The Wild One is a 1953 American film directed by László Benedek and produced by Stanley Kramer. It is most noted for the character of Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando), whose persona became a cultural icon of the 1950s. The Wild One is considered to be the original outlaw biker film, and the first to examine American outlaw motorcycle gang violence.
The film’s screenplay was based on Frank Rooney’s short story “The Cyclists’ Raid”, published in the January 1951 Harper’s Magazine and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1952. Rooney’s story was inspired by sensationalistic media coverage of an American Motorcyclist Association motorcycle rally that got out of hand on the Fourth of July weekend in 1947 in Hollister, California. The overcrowding, drinking and street stunting were given national attention in the July 21, 1947 issue of Life Magazine, with a staged photograph of a wild drunken man on a motorcycle. The events, conflated with the newspaper and magazine reports, Rooney’s short story, and the film The Wild One are part of the legend of the Hollister riot.
The Wild One
The Black Rebels Motorcycle Club (BRMC), a gang led by Johnny Strabler, rides into Carbonville, California during a motorcycle race and causes trouble. A member of the gang, Mouse, steals the second-place trophy (the first place one being too large to hide) and presents it to Johnny. Stewards and policemen order them to leave.
The bikers head to Wrightsville, which only has one elderly, conciliatory lawman, Chief Harry Bleeker, to maintain order. The residents are uneasy, but mostly willing to put up with their visitors. When their antics cause Art Kleiner to swerve and crash his car, he demands that something be done, but Harry is reluctant to act, a weakness that is not lost on the interlopers. This accident results in the gang having to stay longer in town, as one member injured himself falling off his motorcycle. Although the young men become more and more boisterous, their custom is enthusiastically welcomed by Harry’s brother Frank who runs the local cafe-bar, employing Harry’s daughter, Kathie, and the elderly Jimmy.
At Frank’s cafe, Johnny meets Kathie and asks her out to a dance being held that night. Kathie politely turns him down, but Johnny’s dark, brooding personality visibly intrigues her. When Mildred, another local girl, asks him, “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”, he answers “Whaddaya got?” Johnny is attracted to Kathie and decides to stay a while. However, when he learns that she is the policeman’s daughter, he changes his mind. A rival biker gang, the Beetles, arrive and their leader, Chino, bears a grudge against Johnny. Chino reveals the two groups used to be one large gang before Johnny split it up. When Chino takes Johnny’s trophy, the two start fighting and Johnny wins.
Meanwhile, local Charlie Thomas stubbornly tries to drive through, he hits a parked motorcycle and injures Meatball, one of Chino’s bikers. Chino pulls Charlie out and leads both gangs to overturn his car. Harry intervenes and starts arresting Chino and Charlie, but when other townspeople remind Harry that Charlie would cause problems for him in the future, he only takes Chino to the station. Later that night some Beetles members harass the telephone switchboard operator into leaving, thereby disrupting the townspeople’s communication, while the BRMC abducts Charlie and puts him in the same jail cell as Chino, who is too drunk to leave with the gang.
Later, as both gangs wreck the town and intimidate the inhabitants, some bikers led by Gringo chase and surround Kathie, but Johnny rescues her and takes her on a long ride in the countryside. Frightened at first, Kathie comes to see that Johnny is genuinely attracted to her and means her no harm. When she opens up to him and asks to go with him, he rejects her. Crying, she runs away. Johnny drives off to search for her. Art sees and misinterprets this as an attack. The townspeople have had enough. Johnny’s supposed assault on Kathie is the last straw. Vigilantes led by Charlie chase and catch Johnny and beat him mercilessly, but he escapes on his motorcycle when Harry confronts the mob. The mob give chase, but Johnny is hit by a thrown tire iron and falls. His riderless motorcycle strikes and kills Jimmy.
Sheriff Stew Singer arrives with his deputies and restores order. Johnny is initially arrested for Jimmy’s death, with Kathie pleading on his behalf. Seeing this, Art and Frank step forward and testify that Johnny was not responsible for the tragedy, with Johnny being unable to thank them. The motorcyclists are ordered to leave the county, albeit paying for all damage. Returning alone to Wrightsville, however, Johnny re-visits the cafe to say goodbye to Kathie one final time. He acts as though he’s leaving after getting a cup of coffee, but he returns, genuinely smiles, and offers her his stolen trophy before exiting.