The Wild Angels 1966

Made at a time when the Hells Angels were creating a major moral panic across America, The Wild Angels opens with a preface: ‘The picture you are about to see will shock you and perhaps anger you. Although the events and characters are fictitious, the story is a reflection of our times.’

On its release, it was undeniably controversial, being banned in several countries. Newsweek branded it ‘an ugly piece of trash’ and other publications were equally scathing.

Would it prove contentious today in an age where shows like Game of Thrones (or even biker drama Sons of Anarchy) have gone out of their way to portray brutality like eye gouging and castration on a near weekly basis?

Certainly not for its violence, although plenty of other aspects might guarantee a slew of complaints if it were to be screened at any university film club. The male bikers are a highly misogynist bunch. There’s a rape and an attempted rape. There’s some casual racism and also a plethora of Nazi iconography on display throughout the movie – everything from a Swastika bedspread (honestly) to a coffin draped in a Nazi flag as Peter Fonda’s character Blues defines just exactly he wants to do during an extended – and spectacularly tasteless – funeral scene.

His speech may sound rousing when used in a sample – Mudhoney’s In ‘n’ Out of Grace was the first track to utilize it two years before Primal Screams’ Loaded – but in the context of the movie it comes across more as a selfish rant from a rebel without a coherent cause.

Despite this, The Wild Angels is compelling watch and very enjoyable too.

Aimed initially at the summer drive-in crowd, producer and director Roger Corman once again demonstrated his gift for giving a youthful audience the kind of subject matter that guaranteed they would flock to his films.

Peter Fonda plays Blues, the Prez of a Californian Angels chapter. He’s enigmatic and tough and to show how supercool he is, he doesn’t even take off his shades before wading into a fistfight with some Mexicans who have stolen his comrade’s chopper. Which inevitably he wins.

Blues is also the smartest of the bikers, although that wouldn’t be very difficult. He’s in a casual relationship with Mike (played rather woodenly by Nancy Sinatra). Yes, genuine American showbiz royalty here, folks. Corman must have heard the kerching sound of a cash register when he cast this pair.

Bruce Dern is Loser, Blue’s right hand man. He is married to Gaysh, played by Dianne Ladd, his real-life wife at the time and a dead ringer for her daughter Laura Dern round about the time of Wild At Heart.

There’s not much in the way of plot but, as per usual, Corman does a fantastic job of moving the action forward.

Unlike most biker flicks, Corman make it difficult to identify with the Angels. Early on when Blues is criticized by Loser’s war vet foreman for wearing an iron cross, Blues and Loser grapple him and threaten to take his teeth out with a wrench. Okay, the one percenter’s fascination with Nazi paraphernalia was nothing to do with Hitler’s ideology, rather a show of contempt towards straight society. As with some early punks in London it was more to do with shock tactics but was just plain wrong regardless.

Corman did speak with some local Angels along with writer Charles Griffith, and he claims that most of the major events in the film are based on true stories told to them by the outlaw bikers. He also made sure to employ a number of actual Angels from their Venice, California chapter on the project, treating them just like the professional actors. The bikers, though, later regretted their participation, which led to some highly dangerous consequences for the director as he discusses here:

Made on a budget of only $350,000 and shot in three weeks, The Wild Angels wasn’t the first biker movie, The Wild One was an obvious inspiration and even British kitchen sink drama The Leather Boys had been shot a couple of years beforehand.

It isn’t the best film of its kind either – Easy Rider, also starring Fonda, is far superior in just about every respect. The Wild Angels, though, did spawn the whole biker flick craze.

It was highly successful at the American box-office. According to Corman in the Corman’s World documentary, it made $16 million. Also remarkable is the fact that an independently made exploitation movie was chosen, along with classics like Fahrenheit 451, The War Game and The Battle of Algiers, to be screened at that year’s Venice Film Festival.

For more on Roger Corman click here.

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