Our cinematic past: the biker film

By Matthew Martin
In the midst of the chaos of the 60’s, no group better reflected the rejection of America more than bikers. Even more than hippies, beatniks, and delinquents, the biker had become the ultimate fear of polite society, denying all but the freedom of the open road, all else be damned. And it all began with a photograph.
In January of 1965, Life magazine published a photo of a very unusual funeral. “Mother” Miles, leader of the Sacramento branch of the Hell’s Angels, had died. Every Angel in the state turned out, and the procession was spectacular – wall to wall Harley Davidson’s rumbling down the highway for as far as the eye could see. America was entranced, fascinated by a community they didn’t even know existed. It sparked a new kind of outlaw cinema: the biker film.
While thumbing through the issue of Life, legendary independent filmmaker Roger Corman (Little Shop of Horrors, The Trip) was struck by the graphic power and majesty of the photo – the desire for freedom and individuality mixing with the obvious devotion to their “family”. Corman felt it was ripe with cinematic possibilities.
He was right, and after an evening of drinking and drugging with the Venice chapter of the Hell’s Angels, Corman had everything he needed for his movie. Although biker flicks had existed before, both great (Brando’s The Wild One) and lame (Teenage Thunder), most early attempts were closer to “Juvenile Delinquency” films. The biker lifestyle had never been actually portrayed until Corman’s The Wild Angels in 1966.
Less a story than a series of nihilistic misadventures, The Wild Angels follows Peter Fonda as “Heavenly Blues”, a brooding young misfit and leader of the Angels. When a fellow biker is shot by cops for stealing a chopper, his friends decide to break him out of the hospital. He is freed, but without medical expertise the Angels are unable to keep him alive. So they do the next best thing – let him die and give him a funeral, Angels-style – boozing, raping, and destroying a church. At the end Fonda buries his friend as the cops close in, convinced that in a meaningless world death is a welcome relief.
The film was a smash in the South and Southwest, but the dark, unflattering look at biker culture so incensed the Hell’s Angels that they attempted to sue Corman, eventually resorting to death threats. Much to the chagrin of some American officials, it was chosen to play at the Cannes Film Festival. America was ready for bikers and the race was on to produce the next big one. Both small time producers and eager major studios jumped on the bandwagon with rip-offs like The Devil’s Angels and Angels Unchained.
However, these were overshadowed by the efforts of an unknown, enigmatic named Jack Nicholson, and his first film Hell’s Angels on Wheels. Like The Wild Angels, the film is virtually plotless, following Nicholson’s descent into the biker underworld. One of the biggest money-makers of 1967, the film was directed by the talented Richard Rush (The Stunt Man), but the real magic was the rapid fire photography of Lazlo Kovacs, who since has become one of Hollywood’s most sought after camera men.
Nicholson and Kovacs came together again, and along with budding actor/director/acid-dropper, Dennis Hopper, they created the definitive biker film, Easy Rider, in 1969. Part 60’s road trip fantasy, part existential nightmare, the film became the calling card of a counter-culture. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper set off for New Orleans to find the “real” America and find it with a vengeance. Its ending is considered one of the darkest ever, and Nicholson’s part, as a small town, alcoholic lawyer, made him a star.
Over 50 biker films followed over the next three years. Most were boring and repetitive, but several were unforgettable and even bizarre. Several factors killed the genre, as well as the lifestyle, including skyrocketing gas prices and new highway speed limit laws. However, the real death knell for biker culture came with Altamont. Billed as the “Woodstock of the West”, Altamont is known for the bloody confrontation between former allies, the hippies and the bikers. Captured in the Rolling Stones documentary, Gimme Shelter (who were on stage during one fatal stabbing), this event permanently poisoned the image of the biker in the mind of America. Soon after the biker film, like the gangs they helped promote, quietly dropped from view. Biker’s went back into anonymity. The year was 1972.
Only a few attempts to revive the genre have appeared since, but none have been successful. Nevertheless, after virtually disappearing from cinema for 35 years, the biker film has finally returned to our television on the breakout FX channel show Sons of Anarchy. Outlaws roll again.

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