The outlaw biker film is a film genre that portrays its characters as motorcycle riding rebels. The characters are usually members of an outlaw motorcycle club.
Outlaw biker clubs formed in the late 1940s on the West Coastafter the end of World War II. Their culture was first detailed in the Marlon Brando film The Wild One in 1953, but the genre really took off in the mid 60's when the Hells Angels became prominent in the media. In particular, the Hunter S. Thompson book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs published in 1966.
Films of the 1960sEdit
In 1965 director Russ Meyer made Motorpsycho (aka Motor Psycho), an obscure film about an evil motorcycle gang led by a disturbed Vietnam War veteran. In 1966 American International Pictures (AIP) released The Wild Angels with Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, and Nancy Sinatra. This film, aimed at the teenage drive-in crowd, was a surprise hit and a new exploitation film subgenre was born. AIP followed this with Devil's Angels (1967) starring actor-director John Cassavetes. They and other independent filmmakers went on to produce dozens of low-budget biker films until the trend dissipated in the early '70s.
Several well-known actors got their start appearing in these films. Jack Nicholson was in Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) and Rebel Rousers (filmed 1967, released 1969) with Bruce Dern and Harry Dean Stanton. Dern was also in Cycle Savages (1970). Dennis Hopper starred in The Glory Stompers in 1967. And in 1969 Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson would create the classic "hippie biker" movie, Easy Rider, which was the antithesis of the violent biker-gang genre.
Sonny Barger, founder of the Oakland chapter of the Hell's Angels, was a consultant on several films. He and other gang members appeared as extras in Hells Angels on Wheels and Hell's Angels '69. The Hell's Angels appeared as extras playing a gang called the Las Vegas Hotdoggers in the Roger Corman film Naked Angels starring Michael Greene in 1969.
The Born LosersEdit
In 1967 AIP produced The Born Losers which introduced Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack. Unable to get his Billy Jack script produced, Laughlin wrote and directed The Born Losers to capitalize on the current biker movie trend. (The success of the film allowed Laughlin to finally make Billy Jack in 1971.) The story was inspired by news reports of the Hell's Angels terrorizing a California community. As a cost-saving measure, a stunt scene of a motorcycle crashing into a pond was taken from AIP's 1966 comedy The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.
The Born Losers is also significant for its social criticism and portrayal of the biker gang as a force of pure, unredeemable evil. The majority of the films in this genre generally follow the pattern of The Wild One with a sympathetic gang member (the reluctant leader or a new member) who ultimately rejects the outlaw biker lifestyle. Prime examples would be the Fonda character in The Wild Angels, Jack Nicholson in Hell's Angels on Wheels (1967), and Joe Namath in C.C. and Company (1970).
The tough-talking police officer was played by Jack Starrett. He played essentially the same character in Hell's Angels on Wheels and Angels from Hell (1968). Starrett was also in Hell's Bloody Devils (1970), and directed Run, Angel, Run in 1969 and Nam's Angels in 1970. The last film is unusual as the bikers are portrayed as patriotic heroes sent on a rescue mission to Vietnam.
Novelty biker filmsEdit
A number of novelty films were made featuring all-female biker gangs such as The Hellcats aka Biker Babes (1967), She-Devils on Wheels (1968), The Miniskirt Mob (from AIP) with Sherry Jackson and Harry Dean Stanton (1968), Sisters in Leather (1969) with Pat Barrington, Angels' Wild Women (1972), and Cycle Vixens (1978).
The Pink Angels (1971) is a somewhat campy film about a gang of homosexual bikers who head down the coast to attend a drag ball.
Bury Me an Angel (1972) features a female biker hero (and female director).
The 1970s to the presentEdit
By the 1970s as the trend began to lose momentum, filmmakers started to create horror hybrids such as Werewolves on Wheels (1971). The British horror film Psychomania (also 1971) involves a biker gang that makes a pact with the devil to obtain immortality.
By the late 1980s the once shocking and controversial genre became an object of campy humor in horror-comedies such as Chopper Chicks in Zombietown (1989) and Biker Zombies (2001).
In 2008, Quentin Tarantino served as executive producer on Hell Ride starring Dennis Hopper and Michael Madsen. This is an homage to the motorcycle gang films of the past. It was written and directed by Larry Bishop, who acted in a number of biker films such as The Savage Seven in 1968. Tarantino is a noted fan of the Australian biker movie, Stone.
The 2009 documentary Biker Mania includes a compilation of theater trailers and footage that tracks the history of the genre from the 1950s to the present.
Cultural references and parodiesEdit
After the release of The Wild One in 1953, the image of the motorcycle gang, particularly the Marlon Brando character, inspired many imitators and satires in films and television shows.
- The girl group The Shangri-Las scored a Number #1 hit single with their motorcycle gang pop song "Leader of the Pack" in 1964.
- "Blue's Theme", an instrumental rock song that opens with the sound of a motorcycle engine, was featured on the soundtrack for The Wild Angels film. The song, written by Davie Allan and The Arrows, was a hit single in 1967.
- From 1963 to 1966 American International Pictures produced a series of seven Beach party film. All but one featured Harvey Lembeck doing a Brando parody as Eric Von Zipper, inept leader of The Rat Pack motorcycle gang. These films are: Beach Party (1963), Bikini Beach and Pajama Party (both 1964), Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (both 1965), and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966).
- The Horror of Party Beach (1964), a campy beach party-horror hybrid, includes a motorcycle gang most likely inspired by the popular American International beach movies.
- The Twilight Zone (episode: "Black Leather Jackets", 1964), a group of aliens disguised as a motorcycle gang takes up residence in a small American town.
- The Addams Family ("The Addams Family Meets a Beatnik", 1965), a runaway rebel crashes his motorcycle in front of the Addams' house and stays with the family for a few days. Their non-judgmental acceptance of him leads to his reuniting with his estranged father.
- Both Herman Munster of The Munsters (1964–1966) and Jethro Bodine (Max Baer, Jr.) of The Beverly Hillbillies had episodes where they dressed up like Brando from The Wild One and raced around on motorcycles.
- I Spy ("Trial by Treehouse", 1966), Kelley Robinson (Robert Culp) goes undercover as a Brando-esque leader of a motorcycle gang. Culp wears the same type of hat, sunglasses, and leather outfit and affects some of Brando's mannerisms.
- Lost In Space ("Collision of the Planets", 1967), the Robinsons contend with a gang of unruly interplanetary space bikers led by Daniel J. Travanti.
- Get Smart ("The Mild Ones", 1967), a genre parody featuring The Purple Knights, a literate biker gang who see themselves as modern Arthurian knights. Max and 99 must pass as new gang members to rescue a kidnapped prime minister.
- The Monkees (TV series) ("The Wild Monkees", 1967), the guys pretend to be a biker gang to impress four tough female motorcyclists. Trouble ensues when the girls' boyfriends arrive, the Black Angels biker gang.
- Saturday Night Live (Feb. 14, 1976), John Belushi and guest host Peter Boyle both dress up as Brando from The Wild One for a "Dueling Brandos" parody sketch.
- Every Which Way but Loose (1978), John Quade plays Cholla, the leader of the inept Black Widows motorcycle gang who have frequent disastrous run-ins with Philo Beddoe (played by Clint Eastwood).
- Saturday Night Live (Nov. 18, 1978), guest host Carrie Fisher was featured in a beach movie parody skit ("Beach Blanket Bimbo from Outer Space") in which John Belushi played Harvey Lembeck's leather-clad Eric Von Zipper character.
- Saturday Night Live (February 20, 1982), guest host and biker film veteran Bruce Dern appears in the parody sketch "The Mild One". He plays a thoughtful, Zen-inspired leader of a biker gang who uses philosophy instead of violence to terrorize people in a diner.