films, the existential hero is also the leader of the fictitious motorcycle club. In other films, he is a novice rider who from the outset questions the values of the bikers.
Two guiding principles underline the ethics of the motorcycle clubs. The first is a desire to be free from the confines of the “straight” world. Virtually every biker movie contains a scene in which one of the members of the club articulates this governing value of the bikers. The motorcycle “outlaws” want to be free to do as they please, to set their own rules, to live according to their desires and whims, to “not be hassled by the Man.” Essentially, the bikers strive to live outside the confines of “straight” society. While the heroes in the westerns often bring law and order to a town besieged by chaos, the bikers seek to throw off what they perceive to be the shackles that “law and order” mandate. The world of the “citizens” represents the logical extension of the gunfighter’s efforts. The rigid social mores and rules that govern their society are the outgrowth of the civilization brought to the community by the western hero. Whereas the western equated civilization with progress, the biker movie conflates it with stasis and rigidity.
The second, essential biker value is his feeling of fraternity with his fellow club members. Although the films do depict in-fighting amongst the bikers, the bikers band together to fight when faced with an outside foe. The films firmly establish the cohesion of the biker family. The plot of The Wild Angels centers on the club members’ efforts to aid one of its members, the Loser (Bruce Dern), without ever questioning the danger in which such actions put them. At the start of Devil’s Angels, the club unites to shield one of its members from police attention; in part, they skip town together so that the police will not have the opportunity to arrest a club member. At the end of the film, another motorcycle club willingly joins them in their efforts to exact revenge on a small town. In Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967), when a group of sailors attack Poet (Jack Nicholson), the club immediately sets out for retribution. While resisting participation in the larger society, the bikers form an extended family.
However, the biker movies occasionally depict motorcycle clubs in conflict with one another. At the start of Hells Angels on Wheels, the Angels fight another club whose members had wronged them prior to the beginning of the film’s narrative. The Glory Stompers (1967)is a modern captivity narrative, in which members of the title club chase the Black Souls, a rival club who had kidnapped a Stomper girlfriend. Yet these rivalries ultimately serve to affirm the bikers’ code of ethics. In Hells Angels on Wheels, the initial fight with the rival gang presents the opportunity for Poet, a motorcyclist who has not yet joined the Angels, to demonstrate his collegiality with the Angels by fighting with them. In addition, the fight between the clubs reiterates the establishment of the bikers’ hermetic communities and their status outside the larger community: they resolve conflicts themselves and do not solicit the aid of outside parties. In this vein, the plot of The Glory Stompers affirms the primacy of biker fraternity. Though Darryl (Jody McCrea) begins his pursuit of his girlfriend alone, the additional bikers he meets along his journey join his search party without reservation. Additionally, the conflict between the rival groups, as in the other films, is solely their own affair to be settled on their own terms.
Although the bikers are unruly and violent, the “straight” townspeople and the police consistently are equally, if not more, debased and immoral. The importance of this aspect of the biker movie cannot be overstated. The cops in The Wild Angels mercilessly shoot the Loser in the back. At the film’s close, men from the town throw rocks at the Angels in the midst of the Loser’s funeral service. The sailors in Hells Angels on Wheels cruelly beat Poet without real provocation. In Devil’s Angels, the town’s leaders conspire and falsely accuse the club of raping a young woman, even though they know the charge is not legitimate. Both the town citizens and the police in Born Losers (1967) sit cowardly by as they witness the gang’s brutality upon their fellow citizens. If the violence perpetrated by the bikers is deemed wrong by the film’s narrative, equally immoral is the citizens’ and police’s allowance of it.
The violence in the biker movie consistently is shaded in morally ambiguous tones. In The Wild Angels, the club beats a group of Mexicans believed to have stolen the Loser’s motorcycle. Although ostensibly meting out justice for being wronged, the bikers far outnumber the Mexicans and the violence the Angels unleash on them seems excessive and cruel. Although the townspeople clearly wrong the bikers in Devil’s Angels, the morality of the bikers’ decision to tear apart the town and to brutalize individual inhabitants is questionable. When the bikers in Hells Angels on Wheels exact revenge on the sailors who beat Poet, they do so with such fervor and glee that they ultimately kill one of their opponents; the motivation for the violence is sanctioned, but the severity of its implementation is in question. While the violence in the western is necessary for both the hero’s regeneration and the community’s sanctity, the violence in the biker movie serves neither purpose. Contrarily, the violence serves to highlight the insufficient resolution to the conflicts in its narrative. Not only is the tone of the violence ambiguous, its result typically is nefarious. The attack on the Mexicans in The Wild Angels leads to Loser’s injury and subsequent death; the havoc wreaked on the town in Devil’s Angels provokes the fragmentation of the biker family; the murder of the sailor in Hells Angels on Wheels necessitates the bikers to move about furtively, constantly watching over their shoulders for the police. The violence in biker movies does not resolve anything; rather, it begets more trouble and turmoil for the biker protagonists.
Significantly, bikers are not men who use guns. Almost all their violent acts are fist-fights. The bikers physically intimidate and subordinate their opponents without the need of a weapon. If they do use objects other than their fists, typically they are “found” objects: chain belts, pipes from their motorcycles. Bikers are men of brute force, not of skill or dexterity. If they win a fight, it is because there are more of them than their opponents. Their fighting strategy is never especially clever or well plotted. They hit hard, hit often, and hit fearlessly. Consequently, the fight scenes in biker movies tend towards the gruesome. Harm is not inflicted cleanly or swiftly. The fight scenes are often long, protracted events in which the victim/victims emerge bloody and bruised. However, and this perhaps accounts for their choice of methods, bikers do not intend to kill. Deaths do result from the beatings occasionally, but they are never the goal of the bikers’ violent actions and consequently become causes of concern for the club.
Violence, in the biker movies, is an expression of rage. The bikers do not hope to gain anything tangible from the acts. The fights become events at which the bikers can exact revenge for a perceived wrong or moments when they can unleash their anger in general. The very act of hitting appears cathartic for the outlaws. They seemingly take pleasure from the fights, not because of the harm they inflict but from the physical actions they perform. The violence therefore in the films, like so many of the other aspects of the biker movie, is hedonistic. It serves no purpose other than to allow the bikers to physically act out the rage that motivates their very identity as bikers.
This continual cycle of violence defines the biker’s being and provides the impetus for the existential hero’s dissatisfaction with the biker lifestyle. As Blues in The Wild Angels watches the fight between the citizens and the club at the film’s close, he realizes that this type of display is routine for the biker lifestyle, that even the sanctity of a funeral is not respected. Cody, throughout the narrative in Devil’s Angels, seeks to find a safe haven for his club where they can live unmolested. His girlfriend rightly indicates that a peaceful existence goes against the very grain of the personalities of the club members. The bikers like to “have a ball,” to mock and sometimes to terrorize straight society. By the film’s end, Cody recognizes the true face of his peers and rides off alone. Poet, in Hells Angels on Wheels, quickly tires of the transitory existence of the biker, deeming life on the lam to be unsatisfactory. However, because the straight world is equally unappealing, the biker hero at the end of these films stands alone with no place to go. If the western hero walks off into the sunset, the biker hero rides off into a seeming abyss.
While the biker movies present “straight” citizens as immoral, they reveal the symbols of civilization to be ineffective as well. A consistent trope, then, of the biker film is the desecrated church. In virtually every film, the bikers find a way to defile a church. In The Wild Angels, the outlaws turn the Loser’s funeral service into an orgy; they overturn church pews, drink beer, place the preacher in a coffin, and rape the deceased widow. When one of the Angels gets married in Hells Angels on Wheels, his biker pals drive their motorcycles into the church. In Born Losers, the motorcycle outlaws have converted an abandoned mission to their meeting house and pleasure den, where they turn girls into “mamas,” a process that involves gang rape. This mistreatment of churches seems to be an overt reworking of the symbols of the western. In the western, the church often functions as a symbol of progress and civilization. It is a signifier or the moral good for which the hero fights. In desecrating the church, the biker movie indicates that these values no longer hold sway, that, like the sanctuaries that contain them, the values of the church are ripe for defilement.
Although women often appear in the films as girlfriends or “mamas,” female characters in biker movies are fairly incidental. If they are not silently standing by their men, they are cavorting half-naked at one of their parties. In rare cases, such as Shill (Sabrina Scharf) in Hells Angels on Wheels, women become Eve-like temptresses who disrupt the solidarity of the biker fraternity. In films like Born Losers and Devil’s Angels, female “citizens” become victims of biker attacks. Personifying “straight” society, these women function as conduits through which the bikers can exact their rage and frustration at the very world against which they rebel. Mostly, however, women in biker movies function as big-haired, leather-jacketed accessories that punctuate the bikers’ virility. The love that the bikers feel is for one another; women are just along for the ride. Furthermore, the diminished role of women in these films symbolically marks a reworking of the western. In the western, women often act as civilizers, as embodiments of the very values that Westerner ultimately protects. While initially deploring the violent methods of the Westerners, the women eventually accept his tactics as necessary to pave the way for her values. The silencing of women in the biker movies indicates once again that, in the contemporary context of the biker film, symbols of the western are anachronistic.
The peripheral role of women additionally accents another trope of the biker movie. Bikers in the films often allude to or perform homoerotic acts. One of the Black Souls in The Glory Stompers mouths “I love you,” to a Glory Stomper. Daniel (Jeremy Slate) and one of his cronies kiss passionately in a scene in Born Losers. This behavior serves to accentuate the hyper-masculine pose of the bikers. That they can kiss men, and still be mean and tough, proves just how manly the motorcyclists are. Furthermore, the homoeroticism complements and intensifies the solidarity and fraternity of the motorcycle club. Bikers are not individualists, but a collection of disempowered white men who collectively recognize their displaced role within the culture. The homoeroticism underscores their rejection of domesticity and family, of more traditional male roles. Additionally, it contributes to the blatant misogyny that informs the films.
The biker movie, to be sure, always provides authenticating details with regard to its subjects. However, each of these authenticating details carries out a dual function. Obviously, they lend an air of validity to the characterization of the heroes and the stories contained within the film. Although works of fiction, part of the appeal of the biker films rested in their ability to exploit a public fascination with actual motorcycle “outlaws.” Yet these details have narrative, or mythic, functions as well. The costuming of the bikers in denim or leather, with the club’s insignia on their backs, amplifies the seeming cohesion of the biker fraternity. The biker uniform visually sets them apart from the rest of the community in the film and unifies them with one another in their similar dress
But perhaps the most ubiquitous and commented-upon element in the films is the Nazi insignia which the bikers wear and the Nazi flags that hang prominently in their clubhouses. The flaunting of swastikas and iron crosses, an actual practice of 1960s motorcycle club members, functions in a similar way as the other authenticating details of the films: it points to the fact that the films, though works of fiction, additionally document the behaviors of real “outlaw” motorcyclists. The Wild Angels, however, cleverly manipulates the use of iron crosses to flesh out the characterization of its heroes. At the start of the film, Blues gets into a fight with a construction worker over the iron cross he wears around his neck. The worker takes offense, as he fought the Nazis in World War II. His patriotic identity stems from his war service. Blues, contrarily, maintains that it his right to wear whatever he pleases, regardless of whom it offends. The biker hero derives his sense of Americanness from his ability to be free, to do as he pleases. And thus the use of Nazi paraphernalia serves simultaneously as an important ethnographic detail about biker outlaws and as a plot device that illuminates the character of the heroes.
The “runs” (group trips) on which the bikers go in the film, again reference a common practice of actual motorcycle clubs. Once they reach their destinations they drink to excess, their women dance around half naked, and often a fight breaks out. The runs provide a narrative excuse for the movies to film the bikers on their motorcycles, riding about to a rock ’n’ roll score, as well as provide an opportunity to include a party scene in the film. Additionally, these journeys visually signify the bikers’ romance with the road, their love of speed, their embrace of mobility. As they ride upon the open road, often surrounded by a beautiful landscape, the bikers symbolize freedom. They appear rootless and unfettered by the confines of home and employment. And though the runs invoke the journey narratives of previous westerns, they also punctuate a distinction between the bikers and the gunfighters. A moral or ethical concern typically motivates the gunfighter to travel, to take to the road. For the bikers, their main impetus to travel is to seek out a good time. Their journeys are solely self-indulgent and lack any meaning for people outside of their hermetic community.
If the biker movie has a point of view, it is one of pessimism and nihilism. Not only does it systematically show modern, civilized society to be debased and immoral, but it also ultimately offers no viable replacement for it. The violent actions of the bikers, although an expression of frustration and rage, never resolve conflicts and additionally beget more trouble for the club. And for all of their antics, by the end of the narratives nothing has changed save the place of the existential hero within their ranks. Through the condemnation of the mainstream, the narratives seem to condone the bikers’ antagonistic relationship with “straight” society. However, the films ultimately show that their rebellion is impotent. To be a hero in these films is to recognize the futility of it all.
The ambiguous violence, the anti-heroic posturing of the protagonists, and the nihilist worldview all speak to the mood in the larger culture at the moment of the films’ production. Just as filmmakers turned to the western to address Cold War concerns in the 1950s, so too did this genre—in the form of the biker movie—become a conduit to grapple with the tumultuous changes instigated by the nation’s youth of the late 1960s and ’70s. As the generation gap grew ever wider and post-World War II patriotism shifted to Vietnam era cynicism, the biker movie became a way to meditate on traditional American cultural values.
More than any other biker movie, Easy Rider (1969) is overtly a modern-day western. Peter Fonda conceived of the film in a hotel room in 1967 while he was promoting his second film for AIP, The Trip. He spied a film still from The Wild Angels. In the photo, he and Bruce Dern sat side-by-side, astride motorcycles. This image inspired Fonda to a film about two motorcyclists in the tradition of The Searchers. Although it was the middle of the night, heimmediately telephoned his friend and Trip co-star Dennis Hopper and told him his idea. Fonda was to produce the film, Hopper to direct, and both would write the screenplay. Bert Schneider and Bob Rafaelson’s production company, Raybert, financed the film and arranged its distribution through Columbia (Biskind, Easy Riders 61). Thus, Easy Rider was the product of biker movie veterans. Fonda and Hopper each had starred in biker movies previously, The Wild Angels and The Glory Stompers respectively. Co-star Jack Nicholson had been in two biker movies, Hells Angels on Wheels and The Rebel Rousers (1968). And cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs had photographed Hells Angels on Wheels prior to Easy Rider.
Easy Rider is an inverted western, or what Seth Cagin and Philip Dray refer to as an “eastern” (53). Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda) travel from west to east, reversing the traditional direction of the western narrative. This plot device carries clear symbolic implications. If the promise of the frontier rests in the assurance that one can always “go west” to be free, then Easy Rider suggests that this very freedom is not to be found in the westernmost city. The film makes its most overt claim to being an updated western in an early sequence. Billy and Wyatt stop at a rancher’s home to fix a tire on one of their motorcycles. The camera crosscuts between the bikers removing the tire on the motorcycle and the rancher placing a horseshoe on his horse. The final shot of the sequence is a long shot in deep focus of the bikers in the background and the rancher in the foreground. This shot visually unites the rancher and the biker, suggesting that they are one and the same.
Easy Rider further identifies itself as an updated version of the western in its use of costume. Billy’s costuming in the film, buckskin jacket and cowboy hat, identifies him as a frontiersman. On the other hand, Wyatt’s costume, black leather pants and a black leather jacket, visually establishes him as a biker, and recalls the costuming of Fonda in The Wild Angels. Quite consciously, Easy Rider consistently places the biker (Wyatt) side-by-side with the frontiersman (Billy). The allegiance between the two characters makes explicit what previous biker movies left implied: that the biker is the modern version of the cowboy. A significant difference, however, accents Wyatt’s costume. Sown on the back of his leather jacket, and additionally painted on his helmet and motorcycle, is an American flag. The flag replaces the “colors” typically found on the back of bikers’ jackets. As a biker’s “colors” publicly declare the site of his allegiance, Wyatt’s “colors” suggest that his loyalty belongs to America, that his values are patriotic. Indeed, the film itself grandly grapples with the meaning of “America,” and posits that perhaps these motorcycle outlaws best represent its values, specifically the cherished-yet-intangible value of freedom. Wyatt’s moniker, Captain America, further punctuates this characterization.
As in previous biker movies, Easy Rider presents an existential hero. At the film’s end, Billy proclaims, “We did it, we did it. We’re rich, Wyatt.” Wyatt retorts, “You know Billy, we blew it.” Wyatt does not elaborate, but stares into the fire as Billy sits confused next to him. Billy’s confusion is understandable. The bikers’ stated goal throughout the film was to go to Mardi Gras, a task that they accomplished. Wyatt’s statement indicates that their life on the road as bikers is unsatisfying. As in the other biker movies, Wyatt’s comment belies the recognition that violence is a normal part of their lives. His demeanor changes after George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), lawyer and southern eccentric who joins the duo for part of their trip, is murdered while sleeping. Although he goes along with Billy’s whims in New Orleans, Wyatt does so somewhat grudgingly. George’s death serves as an epiphantic moment for Wyatt and consequently prompts his disavowal of his lifestyle.
A central difference, though, between Easy Rider and its biker movie kin is in its portrayal of violence. The violence in Easy Rider is not ambiguous, nor is it performed by the bikers in the film. Instead, citizens brutally murder first George and later Billy and Wyatt. The film defines the motivation for these acts as prejudice against the bikers based solely on their appearance. The killers are demons, sadistic “weirdo hicks.” The violence is morally wrong, as the victims are helpless and guilty of no crime.
An additional departure from previous biker films occurs in the film’s final climax. Though biker movies end with an act of violence, the existential hero does not die; rather, he typically stands or rides alone, uncertain of what to do next. The biker movies, therefore, present a somewhat nihilistic view of the world. The ending sentiments of the films express anxiety and ambiguity. The biker movies offer no pat resolutions, no defining final acts. And while Easy Rider seems to be heading in that direction with Wyatt’s “We blew it” comment, the heroes then die at the hand of vicious “hicks.” At the end of the film, regardless of Wyatt’s comment, Easy Rider unequivocally denounces the behavior of these citizens and in the process redeems its heroes. While previous biker movies ultimately will not allow their audiences to glorify the bikers, Easy Rider’s conclusion seemingly demands it.
The impact of Easy Rider on American culture was, in the words of film historian Peter Biskind, “seismic” (Easy Riders 74). Produced for around $300,000, Easy Rider made over $30 million. And while the critical reception of the previous biker movies was unequivocally negative, critics revered Easy Rider, instantly recognizing the cultural import of the film. Easy Rider’s overwhelming critical and commercial success marked it as the most significant film featuring bikers of the era. In part, Easy Rider’s distribution through Columbia accounts for its enormous popularity. This studio had far greater resources than the smaller firms distributing the other biker movies of the era, and could spend more money on publicity as well as gain access to bigger markets for its films. Additionally, Easy Rider was the first film to include a soundtrack composed of current rock songs by a variety of artists. Indeed, the music in the film—songs ranging from Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” to the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow”—acts as a Greek chorus of sorts, articulating the values of our inarticulate heroes. The film’s greater exposure and innovative use of contemporary music likely contributed to the larger audience that made Easy Rider one of the highest grossing films of the year.
While biker movies continued to be made after Easy Rider’s release, their popularity diminished. Recognizing the declining currency of these movies, filmmakers exploded the conventions of the biker film and created such generic cross-breeds as Werewolves on Wheels (1967), Pink Angels (1972), and The Black Six (1974). By 1974, biker movies all but vanished. Although motorcyclist characters would continue to appear in films, mainly as stock villains, their moment at center screen had ended.
The Legacy of the Biker Movie
When the Guggenheim museum launched The Art of the Motorcycle exhibit in 1998, it included a film component. From June 26 to July 31, the Guggenheim showed approximately forty movies featuring motorcycles. The selections spanned both time periods and nations, and featured both mainstream and niche films. The movies in the show included Sherlock Jr. (1924), Orpheus (1949), The Wild One, Scorpio Rising, The Wild Angels, Electra Glide in Blue (1973), and La Belle Captive (1983) among others. This variety of films posited that motorcycles had multiple functions for people globally and throughout the twentieth century. The motorcycle had myriad meanings. It had to, for it was chosen by Guggenheim director Thomas Krens as the “perfect metaphor for the twentieth century” (16).
However, both reviews of the show and essays in the accompanying catalogue referenced a specific identity of the motorcyclist. The Art of the Motorcycle evoked images of “classically tattooed, leather-clad bikers,” of Hells Angels, of Marlon Brando in his Wild One persona. The show, then, was not merely an exploration of the motorcycle. It attested to the fact that motorcycles have become linked, in our collective cultural consciousness, to the “outlaw” element that rides it.
The films in the biker movie cycle helped codify this icon of the “outlaw motorcyclist.” Drawing on the notoriety of motorcycle clubs in the 1960s, and the concurrent affection that members of the counterculture developed for them, these movies participated in the construction of the image of the loutish cultural rebel—the social predator roaming about on his motorcycle. The biker movie cycle, however, focused on “outlaws” at a specific moment. The characterization of the bikers in these films both referenced practices of actual clubs and rendered motorcyclists in a mythic language drawn from the western. These films tapped the discontent of the nation’s young and addressed the nihilism that the era seemed to provoke. And although the biker movies have faded into the annals of cinematic obscurity, the biker characters they created have pervaded the cultural lexicon and continue to define many preconceptions of the motorcycle rider.
1 These films are The Wild Angels (1966), Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967), Born Losers (1967), Devil’s Angels (1967), Angels from Hell (1968), Mini-Skirt Mob (1968), The Savage Seven (1968), and Hell’s Angels ’69 (1969). See “Big Rental Pictures of 1966,” Variety 4 January 1967: 8; “Big Rental Films of 1967,” Variety 3 January 1968: 24; “Big Rental Pictures of 1968,” Variety, 8 January 1969:15; and “Big Rental Films of 1969,” Variety 7 January 1970, 15.
2 Virtually everyone associated with AIP in this period claims credit for the idea to make a movie about motorcycle clubs. Director Roger Corman writes that he got the idea to do the picture after seeing a Life article about the Hell’s Angels (131-32); Sam Arkoff, co-founder of AIP, states that he saw the Saturday Evening Post cover story on the Angels and decided to make a film about them (158). In Mark Thomas McGee’s history of AIP, producer Milt Moritz says that he got the idea for the film from the Saturday Evening Post article (167).
3 See, for example, “California Takes Steps to Curb Terrorism of Ruffian Cyclists,” New York Times16 March 1965:15; “10,000 in Beach Riot in New Hampshire,” New York Times 20 June 1965: 1; “Maryland Police Guard Against Cycle Brawlers,” New York Times 7 September 1965: 24.
4 Ginsberg’s poems are entitled “First Party at Ken Kesey’s with the Hell’s Angels” and “To the Angels.” The former is in Allen Ginsberg: Selected Poems 1947-1995 (New York: HarperCollins, 1996) 157. Ginsberg composed the latter to convince the Hells Angels to call off their plans to quell an anti-war protest scheduled for November 1965. He originally recited it on November 15, 1965 at San Jose State College. It later was reprinted in the Berkeley Barb 19 November 1965: 1-2; Liberation January 1966: 43-45; and in Thompson, Hell’s Angels 247-252. The meeting between Kesey and the bikers is described by Thompson and by Tom Wolfe in his 1968 book about Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. See Thompson, Hell’s Angels 227-252; and Wolfe 149-162.
5 “Big Rental Pictures of 1966,” Variety 4 January 1967: 8; “Lotsa Venice Festivaliers Liked AIP’s ‘Angels’ If Some Yanks Hated Theme,” Variety 14 September 1966: 13.
6 In his history of AIP, Mark Thomas McGee notes that the biker movie plots often were lifted directly from those of westerns (172).
7 The Wild One, 35mm, 79 min., Columbia Pictures, 1953.
8 Brock Yates illustrates that the photo, “Cyclist’s Holiday,” published in Life, 21 July 1947 was staged by showing an array of pictures in which the man depicted in the famous photo was positioned in a variety of ways, with a variety of expressions, in the same location, suggesting that the Life image was in no way candid or spontaneous (17-18).
9 The production code, composed in 1930, was a form of industry self-censorship. Fearful of government regulation and of the mounting Catholic opposition to the “loose” morality of motion pictures, members of the then Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) decided to impose a form of censorship upon the studios who were members of the MPPDA (Paramount, Loews-MGM, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., RKO Radio, Columbia, Universal, and United Artists). In 1934, the Production Code Administration was established to enforce the code. In 1968, the MPAA (post-World War II successor to the MPPDA) dismantled the code and replaced it with a film classification system.
10 In his 1965 article on the Hells Angels, Hunter S. Thompson writes of The Wild One: “The film had a massive effect on thousands of young California motorcycle buffs; in many ways, it was their version of The Sun Also Rises” (“Losers and Outsiders” 522). In his book on Los Angeles, Mike Davis echoes this assessment, referring to the film as the “bike rider’s answer to The Sun Also Rises” (402).
11 See, for example, Biskind, Seeing is Believing 138-141 and Gilbert 64-69.
12 Certainly as early as the 1930s, American films have examined the sometime shoddy treatment of veterans when they return to civilian life, as in the final sequence to Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). In addition, films like I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), explore the difficulty of veterans to re-acclimate to peace-time conditions. The returning veteran narrative shifted in the post-World War II years. Notably, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) focused on the psychological ramifications of military service on America’s young men.
13 The movies I have chosen to focus on in this essay are The Wild Angels, Devil’s Angels, Hell’s Angels on Wheels, The Glory Stompers, and Born Losers (in addition to a section on Easy Rider). I chose these films because, of the biker movies that were accessible, these were among the most popular and are representative of the types of narratives showcased in the biker movie cycle.
14 These are words spoken by Blues in The Wild Angels.
15 The vast majority of the biker movies center on all male outlaw motorcycle clubs. However, one of the variations was to narrate the exploits of an all-female motorcycle club. Specifically, She-Devils on Wheels (1968) tells the story of the Man Eaters, an all woman motorcycle club. Whereas most of the films in the biker movie cycle pit the bikers against the bourgeoisie, in She-Devils on Wheels the main conflict is framed as one between the sexes. The Man Eaters’ main adversaries are local men, as are their victims.
16 In actuality, most of the early biker movies largely escaped critical attention. Representative reviews follow: Howard Thompson writes of The Glory Stompers: “This one is just about rock bottom, with two gangs of filthy, lecherous young animals, the Glory Stompers and the Black Souls (all white) warring against each other, with time out for orgies” (52). Thompson has equally damning words for Born Losers: “Yesterday’s losers, as opposed to ‘The Born Losers,’ were the hapless people who trooped into the DeMille Theater to see a sickening little motorcycle melodrama from American International Pictures that is also a trailing catchall of most motorcycle film clichés to date” (16). By contrast, Easy Rider procured insightful praise. The Atlantic Monthly’s Dan Wakefield wrote that Easy Rider “is like a shock treatment communicated through film, pounding home the feel and sight and terror of casual, unnecessary, wanton violence in the most convincing and horrifying manner I have ever seen on the screen” (120). Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker stated: “Easy Rider speaks tersely and aptly for this American age that is both the best of times and the worst of times” (74). Newsweek’s Joseph Morgenstern summarized: “That is the true subject matter of ‘Easy Rider’: the wanton destructiveness of harmlessness. It is a movie myth, to be sure, but its essential truth is brought home by what we ourselves know of our trigger-happy hate-ridden nation in which increasing numbers of morons bear increasing numbers of arms” (98).
17 See, for example, Glassman and Michaud.
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Donovan, Hedley, ed. “The Wilder Ones.” Time 26 March 1965: 23.
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Gilliatt, Penelope. “Into the Eye of the Storm.” The New Yorker 19 July 1969: 74.
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Morgernstern, Joseph. “On the Road.” Newsweek 21 July 1969: 98.
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Thompson, Howard. “The Born Losers.” New York Times 19 April 1967: 16.
---. “The Glory Stompers.” New York Times 28 March 1968: 52.
Thompson, Hunter S. Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. 1967. New York: Ballantine, 1996.
---. “The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders.” The Nation 17 May 1965: 521-526.
Wakefield, Dan. “The War at Home.” The Atlantic Monthly October 1969: 120
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