Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #20 – The Wild Angels (1966)

Posted: May 16, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

People have debated 1-percent motorcycle clubs for decades. Misunderstood and easy targets for fascistic police that enforce conformity more than crime the Hells Angels’ spokesman says. Heavily involved in crystal meth, illegal guns, prostitution and doing violent work for other motorcycle challenged outfits the Federal agency spokesman (typically the ATF) rejoins. And nothing about The Wild Angels (1966) really does very much to contribute to either side’s argument, defining ridiculous for six generations.

Peter Fonda is Heavenly Blues, chapter president for the San Pedro Hells Angels chapter. Bruce Dern is Joe “The Loser” Kerns. Nancy Sinatra is Mike, Blues’ old lady (common law wife). And Diane Ladd is Gaysh, Loser’s old lady.

Blues leads the chapter out to Mecca near Palm Springs. They fight Mexicans they believe (confirmed by finding a chrome kick starter lever) stole the Loser’s motorcycle. The California Highway Patrol gives chase. Loser gets separated and steals an officer’s bike. He gets shot in the back. The chapter led by Blues busts Loser out of the hospital whereupon Loser dies because good medical care ceased. The bikers arrange for Loser’s body to go home to Northern California and stage a biker funeral, after trashing the hell out of the local church. The cops come and Blues stays to bury his friend.

The hilarious laughter this movie caused mostly happened because low-budget film demigod Roger Corman really didn’t care, it seems, to go beyond the hype surrounding outlaw bikers during the second half of the 1960s. Unlike nearly everything else he produced and directed, this story lays flat as a speed bump with asphalt burns. Mostly it’s a superficial script that only fed hype and fears about bikers without giving us characters to give a shit about to blame.

Case in point, everything I’ve ever heard about outlaw bikers IRL screams at me that Blues is a weak leader making bad decisions left and right. How about leaving Loser in the hospital and then sending a lawyer? How about laying down the law that Gaysh needs a few days to mourn before recycling into the chapter as either a mama (female servant) or landing as someone else’s old lady?

And then there’s the whole plot grown around the simple concept of a club funeral procession that leads to a rowdy party. The movies love to play up the ‘invading Mongols’ trope of the biker gang come to town to trash things because they can. What little I know about most 1-percent MCs is that the majority of their rowdy parties happen in venues where they’re already welcome (the chapter house, or cycle friendly roadhouse well away from the straights). And yet, starting with this early biker movie here we go off on decades of depicting outlaw bikers as barbarians despite basically knowing that barbarians don’t last long as the kind of entrepreneurs that allegedly sell drugs, women and guns.

What this adds up to is a main character that really wasn’t allowed to be very human except for what Peter Fonda bravely tried to add from what didn’t appear to be on the page. Blues is Loser’s friend, but the good guy that gets the Weekend at Bernie’s treatment (dead body lugged around for the whole movie) didn’t really get a good scene with Blues before getting shot.

The rest of the movie is filled with attempted rape, actual rape, fights, beer, drugs and a big speech that seems to set the tone for how bikers as envisioned by Roger Corman want to live – “We want to be free and party without being hassled by the man!”

Okay, the straights in the theater just asked themselves and the characters on screen – “Free to do what exactly?” And therein is why nothing about the movie rises above the shock value of its premise and Nazi iconography of the bikers riding around in something that only barely qualifies as narrative.

And no, I don’t hate biker movies and shows. Ask me about Sons of Anarchy or Easy Rider and you’ll get a much better response about really fascinating shows. In fact, The Wild Angels truly benefits from being first, my usual dig at not very entertaining books and movies that start genres and trends that lead to other better work down the road. Three years later, Mr. Fonda gets an idea and ropes his friend Dennis Hopper into his madness…Easy Rider results all because Roger Corman put him in a bad biker movie. A positive outcome.

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