The first known motorcycle movie was filmed in the UK over 100 years ago, in December 1909. It was a short film about a boy who attached a small explosive charge to his brother’s motorcycle, which exploded and wrecked a house. The movie was called “The Uncontrollable Motorcycle”. Like all films of that time, it was black and white and silent.
Overall, only a few motorcycle movies were produced before “The Wild One”, 1953. I have found only 14. Not many movies were filmed because they weren’t very popular among the audience. These were trite short films about motorcycle rides without any plot or development – just motorcycle racing, interesting primarily only those who rode motorcycles.
“The Wild One” – The First Iconic Biker Movie
The forerunners of modern bikers were quite rebellious and cocky and were frequently stirring up mayhem. One of such riots that received wide media coverage happened during a motorcycle race in Hollister in 1947.
Particularly this riot inspired the movie “The Wild One”. Thanks to the film, people who had never heard of bikers learned about their subculture, principles, and concepts. Some loved the movie so much that they decided to join the biker movement.
In my opinion, the success and iconic status of the movie can be attributed to the combination of several factors:
- First of all, a very successful main character cast. Of course, I am talking about Marlon Brando. He was a trendy and influential actor of that time, just like Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr. today.
- Depiction of biker life in the raw.
- The theme of confrontation between a bad but charismatic biker played by Brando and a very violent villain biker ends, naturally, with the victory of the hero, Brando.
- Brando character’s beautiful love interest and love story.
- Confrontation of law-abiding inhabitants of a small town with aggressive and violent biker gangs.
The influence of “The Wild One” on biker cinema was so significant that most biker films that followed it in the 50s and 60s repeated its main storylines and clichés. In addition, particularly thanks to “The Wild One,” the leather jacket became synonymous with the biker jacket.
Rise of biker movies
The success of «The Wild One» drew Hollywood bosses’ attention to bikers and compelled them to invest in biker movies. If in the 1960s only around 4 films about bikers were released yearly, in the 1970s, their number grew to 9. However, as often happens, producers and directors neglected quality in pursuit of quantity.
“Easy Rider” was the only film from that period to gain cult status. The movie stood out among other biker movies due to its unusual approach. Instead of showing rebellious bikers, it focused on biker philosophy and its contrast to the philosophy of ordinary people who cannot accept and believe in the real freedom of others.
Interestingly, there isn’t much of a plot in the picture – just two biker friends make solid cash on drug smuggling and travel around the States. On the way, they meet hippies, visit their commune, and end up in prison for a short time, where the rednecks confront them. One of the confrontations ends with the protagonists’ deaths. It was quite an extraordinary twist at that time to finish the movie with a tragic event rather than a happy end.
As for the influence on biker culture, “Easy Rider” spiked the popularity of bikes with an extended front wheel fork and star-striped coloring of the gas tank, and the song “Born To Be Wild” became an unofficial bikers’ anthem.
The Decline of Biker Movies
By the 1980s, moviegoers had been fed up with motorcycle movies, images of outlaw bikers, and the backstage of motorcycle clubs. This trend, with some exceptions, actually continues to the present – biker cinema has never been able to return to its heyday.
The most successful and famous biker movies released since the early 80s are:
- “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man” – it tells a story about two biker friends who just want to save their favourite bar from shutting down. Eventually, they have to deal with a corrupt banker to restore justice.
- “Beyond the Law” – the movie perfectly demonstrates biker beliefs and lifestyles, as well as how they differ from the generally accepted ones. Despite the stereotyped plot, where the cops are the good guys and the bikers are the bad guys, the film managed to attract the public’s attention with an excellent performance of the main villain, the biker club president.
- “Mad Max” – it is a series of films about the struggle of the main character, played by Mel Gibson, with biker gangs in a post-apocalyptic world.
Bikers in TV series
“Sons of Anarchy” is probably the most popular TV series about bikers of all time. From the very first moments, the project stuns with the elaboration of details that make you believe what is happening on the screen. I am talking about biker symbols, tattoos, and motorcycles – each is thought through and personalized, mirroring the owner’s character. And the lack of a clear division into positive and negative characters strengthens the series’ realism. Each character seems to be a real person and evokes an emotional response. In my opinion, there’s never been a better series about bikers before.