10 great biker films

As cult undead motorcycle mayhem classic Psychomania roars onto Blu-ray and DVD, we speed through 10 more major milestones of the motorbike movie.

1 September 2016

By Andrew Nette

Psychomania (1973)

This September, the living dead won’t be shuffling on to the screen, they’ll roar across it on the back of motorcycles, as the BFI releases its Blu-ray of Australian-born director Don Sharp’s 1973 cult film Psychomania, a fusion of two obsessions of early 70s exploitation cinema: the occult and vicious motorcycle packs.

Not content to terrorise the inhabitants of their local town, the leader of the Living Dead motorcycle gang, Tom Latham (Nicky Henson), makes a pact with the Devil, takes his own life, and returns from the dead with supernatural powers. His crew follow his lead, killing themselves and coming back to wreak havoc upon the living. While Psychomania has few moments of genuine horror, it does have a unique look, an amazing cult soundtrack and some bizarre plot antics, most famously a biker returning from the dead by riding his motorcycle out of his grave. There are also wonderful performances by former British screen veterans Beryl Reid (as Tom’s frog worshipping witch mother) and George Sanders, in his last screen role, as Mrs Latham’s delightfully creepy manservant, Shadwell.

Motorcycle gangs first appeared on the big screen in the early 1950s. A trickle of motorcycle-themed film appeared until the mid-60s, but it wasn’t until the release of US gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s 1966 book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs and then the 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway concert, at which Hells Angels working as bouncers killed an audience member, that popular culture’s preoccupation with criminal motorcycle gangs reached fever pitch.

Hollywood produced a deluge of outlaw biker movies and, while this has been the motorcycle’s most common screen manifestation, the machines have also symbolised the quest for freedom and self-discovery. Here are 10 films in which motorcycles play a key part.

The Wild One (1953)

Director: László Benedek

The Wild One (1953)

The Wild One single-handedly popularised the then little-known postwar phenomenon of motorcycle gangs and gave Marlon Brando one of his most iconic performances as Johnny Strabler, the sullen, cop-hating leader of the Black Rebels. It also established a key trope of subsequent motorcycle gang films: bikers terrorising a small town, in the process exposing divisions among the white, middle-class inhabitants.

Brando aside, The Wild One cast real bikers and much of the Black Rebels’ dialogue was reportedly incorporated into the script from conversations producer Stanley Kramer had with these extras. This includes Brando’s famous response to the question, What are you rebelling against? – “Well, what ya got?” Although the gang are positively clean cut by the standards of later biker films, the movie was hugely controversial for its time. It was banned by the British Board of Film Classification and (except for limited screens where local councils overturned the decision) remained so until 1967, when it was released with an X certificate.

The Leather Boys (1964)

Director: Sidney J. Furie

The Leather Boys (1964)

Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys is a stark piece of kitchen-sink realism set amid Britain’s rocker culture (the UK equivalent to US motorcycle gangs). The screenplay, adapted by Gillian Freeman from her 1961 novel, focuses on two south London rockers, Reggie (Colin Campbell) and Dot (Rita Tushingham), who – despite their youth – decide to marry. Their relationship is tested by his provincialism, her self-focus and their combined immaturity. As they drift apart, Reggie befriends fellow rocker Pete (Dudley Sutton) and starts to explore the wider meaning of emotional commitment and life, unaware that Pete wants much more from him than mateship and a bit of fun on their 650cc Triumph Bonnevilles.

The Leather Boys is a bleak but fascinating look at early 60s rocker culture and is now recognised an important piece of early queer cinema.

The Wild Angels (1966)

The Wild Angels (1966) poster

Director: Roger Corman

Released the same year as Hunter S. Thompson’s first-person journalistic account of his time spent with outlaw bikers, Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels provided the first big screen role for Peter Fonda. He plays ‘Heavenly Blues’, the nihilistic leader of a fictitious chapter of the San Pedro Hells Angels.

A raiding party to recover a stolen motorbike results in the gang’s second-in-command, ‘Loser’ (Bruce Dern), being hospitalised under police guard. Heavenly Blues and his old lady ‘Mike’ (Nancy Sinatra) bust him out, but Loser dies soon after, leading to an extended scene in which the gang trash a church and rumble with local townsfolk. Motorbikes, leather jackets and Nazi paraphernalia mix with black skivvies, berets and a surf music soundtrack, giving the outlaw bikers a strange beatnik vibe. The Wild Angels features real members of the Hells Angels and Coffin Cheaters biker gangs.

The Born Losers (1967)

Director: Tom Laughlin

The Born Losers (1967)

The Born Losers was the first of four films featuring the character Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, who starred in and directed all four), an enigmatic, nature-loving, half-Indian, former Green Beret, and protector of the counterculture. A pack of bikers terrorise a small Californian seaside town, raping several young women, then tries to scare the victims off cooperating with police. Billy Jack is drawn into conflict with the gang when he accidentally becomes the protector of one of the girls, Vicky (Elizabeth James).

The film’s made-for-television aesthetic aside (it was shot in three weeks for $160,000, died at the box office but took more than $40m during its 1973 rerelease), Laughlin’s film is a genuine countercultural product. Generational divide, racism and the struggle of veterans to fit back into society all feature. Significantly, the impact of sexual violence is sympathetically explored rather than simply being used for exploitation thrills.

The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968)

Director: Jack Cardiff

The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968)

Frustrated young housewife Rebecca (Marianne Faithfull, cast after the German model originally set for the role had a drug overdose) leaves her husband asleep in bed in order to travel to meet her lover, Daniel, a pipe-smoking university professor (Alain Delon). This being the height of the 60s, Rebecca does the trip suited up in full body leather astride a Harley Davidson, a present from Daniel.

Based on a novel by French surrealist writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues, The Girl on a Motorcycle (also released under the title Naked under Leather) is low on dialogue and plot but heavy on garish psychedelic special effects and nudity (particularly Faithfull’s). The motorbike as a tool of female emancipation is an interesting spin on a common trope in late 60s films of the housewife rebelling against her boring existence, but is undercut here by the downbeat ending. Director Jack Cardiff is better known for his work as ace Technicolor cinematographer for the likes of Powell & Pressburger, Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston.

Easy Rider (1969)

Director: Dennis Hopper

Easy Rider (1969)

1969 was a big year for biker films, when at least 12 were released. Easy Rider is by far the most famous of these, telling the story of Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper, who also directs), who set out from Los Angeles to New Orleans on Harley Davidson bikes (purchased second-hand from the LAPD) to ‘discover America’. En route, they encounter dirt farmers, freaks and rednecks, see some amazing country, spend time with Jack Nicholson’s small-town, liberal lawyer, and drop acid with two prostitutes in a graveyard (one of them a young Karen Black).

Alternating between feelgood masculine Americana and post-Summer of Love nihilism, Easy Rider definitely has its moments, but its dime-store alternative spiritualism feels very dated. Nonetheless, it remains an American classic for its iconic look and score, and is seen as a key film in laying the groundwork for the New Hollywood era of the early 1970s.

Electra Glide in Blue (1973)

Director: James William Guercio

Electra Glide in Blue (1973)

The title refers to the Harley-Davidson Electra Glide series motorcycle ridden by the central character: mild-mannered Vietnam veteran and Arizona highway patrolman John Wintergreen (Robert Blake). Bored with his duties and disillusioned by the attitudes of his colleagues, Wintergreen pines to be a homicide cop. His chance comes when he is first on the scene of the apparent shotgun suicide of a reclusive old man, and taken under the wing of a hard-charging right-wing detective, Poole (Mitchell Ryan).

This extraordinary neo-noir is the only feature directing credit of James William Guercio, Grammy award-winning music producer and original guitarist with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Strengthened by stunning cinematography by Conrad Hall, this is as sharp a depiction of America’s fading counterculture and the domestic blowback of Vietnam as was ever put on the screen.

Stone (1974)

Director: Sandy Barbutt

Stone (1974)

A little-known precursor to the 1979 Ozploitation classic Mad Max, Stone combines Australia’s masculine road culture, bikers and elements of the paranoid conspiracy film popular in the early 70s. At its centre is unorthodox policeman Stone (Ken Shorter, a former cop in real life), who is assigned to travel undercover with a satanic outlaw biker gang, the Gravediggers, after an unknown assassin starts murdering it members.

The first and last film directed by television actor Sandy Harbutt, it features an iconic Australian cast, including Rebecca Gilling, Bill Hunter and Helen Morse. Dismissed by critics upon its release, Stone was a huge hit at home, partly on the back of its impressive stunt work and sheer spectacle, both of which go well beyond the film’s low budget. Several hundred real-life bikers took part in the film’s most famous scene, the highway funeral procession for one of the deceased Gravediggers, for which they were reportedly paid in beer.

Quadrophenia (1979)

Quadrophenia (1979)

Director: Franc Roddam

A tale of discontented youth in 60s London, Quadrophenia takes place in the lead-up to the 1964 bank holiday riots between mods and rockers, in which several people were hospitalised and more than 50 arrested. Jimmy (Phil Daniels) is the classic juvenile delinquent rebel, working a dead-end job during the week to fund his weekend motor scooter exploits with his mates, and trying to get it on with aloof mod Steph (Leslie Ash).

While the film’s central narrative – involving Jimmy’s gradual disillusionment with the mod lifestyle – now feels a bit obvious, Quadrophenia still packs a punch. Pre-swinging London and its then two main youth tribes are evocatively depicted, the extended riot scenes in Brighton have a visceral energy, and there is – of course – a classic soundtrack by The Who.

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

Director: Walter Salles

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

Brazilian director Walter Salles’ depiction of the journey by medical student Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (Gael García Bernal) and his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), from Argentina to Peru in the early 1950s is based on Guevara’s travelogue of the same name, supplemented by Granado’s Travelling with Che Guevara: The Making of a Revolutionary.

The antithesis of the violent, high-speed gang members that populate most motorcycle-focused films, the two characters begin their journey sharing a decrepit 1939 Norton 500 nicknamed ‘The Mighty One’. The mechanical death of their bike halfway through the journey forces the two to start engaging with those they meet, opening their eyes to the poverty, hardship and political oppression experienced by many on the continent. A genuinely moving coming-of-age story, the film boasts eye-catching cinematography and tremendous performances by Bernal and la Serna.

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