When movie makers want to encapsulate rebellion, speed and danger on screen, there’s one character that ticks all the boxes; the motorcycle rider.
Ever since the Victorians invented the motorcycle, young men have been tuning, racing and crashing them. Some women too. In films, this is the mode of transport for the iconoclastic anti-hero, the guy who plays by his own rules, from Brando in The Wild One, to Gael Garcia Bernal as Che in The Motorcycle Diaries. Would Tom Cruise’s Maverick in Top Gun have had the same outsider kudos if he’d driven a Pontiac Trans Am, rather than a Kawasaki Ninja?
Of course not every movie with a two-wheeled action sequence, like say McQueen’s jump over the wire in The Great Escape, or Hopper and Fonda’s quixotic search for redemption in Easy Rider, has managed to capture the essence of freedom and rebellion that motorcycles represent, as well as feature actors who can actually ride the bloody things. In case you didn’t know, Bud Ekins did the actual jump in Great Escape, although McQueen was a good enough rider to do the rest of the action sequence, and was selected for the USA’s international Enduro race team in 1964.
So let’s gloss over shameful celluloid capers like David Essex in Silver Dream Racer, a low budget, Seventies Brit-flick which turns Grand Prix racing into a Jackie comic strip. Better still, erase from your memory every lame second of Black Rain’s long chase scene, featuring Michael Douglas’s 110mph Harley Café Racer keeping up with a 160mph Suzuki GSXR 1100. Director Ridley Scott also gets the noise wrong for several machines used in Black Rain, which might seem picky, but try to imagine McQueen in Bullitt, driving a Mustang V8 which sounds like a Toyota Corolla on the soundtrack…
It isn’t really about the technical details in the end, because the motorcycle itself is the arrow which jolts the viewer into the movie.
THE OUTLAW BREED
Arguably the first example of motorcycle riders as outsider heroes is Kramer’s The Wild One, made in 1953 and banned in the UK, until the 59 Club showed it in their clubhouse in the mid 60s, causing queues around the door for two nights running.
Brando is mildly mixed up as Johnny, the trophy-stealing leader of a gang who dreams of getting the girl, but it is Lee Marvin as Chino, the hell-raising, beered-up, top dog of a rival gang, who steals the movie. Where Brando seems merely surly, Marvin is an unstoppable force of nature who picks a fight with anybody who crosses him.
That same small-town fear and prejudice found in The Wild One underpins Easy Rider’s gloomy view of 60s America, as Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda ride their baroque `n’ roll choppers to New Orleans. Again, a supporting character defines true rebellion, as Jack Nicholson simply walks out of his hick town lawyer life, purely on a whim, grabs a football helmet, then joins the ride to Mardi Gras. Nicholson’s George Hanson just doesn’t give a shit about anything, but Wyatt and Billy are more concerned about their hidden drug money and getting stoned, than truly changing their hippie lifestyle.
Yet Easy Rider’s impact goes way beyond celebrating the `drop-out’ counter-culture of the 60s. Lazlo Kovaks cinematography portrays riding a chopper as a long dream, indeed director Dennis Hopper asked Kovaks to film over 50 hours of riding footage. Easy Rider was the catalyst for the entire custom bike building movement of 70s, a million blokes went home to their sheds and hacksawed their old Harleys and BSAs into something wild.
IF…A BRIT FLICK WITH MOTORCYCLE CLASS
But for real outlaw venom, it’s hard to match Malcolm McDowell’s human time-bomb, Mick Travis in Lindsay Anderson’s hypnotic 60s Brit-flick, If.
Travis and his public school chum steal a BSA Lightning 650 on a whim and the technicolour montage that follows is perhaps the greatest explanation of why motorcycles fire the soul. Two young riders, laughing at the law and tearing across the landscape in sheer joyous freedom. Anderson then underscores the inherent sexiness of the motorcycle by having McDowell cop off with tiger-growling girl at a roadside cafe.
BSA should have been paying Anderson royalties for advertising their clapped-out oil-leaking motorbikes as top class bird-pullers. In reality, riding a BSA twin back in the late 60s meant you were more likely to pull Dudley Sutton, the camp-as-Christmas biker buddy from The Leather Boys.
MOTORCYCLES AS ACCESSORIES
After the counter-culture revolution of the 60s fizzled out, the 70s saw movies begin to use the motorcycle as a kind of shorthand for colouring in character, as well as portraying the bikes themselves as symbols of death, sex, youth, class, rebellion and escape.
Electra Glide In Blue for example portrays the bike itself as part of the prison, the highly uniform, regulated life, that the lead character is trying to escape from. Bike cop Wintergreen wants to leave his mundane traffic ticket existence behind, but the steel horse Harley is both his anchor to his working class roots and part of Wintergreen’s power; it frees him, and elevates him into an old school ‘Western’ lawman on the road. The Electra Glide itself – the blue one not the white traffic cop model – is filmed in detailed glory, a chrome-plated throne, for a man who is King for a day, or a fool for a woman. Electra Glide is a silly film in many ways, almost cartoonish, but unique in its approach to using the bike as a totemic object – the symbol of the 60s hippie culture is turned on its head.
Working class white trash Richard Gere rides a Triumph Bonneville in An Officer and a Gentleman to define his `I got nowhere else to go’ status to the audience. Zach Mayo is so poor he can’t even afford a car. That was dirt poor in heartland America.
Even in the 80s, the motorcycle was still a convenient prop to flag up the outsider, the lone wolf. In the first two Terminator movies, Schwarzeneggar’s robot steals a motorcycle as his initial means of transport and Terminator Two Arnie’s character takes the trouble to acquire the leather jacket, trousers, boots and sunglasses from a biker. Being a virtually indestructible robot, why does he want protective clothing? No practical reason obviously, but the dress code is part of the movie’s shorthand, to tell the audience that Arnie the Cyborg operates alone. He is, time’s arrow.
In Mad Max, and its follow-up, called The Road Warrior in the US, director George Kennedy uses the motorcycle as a symbol of society’s collapse, and near-death, in an orgy of roller-derby, nihilistic highway destruction. In the first Mad Max, almost every innocent victim is a car driver, pedestrian, or driving a truck. Death arrives on two wheels, delivered by a band of killers utterly without any moral code, except their own warped biker gang system of vengeance and `pride’. Director Kennedy used some real `bikies,’ as they’re called in Oz, as extras in his Max trilogy and they have a genuine greasy menace.
It is the unpredictability of the biker gang in the first Mad Max, the way they turn from annoying drunks into rapists and killers, that mirrors the random nature of death itself in the movie, and accurately captures the scary reality of 70s/80s back-patch clubs like the Hells Angels, Outlaws, Gypsy Jokers etc. Real biker gangs have fired rockets into rival clubhouses in Denmark, been shot dead on the M40 and more – there was a time when biker gangs were genuinely scary. That time may come again.
SHOCK NEWS: WOMEN CAN RIDE MOTORCYCLES!
But motorcycles can also confer a sexual potency on some film characters. Just consider a Marianne Faithfull in Girl On A Motorcycle, as an example. OK, the movie is basically French soft porn, but there’s no doubt that Mick Jagger’s ex unzipping herself from skin-tight leathers, or straddling a big Harley represents 60s female sexual liberation writ large. It might seem banal now, but saying that women could choose how, whom, and where they fucked was pretty revolutionary stuff.
Trinity in The Matrix movies is another combination of sexiness, wrapped in a Catwoman tight suit, but acts as a complex counterpoint to Reeves’ Neo; the opposite side of the gender coin in many ways. Trinity is much more than the typical `love interest’ found in mainstream movies: Is she real, or is she a kind of black leather mirror, reflecting Neo’s feminine side?
THE RUMBLEFISH AND PURE ESCAPE
Shame it’s a vile Kawa twin, but otherwise an interesting motorcycle movie
Long ago, Mickey Rourke did some decent acting and portrayed a new age motorcycle hero in Rumblefish. Here, director Francis Ford Coppola captures the rivalry, posturing and arcane rules of engagement between working class brothers.
Motorcycle Boy ( Rourke ) and his younger brother Rusty ( Matt Dillon ) are defined by their brawling reputations, past and present. Weak boys and hot women are drawn to the hollow power of the local tough guy, but Rourke’s character says it’s all bullshit, and begs his brother to quit his violent life before it’s too late.
Rumblefish tells it like it is when it comes to gangs, motorcycles, family feuds and chasing skirt, in short, everything that makes being young and driven by your hormones such a potentially tragic journey. The ending sees Rusty heading off to the ocean on Rourke’s bike, freeing the rumblefish that his dying brother tried to save, and finally visiting the ocean. The motorbike is both brotherly redemption, and a ticket out of the ghetto, not simply a badge of honour or power within it.
In the space of forty years, the motorcycle boy in the movies mutates from being a kind of cartoon bogeyman, a leather-clad threat to middle-America and instead becomes the good guy, the older, wiser brother. The motorcycle itself stops being a metaphor for death, and offers a way out, an escape for Everyman. It’s a hell of a ride baby.