Outlaw biker film  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

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. In 1969 Henry Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson would create the classic "hippie biker" movie, Easy Rider, which was the antithesis of the violent biker-gang genre.



Outlaw biker clubs formed in the late 1940s on the West Coast after 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 1960s

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 Born Losers

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.

Female biker gangs

A few 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 with Sherry Jackson and Harry Dean Stanton (1968), and Angels' Wild Women (1972). Bury Me an Angel (1972) features a female biker hero (and female director). And The Pink Angels (1971) is about a gang of transvestite bikers.

The 1970s to the present

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. Motorcycle gangs even appeared in a few blaxploitation films such as The Black Angels (1970) and The Black Six (1974). By the 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.

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 parodies

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.
  • 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.
  • In 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.
  • On The Addams Family episode "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.
  • The 1966 "Trial by Treehouse" episode of I Spy features a scene where 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.
  • In a 1967 episode of Lost In Space ("Collision of the Planets"), the Robinsons contend with a gang of unruly interplanetary space bikers led by Daniel J. Travanti.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Outlaw biker film" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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