‘The Wild Angels’ Lays Out the Rules of the Biker Film

Roger Corman's 1966 film is the storytelling legacy that works of cinema and television such as Sons of Anarchy draw from.

For all their anti-establishment bluster, motorcycle club members let their freak flags fly according to a code as rigid as the one governing the display of the stars and stripes. That code is remarkably enduring. While the violence and misogyny may be more graphic on FX network’s biker saga Sons of Anarchy, the tropes haven’t changed since Roger Corman, the Hammurabi of biker film directors, handed them down in The Wild Angels (1966).

The film follows the adventures of the San Pedro, California, Hell’s Angels MC, as they flout the law, thumb their noses at the Man, party, fight, and break stuff. Along the way, they reveal the essential components of the biker ethos.

The touching, sitting upon, or theft of a club member’s bike, considered an affront to the whole MC, must be avenged.

The club’s quest to find the bike stolen from Joe, aka the Loser (Bruce Dern), sets the plot of The Wild Angels in motion. Following a lead, the whole MC heads to Mecca to retrieve it. All they find is a brake pedal, which doesn’t seem to surprise the Loser, because…

Bikers subscribe to a bleak world view holding that life is incomplete and inadequate, a diminished existence for which club culture becomes an often desperate attempt to compensate.

The Mexican gang the Angels rumble with in Mecca bring out the intolerant side of the MC. “Which one of you taco benders stole an Angel’s machine?” demands club president Blues (Peter Fonda). His tirade establishes that…

The MC’s solidarity comes at the expense of racial and ethnic others.

When the club isn’t decrying its own oppression — “The Man!” the Loser exclaims when the highway patrol arrives to break up the fight in Mecca — they’re meting it out to others, especially by means of . . .

The hassling or bullying of a law-abiding member of society, as a general rejection of rules and order.

When Blues visits the Loser at his construction job, a coworker calls Blues out for wearing an iron cross. “If you guys had been at Anzio, you’d know what that junk means”, he says, exposing the fissure between the Greatest Generation and the vanguard of the Baby Boom, already brimming with entitlement and determined to clash with their elders.

When the coworker adds, “We used to kill guys who wore that kind of garbage”, Blues and the Loser beat him up, and the Loser is fired. “His foreman got uptight”, Blues explains to the Loser’s old lady, Gaysh (Diane Ladd), uttering the most disparaging word in biker vocabulary.

Gaysh doesn’t fare well in The Wild Angels. The Loser isn’t the best of partners when living, and after his demise, Gaysh loses the limited privileges that accrue to women in relationships with club members, since…

Women associated with the MC, unless they are a club member’s old lady, are mamas, i.e. the property of any club member who wants them.

The Loser hasn’t even been put in the ground before Gaysh finds out just how vulnerable she is. After many threats, club member Frankenstein finally acts on his desires, when he and fellow Angels drug, then rape Gaysh at the Loser’s funeral.

The church funeral service scene is the showpiece of the film, and uses the formality of a Christian burial to highlight the MC’s bikes, bongos, and beer philosophy. “The lord never did nothin’ for the Loser!” Blues shouts, interrupting the reverend as he gives the eulogy. “Oh no, preach, not children of God, but Hell’s Angels”, he then corrects the man of God when he claims the Loser for the Almighty. The mourners, all club members or part of their entourage, cheer.

When the reverend asks Blues, “Just what is it that you want to do”, the MC president can only counter church doctrine with a banal catalog of hedonistic excess: “We want to be free… we want to be free to ride our bikes… to get loaded… to have a good time”, revealing that…

Bikers can’t articulate their alternative ethos, only the superficial trappings of their lifestyle.

After Blues’s outburst, the service devolves into a modern-day saturnalia. The bongos come out, the beer and liquor flow, and the MC tear up the church. They pull the Loser out of his open casket, prop him up in a pew, and place the reverend — knocked unconscious — into the box in the Loser’s place. This lack of reverence for the reverend and for their dead comrade uphold all the fears of bikers held by mainstream culture. The citizens of Sequoia Groves, the sleepy town where the funeral takes place, have just warily lined up to watch the parade of motorcycles on their way to the church. Certainly, Gaysh’s plight proves them right:

The club’s debauches are ugly, excessive, abusive, and destructive.

The scene invites a reactionary reading. The film originally came packaged with one, courtesy of this marketing copy: “Against everything but each other — these are today’s real rebels, with a chip on their shoulder, a monkey on their back, and a hate for the world in their guts!”

Corman paints a more complicated picture. First of all, the funeral sequence is beautifully structured and filmed. A hand-held camera captures the revelry with shallow-focus close-ups that highlight small groups of cavorters against a blurry background of indeterminate carousing. The soundtrack keeps pace with the visual disorder: we hear someone playing bongos and someone else playing harmonica, while a song plays either from a phonograph or a radio, and an unseen woman prays.

Second, the mythic resonance — “Woe be unto them who call evil good and good evil!” the reverend warns — calls attention to the inversion recorded by the scene: the dead placed among the living, the servant of the lord put in the place of the corpse. Blues restores order, placing the Loser back in his coffin, then sacrifices himself for the rest of the club after they all ride to the cemetery to bury the Loser.

With the police responding to the reverend’s call for help, Blues sends the MC away from the cemetery, including his old lady, Mike (Nancy Sinatra). “It’s like you went with him”, she says of Blues’s reaction to the death of the Loser. He’s back now, and acting with purpose. The cops close in as Blues starts shoveling dirt into the Loser’s open grave, offering…

An alternate creed of sacrifice and redemption, which, despite the violence and rage, places the MC and its leader in the same relation to mainstream society that the early Christian church held with respect to Rome.

The Blu-ray comes with no extras.

RATING 6 / 10