Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Wild Angels (1966) - Classic Motorcycle Western

You probably haven't seen anything quite like The Wild Angels (1966). This film could not get made today.

I always thought that Peter Fonda, a fine actor, looks kind of Prussian. This film emphasizes that.

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 really acting), though Bruce Dern broke through later and became a known name. Diane Ladd also appears in her first film role. They were married well before they filmed "The Wild Angels," and, in a cute touch, are listed together as co-starring in the credits. Ladd and Dern were given adjoining stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010, though probably not because of this film.

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

The downside of Fonda dominating is that Fonda, despite all his best efforts to act like a wild man (particularly in the jarring title sequence), just looks too clean-cut. I know that's not a "drawback," per se, but it detracts a bit from his characterization. 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 also sort of makes him - and them - an anomaly within his own gang. The other biker characters look more realistic ("members of Hells Angels" receive a prominent acting credit in the titles).

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 politically correct filmmaking conventions were established and became calcified and inviolable. It also gives an interesting look at California right 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 that they would do that.

This movie breaks all the rules. The glorification of Third Reich 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 Swastika 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 did the filmmakers do all this? Well, that must have been the biker standard in 1966, making them seem "beyond the pale."

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. Personally, I love it.

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. There's a rape that just... happens. No, this could not be made today.

Peter Fonda in the climactic Church scene - one of the oddest pieces of Hollywood film you are likely ever to see.

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? Yes, 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.

I do have a question: they had one of the top singers of the '60s as a star. Nancy Sinatra is at the peak of her fame and talent and, in fact, was riding the top of the charts when "The Wild Angels" appeared in your local drive-in. Yet... she doesn't sing the theme song. Talk about missed opportunities. However... the heavy metal theme song does presage the more well-known one in "Easy Ride," so it is sort of a building-block to a true classic and honest to its genre. The soundtrack is by Davie Allen, who knew how to do a score for a biker film and went on to a long, successful career.

Anyway, I think you'll like it. Try it.


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