Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Wild Angels (1966) - Classic Motorcycle Western

This film deserves more than one viewing.  It really is out there, a very anti-establishment film for the mid-1960s (which was still, despite the later hippie revolution, a conservative time).

I always though Peter Fonda, a fine actor, looks kind of Prussian

Peter Fonda dominates the film, and that is both a strength and a weakness.  He is the only real "star" in the picture (unless you count Nancy Sinatra, who was a star in music but not acting), though Bruce Dern broke through later and became a known name.

This is one of the stranger scenes you'll see in film

The downside is that Fonda, despite all his best efforts to act like a wild man, just looks too clean-cut.  I know that's not a "drawback," per se, but it detracts a bit from his role.  He stands out from the other bikers because he is not greasy, has a neat haircut, and speaks clearly and with good diction.  This makes him a good fit with co-star Sinatra, but sort of makes him an anomaly within his own gang.

Now, I know what you're thinking, but no, the girls don't take it all off

This early Roger Corman (thus, low-budget) biker film is a classic because it was made before all sorts of film-making conventions were established and became calcified and inviolable. It also gives an interesting look at California before urban sprawl destroyed it. But most of all, it is wildly amusing with lines that simply can't be taken with a straight face nowadays.

Every time I see the title sequence, I'm still shocked

This movie breaks all the rules. The glorification of Nazi regalia is just plain over the top. Not only does the title actually include a Swastika (!), but the climactic funeral is adorned with quite possibly the largest Nazi flag in the State of California. Forget simple innocuous Iron Crosses, this film goes all the way and practically brings Goering and Himmler back to partake in the festivities. And Peter Fonda, as the leader of the pack, is made to look as Germanic as possible. Why? Well, that must have been the biker standard in 1966.

Behind the scenes.  The bikes themselves are stars

The dialog is just hilarious. "We have the power," Fonda yells to nobody in particular. "It's the Man," the Bruce Dern character Born Loser warns the others when the cops arrive during a weird gang fight. Every other line of dialog is a classic, lines delivered in completely un-ironic fashion that can't possibly be said with a straight face now. But the best is the impassioned speech the Peter Fonda character gives at the concluding funeral, when he sums up his gang's credo as, "We want the right to be free. Free to go where we want without being hassled by The Man. Free to have fun. And get loaded." And he says this as if he is demanding the right to vote or something! It's hysterical! I realize times have changed, but the film is chock full of treasures like that.

No, they DO NOT take it all off.

But it doesn't end there. Nowadays, you couldn't possibly have a rape scene where the rapists aren't punished and the social niceties observed. But here, just the opposite happens, and instead of the obligatory they-must-be-punished conclusion, everybody just goes on with their activities, which happen to be a wild orgy in a church.

Peter Fonda in the climactic Church scene

There is early drug use, primarily amyl nitrate, that presaged the more open view put forth in Fonda's later "Easy Rider." If you want to see a film that truly is not politically correct, and not one that pretends to be but actually still observes all the unwritten laws of Hollywood, this one fits the bill.

Knuckles and Fonda

The story itself is pedestrian, sort of an updating of "The Wild Ones," where the outlaw biker gang goes around terrorizing quiet little towns because, you know, they just want to be free. It could have been filmed with horses and stagecoaches and been just as logical set in the 1880s. And despite all the now-forbidden imagery such as the rape scene, there really isn't anything truly offensive beyond that, no graphic nudity and little swearing.  I want to give special recognition to cinematographer Richard Moore, one of the giants in the industry.  The visuals in this film are top-notch.

Aww, don't they make a cute couple?  But in a biker film?

I know some folks probably revere this film as reflecting the times and such, but modern viewers without any investment in the history of the 1960s will probably find this film a hoot for all sorts of unintentional reasons. And there's nothing wrong with that. It also provides an interesting counterpoint to the much more laid-back "Easy Rider." A great unconventional film for a quiet night.

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