The Wild One (1953) – Defining Rebels in Movies
This movie solidifies the legacy of Marlon Brando as the first and best movie-screen rebel. The Wild One really surprised me, because I have seen several Marlon Brando movies, and I didn’t expect such a different performance. It’s like I was watching James Dean before James Dean, or Steve McQueen before Steve McQueen. Marlon Brando as Johnny is a really good performance, and I didn’t even know it when I saw this movie. Now I know better. When Paul Newman strides to the bar, pops a beer, and gives his winning smile, I’ll know Marlon Brando did it first.
Brando plays Johnny like a tough-guy, but not too over-the-top. He exudes charisma, even though you can tell he has a big chip on his shoulder. He wears a leather jacket, white hat, and everything else iconic about a rebel you can think of. It’s nearly perfect. The only thing missing are some pals, as in Rebel Without a Cause.
If James Dean was a model for a rebellious teen, then Brando was a model of how to get there. Johnny is caught up in several crimes he didn’t commit, and constantly argues with authority. I think the scene that typifies his character is when the police sheriff has him in his office for suspected murder. Brando just sits there glumly, and you can read the stiff attitude on his face. He doesn’t want to be there and he doesn’t want to talk to any cops.
Mary Murphy plays Kathie, a young woman Johnny is attracted to. This is another thing Rebel Without a Cause copies, although the romance is probably more pronounced there. Kathie is never really going with Johnny at any point in the movie, although comes to his defense at the police station, and he eventually wins her over. This is a sentimental romance, and the ending lets you know Johnny isn’t so badass after all. I like that.
I am told Brando as Johnny characterized the 50s rebel, and I think other characters did the same for their generation. Obviously, James Dean was a little later, and he won over teens, but I think the same can be said for Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller or Judd Nelson as John in the 80s.
The police sheriff in The Wild One is infuriating. He doesn’t seem to like his job and isn’t very proactive. He lets a lot of things pass and is apathetic for most of the movie. This characterization is pretty standard for rebellious movies. Robert Keith plays the Sheriff and his performance is good, although fairly stereotypical of small-town, white-bread police officers. It’s just something I noticed about The Wild One, but other rebel movies do the same thing, so it’s not such a bad offense.
Overall, The Wild One was a great surprise and it’s a good time. It has a short run time to keep your attention. The characters are great, and Lee Marvin sneaks in there, although it doesn’t even look like the older, dignified Lee Marvin I know from The Dirty Dozen, for example. He does a great job as a crazy motorcycle gangster. I would say everyone in the cast does a good job, and has me believing that this is what an anti-establishment movie should be.