In the mid-1960s, the young sports writer Hunter S. Thompson spent a year living and riding with the notorious Hells Angels, leading to the publication of his first book-length work of gonzo journalism, Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Rough and tumble motorcycle clubs like the Angels were getting a lot of press coverage at the time, particularly after the Monterey Labor Day rape case of 1964, in which a group of Hells Angels were accused of abducting and raping two young girls at a rowdy biker event (1).
Back at American International Pictures (AIP) after a brief stint at Columbia Pictures, Roger Corman took on Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson’s request for the production of a summer drive-in movie and directed The Wild Angels (1966), a work of questionable exploitation and the second popular film to tap into public fascination with outlaw motorcycle gangs since The Wild One (Laslo Benedek) in 1953. With a modest budget of about $350,000, and the promise of complete artistic control, Corman hired his friend Charles Griffith to write the screenplay, and the two of them based the script on real stories recounted to them by members of the San Bernadino Hells Angels. Corman shot The Wild Angels in three weeks and entirely on location, at his insistence. His assistant at the time was a young Peter Bogdanovich, who essentially rewrote the script while the film was in production, and the editor was none other than Monte Hellman. Richard Moore is credited as the cinematographer, although it is hard to tell who shot, wrote, or edited individual scenes in this typically communal AIP production.
The Wild Angels opens on a claustrophobic shot of a young boy playing in a gated area in Venice Beach. The boy rolls off the property on a tricycle and rides right up to “Heavenly Blues”, the Angels’ club president played by Peter Fonda. The boy’s mother runs after him hysterically and leads him away from the big bad biker.
The action in this sequence is a little cartoonish, and the reverential introduction of Fonda in sunglasses lighting a cigarette is total drive-in fare. The overall tone, however, is quietly resonant. The opening image of a dingy Venice Beach provides a compelling portrait of California’s poor man’s Italy. The muted colours and reflective waterway surrounding single-level homes appears shabby in contrast with Fonda’s slick chrome and leather. There is no music at first except for tricycle wheels on concrete and natural outdoor noises, rendering the final wide shot of Blues all the more attention-grabbing as he rides out of this sad locale. Corman has admitted that the textbook symbolism of the gated playpen was intentional, and there is an obvious metaphor at play revolving around imprisonment, loneliness and stifled fun. Blues kicks his motorcycle loudly into gear before riding off, creating a harmonious segue into Mike Curb’s scorching fuzz guitar soundtrack. Freedom is bliss as Fonda cruises his bike through the opening credits, but the tree-less industrial California scenery sustains an underlying depression.
Blues’ first order of business is visiting his friend Loser (Bruce Dern) with the news that his stolen bike has shown up in Mecca. Loser’s co-workers are wary of Blues’ visit – one of them takes offence at his dangling Iron Cross and the foreman fires Loser without a second thought.
Loser’s quick loss of his job on the oilrig suggests Corman’s larger apprehension regarding modern society and its evolving workforce. In interviews about the film, Corman often referred to an article in The Economist that linked the formation of rebel motorcycle groups like the Hells Angels to contemporary society’s increasing dependence on technology and the resulting disaffection of working-class youth. As Corman remarked in 1969, the Hells Angels were “part of a movement of people who have no part in a technical society – who are frozen out… [their] jobs are being automated now, and I think we have to anticipate a future when a large part of our society will be unemployable” (2).
Taking this into account, certain images (of an industrialised California full of highways and factories) and frustrations (at not being able to hold a job or make a decent living) indicate a cohesive criticism. Thus Corman’s view of the Angels is not as objective as both his admirers and detractors tend to note. This subtle commentary on the contemporary social and economic context nudges The Wild Angels into the genre of the “social problem film” that first gained popularity in the Depression-era with films like Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) and William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933). Corman’s somewhat high-minded rationalisation for the Angels’ rebellion lessens the stigma of The Wild Angels’ “exploitation” label, drawing the film closer to its dusty predecessor The Wild One, a classic example of a social problem film.
“We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the man! And we wanna get loaded! And have a good time! And that’s what we’re gonna do!”
– Heavenly Blues
After he is shot by a policeman and preemptively busted out of hospital, the wild denouement in the church during Loser’s “funeral” is without a doubt the scene that gives The Wild Angels its hardest push into the territory of exploitation cinema. It is a scene that is properly exploitative in both content and style. Egged on by Blues to hold a rowdy party in the church, the Angels quickly turn the Loser’s funeral into an anarchic orgy of sex and violence. Blues pushes away his girlfriend Mike (Nancy Sinatra) and drunkenly has sex (we assume) with another woman behind a pew. The revelers assault the priest and tie him up, then switch him over with Loser’s corpse in the coffin. Dear John (Buck Taylor) and Frankenstein (Mark Cavell) rape the Loser’s widow (Gaysh played by Diane Ladd) while the bikers parade the priest in the coffin and prop Loser up against a wall like a ragdoll. Running nearly ten minutes, the scene is notoriously drawn-out, evoking the observational style and banal pacing of a “Mondo” shockumentary, but without the explicit sex and gore.
The soundtrack during the funeral/party scene is calculated and unusual. It begins with destructive crowd noises and offbeat bongo drumming and builds into a cacophony of epileptic psychedelic music mixed with diegetic sounds. Just as Gaysh pitiably emerges from her rape in an apparent daze, an odd layer of the soundscape gains volume and an eerily innocent, unintelligible female singsong voice becomes the most noticeable element on the soundtrack. This element is strange, to say the least, and perhaps intended to garner some sympathy for Gaysh, or add a morbidly sentimental dimension to the scene. As in Loser’s dramatic death scene over the sounds of a screaming baby, and the final shot of Blues sitting at his friend’s grave with police sirens wailing, the onslaught of contrasting sounds can be regarded as an oppressive assault on the eardrums and/or a rebellious burst of energy.
None of the characters in The Wild Angels are especially likeable or sympathetic, although there is a distinction between the generally threatening, irreverent leads and the real bad dudes in the gang. Frankenstein and Dear John stand out as violent, hotheaded rapists, while Fonda’s Heavenly Blues is the one who takes the fall for their offenses. Dern’s Loser, on the other hand, is as rude as the rest of them but a rather charming idealist in his own right. His death is a major tragedy within the framework of the film, causing Blues to question his identity as a nihilistic biker and ultimately abandon the gang.
Corman told an interviewer in 1969 that he didn’t intend for his characters to come across as glamorous, although he admits that he was drawn to them at the time (3). As one Youtube user recently commented in response to another’s complaint about the Nazi paraphernalia in The Wild Angels, “They aren’t Nazis. They just paraded around in that stuff to intimidate people, plus it looks cool as shit.” (4) While it is true that most bikers are not racists or neo-fascists, it is disturbing that some fans continue to play down the toxic elements of 1960s biker culture, like the empty-headed flaunting of Nazi iconography and the casual attitude toward rape – these are elements that contemporary Hells Angels (publically) disavow, now that they are a registered corporation with a trademarked logo, touting the slogan on their website: “When we do right nobody remembers when we do wrong nobody forgets” (5).
Looking at many of the post-Angels biker films, Corman’s film undeniably remains one of the coolest in terms of production values, visual style, music and actors. Though few critics took it seriously, Corman’s film opened the 27th Venice Film Festival and went on to become one of the top grossing films of 1966, a major achievement for a low budget film. Even the soundtrack, propelled by Mike Curb’s novel distorted “fuzz” guitar, became a best-selling record. Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson starred in their own biker films (The Glory Stompers [Anthony M. Lanza] and Hells Angels on Wheels [Richard Rush]) a year later, and it was the success of these films that inspired Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson to make Easy Rider (1969), helping to alter the studio system and usher in the New Wave of American cinema.
After the success of The Wild Angels Corman shifted his focus away from horror and sci-fi and cashed in on a number of lighthearted counterculture films like The Trip (1967), Riot on Sunset Strip (1967) and Gas-s-s-s (1970). The Wild Angels was one of the first films to give us a hint of the post-flowerchild cultural decay that was yet to come, characterised by the Charles Manson cult, and captured on film in the Albert and David Maysles’ Gimme Shelter (1970) when the Hells Angels murder a drugged-up, gun-wielding teenager at a miserably chaotic Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. Warts and all, The Wild Angels should be awarded more attention as an important – and innovative – film in the canon of 1960s New American Cinema.
- The incident became the subject of a Life magazine cover story and led to State Senator Fred Farr (of Monterey County) demanding an investigation into the Hells Angels. The case against the Angels was dropped, but California Attorney General T. C. Lynch still conducted an investigation into Angel activities, the results of which were made public in a report published in March 1965. As Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his book on the Angels, the public demand for copies of the report was so great that it went into a second printing. See Thompson, Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, Random House, New York, 1967.
- Digby Diehl, “Roger Corman: A Double Life”, Roger Corman: Interviews, ed. Constantine Nasr, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2011, p. 30.
- John Mason, “The Making of The Wild Angels: An Interview with Roger Corman”, Roger Corman: Interviews, p. 69.
- Ben Boyer, “The Wild Angels/1966”, Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vrwsp3TeBBQ.
- Hells Angels Motorcycle Club World: http://www.hells-angels.com/.
The Wild Angels (1966 USA 93 mins)
Prod Co: American International Pictures Prod, Dir: Roger Corman Scr: Charles B. Griffith, Peter Bogdanovich [uncredited] Phot: Richard Moore Ed: Monte Hellman Art Dir: Leon Ericksen Mus: Mike Curb, Larry Brown, Joe Leahy
Cast: Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, Buck Taylor, Mark Cavell, Michael J. Pollard