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The real-life event that inspired Marlon Brando film ‘The Wild One’

The story of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club portrayed in Stanley Kramer and László Benedek’s era-defining film, The Wild One, has become a cornerstone of American culture since its 1953 release. Based on Frank Rooney’s 1951 short story The Cyclists’ Raid, the all-time classic, The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, reached the hearts of the American youth, inspiring them to seek a sense of belonging through a hedonistic lifestyle. 

For its widespread influence, The Wild One has often been incorrectly cited as the start-line for Hell’s Angels, the most notorious biker gang in US history. However, as Hunter S. Thompson notes in his non-fictional account of his time living with and documenting the lives of the gang, titled Hell’s Angels, the group had begun long before The Wild One hit the screens. 

According to Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, the gang’s history stretches back to the First World War. “The Angels say they are named after a famous First World War bomber squadron that was stationed near Los Angeles and whose personnel raced around the area on motorcycles when they weren’t airborne.” That said, Thompson also notes that “there are others who say the Angels got their name from a 1930 Jean Harlow movie based on some script-writer’s idea of an Army Air Corps that may or may not have existed at the time of the First World War.”

Suspecting the Jean Harlow movie as the probable trigger for the earliest division of the Hell’s Angels biker gang, Hunter wrote: “It was called Hell’s Angels and no doubt was still being shown in 1950 when the restless [WWII] veterans who founded the first Angel chapter at Fontana were still trying to decide what to do with themselves.”

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So, while The Wild One may not have been the trigger for the Hell’s Angels’ early congregation, it was, without doubt, a gargantuan influence on the proliferation of outlaw motorcycle gang recruitment over the 1950s and ‘60s. 

Despite the film’s good judgement in siding with the good biker portrayed by Marlon Brando, most bikers inspired by the film would go on to brandish a dangerous sense of self-worth. “The Wild One was careful to distinguish between ‘good outlaws’ and ‘bad outlaws’,” Thompson wrote. “But the people who were most influenced chose to identify with Brando instead of Lee Marvin, whose role as the villain was a lot more true to life than Brando’s portrayal of the confused hero. They saw themselves as modern Robin Hoods… virile, inarticulate brutes whose good instincts got warped somewhere in the struggle for self-expression and who spent the rest of their violent lives seeking revenge on a world that done them wrong when they were young and defenceless.”

The outlaw motorcycle gangs were, therefore, more of an inevitability the minute motorcycles were invented, as opposed to a construct of Hollywood romanticism. In fact, Frank Rooney’s The Cyclist’s Raid was no original concept; it was based on the real-life sensationalistic media coverage of a July 4th American Motorcyclist Association rally in Hollister, California, in 1947. The rally was remembered for hordes of bikers converging on the quiet town with the smell of whiskey on their breath and mischief in their eyes. 

Thompson points out that the Hell’s Angels had nothing to do with the so-called Hollister riot, even the earliest incarnation of the Angels wasn’t out in full force for another three years. “It was the Booze Fighters, not the Hell’s Angels, who kicked off the Hollister riot which led to the filming of The Wild One,” Thompson wrote. 

In 1947, the annual Independence Day hill climb and speed tests drew in much larger crowds than in years past. “The mob grew more and more unmanageable; by dusk the whole downtown area was littered with empty, broken beer bottles, and the cyclists were staging drag races up and down Main Street. Drunken fist fights developed into full-scale brawls. Legend has it that the [~3,000] cyclists literally took over the town, defied the police, man-handled local women, looted the taverns and stomped anyone who got in their way,” Thompson reported. “The madness of that weekend got enough headlines to interest an obscure producer named Stanley Kramer and a young actor named Brando.”

Watch the trailer for The Wild One below.