“We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! … And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that’s what we are gonna do. We’re gonna have a good time… We’re gonna have a party.”
Banned for several years in Britain, where the censors had a long-held fear of youth rebellion cinema (stretching back to pioneering biker film The Wild One in 1953), The Wild Angels is one of the most important and influential movies of the 1960s. It’s 1966 release not only spawned a biker movie boom that ran through the next ten years or so but also gave rise to Easy Rider, a film that has little in common with this one beyond the star, but which would almost certainly have never existed if this movie hadn’t come along first. It’s also the film that marked the start of a new phase for director Roger Corman – having moved from 1950s B movies to the gothic Poe cycle, he would wind up his directorial career as the unlikely but inspired helmsman for a series of counter culture youth films. Movies like this, The Trip andGas-s-s-s proved that Corman had a knack for understanding the edgy, new cinema that was emerging (often via filmmakers that he’d given early breaks to). It’s important to remember just how daring and adventurous a film maker Corman actually was – while making films cashing in youth trends might not seem that risky, these were controversial and shocking films for the time, and Corman often brings a jaundiced eye to his stories.
Written (officially) by Charles B. Griffith and (actually) by Peter Bogdanovich, the film is very much of the ‘rebel without a cause’ mindset, though the rebels here are no longer teenagers, and so their determination to fight the system seems all the more desperate and, as the story progresses, pathetic. Peter Fonda plays the brilliantly named Heavenly Blues, leader of a California chapter of the Hell’s Angels, who leads his gang from one disaster to another, seemingly trapped in a dead end world of faux rebellion that even he no longer seems to believe in. Fonda is the epitome of cool, with his leather jacket, shades, black polo neck and iron cross round his neck – but it’s arguably more Beatnik than biker in style. It’s hard to imagine this peacocking pretty boy lasting very long in any real biker gang. We first meet him as he heads out to a building site to collect The Loser (Bruce Dern), having tracked the latter’s stolen chopper to Mecca, California, where it has (allegedly) be stolen by a Mexican chop shop gang. A group of the Angels head to the repair shop and beat up the Mexicans, but don’t find the bike, and when the cops turn up, The Loser flees on a police motorcycle, only to be shot in the back during the ensuing chase.
Heavenly seems curiously unconcerned about either the fate of his friend of the failure of his mission, but is eventually convinced to break The Loser out of hospital – something that anyone would see is a ridiculous idea. Using sort-of girlfriend Mike (Nancy Sinatra) as a decoy, the Angels snatch The Loser (with one of them pausing to sexually assault a nurse along the way) and take him back to their hang out, but without medical care, The Loser quickly expires. The gang then set out to take their comrade back to his home town to be buried, turning up at a church with a Swastika-draped coffin. Any hopes of a vaguely respectful funeral are dashed, however, when Heavenly turns up and issues his “we wanna be free” speech to the preacher (Frank Maxwell) – less the cry of defiance that it seems to be in Primal Scream samples and more a desperate, idiotic justification for his own aimless, empty existence. The gang, encouraged by Heavenly, the trash the church and beat up the preacher, holding a sex, booze and drugs party that includes The Loser’s widow Gaysh (Diane Ladd) being gang-raped behind the altar. Eventually, the fun over, they carry the coffin to the local cemetery, under the gaze of the hostile redneck locals, leading to a final confrontation.
The Wild Angels, according to legend (and the credits) features real Hell’s Angels in supporting roles, but if so, you have to assume that either they really didn’t care about their public image or didn’t read the script. Because frankly, the Angels don’t come out of this well. It’s not simply that they are violent, thuggish, racist and unpleasant – that’s a given for most biker gang films. But here, they seem rather pathetic – ageing rebels led by an idiot (and let’s not let the exterior cool fool us – Heavenly Blues is a complete moron who is entirely responsible for all the bad things that befall his gang throughout the film) and with no sense of loyalty and honour. It’s this that makes banning The Wild Angels so ridiculous – the film isn’t a celebration of this lifestyle as much as it is an exposé of it, revealing the emptiness behind it all. Any sense of sympathy we might have for the Angels goes out of the window during the climatic church trashing, a needlessly violent act that has nothing to do with fighting for individuality. And the gang rape of Gaysh – which Heavenly at best ignores, at worst approves of – should really crush any lingering belief that these characters are anything more than petty thugs whom the world would be better off without. And yet at the same time, these are our central characters, whom we see the world through and who we are manipulated into sympathizing with, at least until the final act.
All this gives the film a moral complexity missing from most biker movies, where the gangs will either be misunderstood rebels or mindless thugs, with little nuance in between. Heavenly Blues encapsulates the complexities at work here – ostensibly the hero (played by the classic Hollywood pretty boy), the film nevertheless seems to go out of its way to make his unlikeable – even before the church trashing, his indifference to the fate of The Loser, his hot and cold attitudes to Mike and his continually bad choices make him hard to take to. Even he seems t realize that his life is entirely empty, yet lacks the will to actually change it. Fonda does a fine job of making this character both compelling and repulsive, revealing the shallowness underpinning his plastic rebellion.
Corman does a great job at portraying this world, with excitingly shot action sequences and a handful of excellent set pieces, the final funeral procession being the most impressive. He’s helped by the fantastic, influential and iconic score by Mike Curb and (more significantly) Davie Allen and the Arrows) – the opening theme tune is probably the finest bit of biker movie soundtrack music ever recorded. The cast are interesting – Nancy Sinatra seems a little out of place as a biker’s mama (she looks most at ease in the scene where she dresses ‘straight’ to visit The Loser in hospital) but she does her best with what is ultimately a thankless, under-developed role. Dern, as the jovial, simple-minded Loser, and Ladd as his doomed Old Lady are both excellent however, and the supporting players all seem authentically grubby and unsavoury.
Interestingly – and certainly most controversially today – is the continual use of Nazi iconography throughout the film (even the title card incorporates a Swastika). It’s not an inaccurate portrayal of outlaw biker gangs, but does come as a reminder that there was once a time that using Nazi imagery was considered an act of rebellion by youth groups against the older generation. Interestingly, Corman confront the controversy head on, having old stalwart Dick Miller confronting Dern and Fonda about their use of such symbols and what they mean, which again lifts the film out from the glut of biker movies where such imagery is either unremarked on or simply used as shock tactics. The appropriation of Nazi symbolism by biker gangs is at the very heart of this film, and is a further challenge to our ability to sympathise with them – especially as the film also portrays them (in their encounter with the Mexicans) as being genuinely, casually racist.
At it’s heart, of course, The Wild Angels is an out and out exploitation film – but the fact that it has so much going on besides that makes it not only important as a cult movie but also as a document of the times. It probably deserves a more extravagant 50th anniversary edition than this bare bones DVD (especially as the fiftieth anniversary is next year) but never mind – if you haven’t yet seen this iconic and impressive film, this new release give you a chance to rectify that immediately.