If you are just getting into riding motorcycles, there are certain “biker movies” you simply must see, even if just to better understand how popular culture sees you. Only about 8% of the American households own a motorcycle, and many of those are off-road only, so when you walk into the Piggly Wiggly with your helmet and motorcycle jacket, you are going to draw attention. Of course, these movies are not necessarily accurate, but they are memorable and entertaining, so they are certainly worth bingeing on a long weekend when its raining or cold.
You’ll notice that most of these are quite old at this point, but that is part of what makes them classics. Also, with the fractured nature of modern media, it is much harder for a film to seep into all the nooks and crannies of society in the 21st century.
The Wild One (1953)
There had been plenty of motorcycles in movies before this, but The Wild One is the first film most people would call a “biker movie”. Young and pretty Marlon Brando plays “Johnny” leader of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and older, rougher Lee Marvin is his nemesis, Chino, leader of the Beetles. Based on an exaggeration of true events, it is a story you have likely seen play out a bunch of time in other movies – local girl falls for mysterious stranger, but the squares and an even badder bad guy makes things tough for them.
A lot of this movie is cheesy, especially the fake riding scenes, but when someone asks you “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” this movie holds the answer. The real historic events it is based on involved the “Boozefighters” getting rowdy in Hollister, CA in 1947 when there happened to be a magazine photographer nearby.
Easy Rider (1969)
There were 1960s biker B-movies before Easy Rider came out, some of them even had Peter Fonda or Dennis Hopper in them, but there was something different about this one. Peter Fonda was already a 2nd generation Hollywood star, and Hopper had been working since Rebel Without a Cause, but this movie was really personal to them. The idea was a modernized western on motorcycles, with bikers looking for the freedom and pursuing happiness, like America promised them. This movie, like The Graduate before it, hipped a lot of straight laced American kids to the idea that that they didn’t have to toe the line and join the rat race. The movie also changed how movies got made and swept a new generation of filmakers and stars into Hollywood.
Peter Fonda met black civil right activist, and chopper rider, Cliff Vaughs by chance after being arrested for possession of drugs by LAPD. They hit it off and basic story was developed soon afterwards, much of it from Cliff’s experiences riding around the south, though he never got much if any credit. Cliff later was instrumental in getting the bikes for the movie built by another African American biker Ben Hardy, who was largely unknown outside of south L.A.
On Any Sunday (1971)
There were about 50 biker movies made in the 20 years after The Wild One portraying motorcycle riders as dangerous and anti-social, and Easy Rider didn’t do much to change that, but then along came On Any Sunday. Documentary maker Bruce Brown enjoyed making movies and what people today call “extreme sports” including surfing, and off-road motorcycle riding. His film The Endless Summer was little more than well put together vacation movies, but the surfing vacation lasted all year and visited many exotic locations. His next film followed motorcycle racers in a variety of disciplines, and while they could still be considered dangerous, these bikers were much more social. The footage was at times exciting, funny and beautiful, and made everyone want to go out and ride.
This movie poured gasoline on the 1960s off-road riding explosion started by cheap Japanese dirt bikes, and wide open country. It showed the fun to be had on a motorcycle, no matter your skill level or where you lived. The shiny, happy, soundtrack, and presence of number one box office star Steve McQueen, changed America’s idea of what riding a motorcycle was all about as much as Honda’s “Nicest People” campaign did.
While the United States had Marlon Brando, the Hell’s Angels, and Eric Von Zipper and the Rats (the nemesis of Frankie Avalon and the good kids in the Beach Party movies), in the UK they had motorcycle riding Rockers in black leather. However, the US had nothing like the scooter riding young Mods whose clashes with the Rockers were big news in the 1960s. The Who were there just starting out, and years later wrote Quadrophenia, an album of songs about growing up and coming of age during those years.
These days, just because you ride a motorcycle, it doesn’t mean you want to beat up guys who ride scooters, and there are even combined Mods and Rockers shows and events. If you ride a cafe racer with a 59 club patch on your jacket, you’ll see a lot to like in this movie. The soundtrack is pretty great too.
There is no getting around it, Akira is a weird movie, but it is a weird movie about some guys in a sport bike gang in Tokyo. In a way, Akira and his friend Tetsuo are Mods, evolved for the new reality of Neo-Tokyo, and the Clowns, their rival gang, are just Rockers reinterpreted. In real life Japan, in the 70s, the Bosozoku motorcycle gangs combined stylistic elements from the Mod’s scooters, and the cafe racer scene, and this film is just projecting that 50 years into the future.
Young kids on sport bikes fighting actual clowns on choppers is not the weird part though, that is the important part. The weird part is the surreal sci-fi aspects of it that put the drug trip in Easy Rider to shame, but then Akira has the advantage of being animated. The walking and talking toys in this film could not be further from Disney’s Toy Story.
BONUS – The World’s Fastest Indian (2005)
Our title said five, and this is number six, but it is too important to leave off, because no movie ever made captures the independent spirit of the rider better than The World’s Fastest Indian. While the car culture’s The Fast and the Furious was making Coyote and Road Runner cartoons with cars, bike culture got this tiny epic based on the true story of a man and his bike competing against time itself.
Academy award winner Anthony Hopkins plays Burt Munro, who tinkers away in his little shop in rural New Zealand and dreams of setting land speed records at Bonneville. The movie details his first trip to the states and the test of spirit, man, and machine which leads to triumph in the end. This is also somehow one of the most accurate and most trilling depictions of motorsports action ever seen on the big or small screen.