Motorcycle Movies We Missed
About a year ago we presented the Movie Times list of Top 10 Biker Movies but we soon realized that we missed a few. Naturally we felt obligated to share a few lesser known favorites.
As a prop, the Motorcycle has no cinematic peer. Seconds into Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole’s crazy cruising (and subsequent bruising) on his Brough Superior gives us the measure of the man; Steve Mcqueen’s heroic ride through the German countryside is a Great Escape indeed. And, of course, the tricked-out choppers of two Easy Riders did nothing less than summarize an era. In scores of lesser flicks, bikes provide Hollywood with a quick-fix option: Need a bad guy? Bring on the biker. On celluloid as in society, motorcycles are the fastest route to an on-the-fringe stereotype.
So you think bikers are a no good bunch monosyllabic hoodlums out for a bad time? The following movies won’t change your mind. And despite the image-enhancement efforts of the Motorcycle Industry Council, leather boys and girls continue to tear up the screen in the most antisocial ways-it’s a tradition. (Be sure to buckle your helmet.)
ON ANY SUNDAY (1971) With nary a greasy bandanna or studded leather vest in sight, this pair of documentaries provides an enticing introduction to the myriad joys of riding. The original, directed by Bruce (Endless Summer) Brown, conveys its subject with vigor and enthusiasm, from high-speed road racing to a Baja endurance trial. Following the same potpourri format, the sequel sacrifices some of the joyousness for a slicker look and a surfeit of crashes. Still, seeing world champion Bernie Schreiber negotiate impossible terrain with slow, amazingly precise maneuvers is alone worth the trip to the video store. Together these tapes offer abundant stimuli-hill climbs, ice racing, Steve Mcqueen, camera-in-the-fairing footage, and all the crazy and fantastic things people do on bikes, on any Sunday of the year.
You can watch On Any Sunday here at Movie Times. This is the full length version, so relax and enjoy.
THE WILD ANGELS (1966). A Lifestyles of the Sick and Violent that kicked off a whole slew of biker films in a new, ’60s mode. Peter Fonda plays gang leader Heavenly Blues (Fonda himself proposed the moniker- it’s a hallucinogen), and Bruce Dern plays his sidekick, Loser, who lives up to the name by stealing a police bike and getting shot in the back. Meanwhile, the Angels pursue their fun-that is, as director Roger Corman has put it, “Nazi helmets. Rapes. Drugs. Weirdness on the screen.” They spring Loser from the hospital, where he’s doing badly enough, and at his funeral all Hells break loose. This gritty film was a respectable hit for indie AlP and was invited to enter the Venice Film Festival, where it was not, um, universally liked. The real-life Angels who helped Corman with the story and the casting were likewise not amused: they sued for defamation of character!
HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS (1967). Cashing in on The Wild Angels’ popularity, this low-budget exploitation flick is one of its very best imitators-and even more nihilistic. Its wrenching, anxiety-provoking cinematography is by Laszlo Kovacs, whose style is calmer but no less effective in Easy Rider (and whose name, incidentally, is the alias of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless). Assisted by real-life Angels (this time with their approval), writer R. Wright Campbell and director Richard Rush (of The Stunt Man fame) create ample opportunities for recklessness, violence, and sex. Jack Nicholson plays Poet, a onetime pump jockey who joins the Angels and proves he’s as tough as they are. But when he moves in on leader Buddy’s chick (Sabrina Scharf), the action gets really down and dirty. Don’t miss the fine period detail-remember body painting?
THE LEATHER BOYS (1964). England’s early entry into the restless-youth-on-cycles sweepstakes (directed by Canadian Sidney J. Furie) is the story of a young working-class couple who get married just when it becomes abundantly apparent that they should have remained teenage lovers. Gum-chomping Dot (Rita Tushingham) starts stepping out on Reggie (Colin Campbell), and he turns for solace to his bike and the buddies who truly understand him. One new friend, Pete (Dudley Sutton), wants to give him more than understanding. This being 1964, however, the plot takes us only as far as Pete’s declaration of love and then quickly retreats to a heterosexual reunion, primed by an endurance race to Edinburgh. In addition to its engaging characterizations, The Leather Boys offers an eyeful of classic British machinery.
BURY ME AN ANGEL (1971). Appropriate to its era (the Middle Golden Age of American biker movies), this tale of rampage and revenge has it all, from its opening drug fest to an explicit shotgun murder, from gratuitous skin to surreal flashbacks with sitar accompaniment on the soundtrack. Two notable assets set it apart. The first is six-foot Dixie Peabody, as Dag, the “howling hellcat humping a hot steel hog,” who’s searching for her brother’s killer-and is tougher than any guy who dares to cross her. The second is another woman, writer-director Barbara (Humanoids From the Deep) Peeters. Dag hits the road with pals Jonsie (Terry Mace) and Bernie (Clyde Ventura), and as the western miles fall away under their wheels, they tangle with the law, brawl in a bar, experience nature, and receive a lesson in truth from a sexy Indian mystic. In the end, Dag finds her man and buries the memory of her brother’s brutal death-which, ironically enough, was the result of his having stolen the bike she’s been riding.
PSYCHOMANIA (1971). Also known as The Death Wheelers (but not to be confused with 1963’s horrific Psychomania-please), this British horror flick directed by Don Sharp has been called incomprehensible, but in fact, it all makes perfect sense. You see, star Nicky Henson’s mom, Beryl Reid, sold her son’s soul to the Devil (perhaps) or a tree frog (more probable) , and he thus has the power to cross over to the other side and live (and terrorize innocent townfolk) forever. He convinces the members of his radical bike gang- the Living Dead-to follow him to immortality. The DVD jacket of this far-out black comedy proclaims that it “must be seen to be believed.”
WAIT, YOU MIGHT SAY TO YOURSELF, BIKERS can’t be all bad. Tough around the edges, to be sure, but a core of human vulnerability might lurk under those leathers. The films below are proof-if not positive, then on the right track-that even bikers can be heroes.
SHAME (1988). Not too far into this independent Australian feature set in the outback, you’ll sense the presence of something familiar (if you didn’t already hear an echo in the title): it’s the classic western Shane. Only here, the silent stranger who blows into town does it on a 750 Suzuki Katana. And–oh, yeah-she’s a woman. Asta Caddell (Deborra-Lee Furness) is a barrister on a solo holiday. Late one night, she has a run-in with a ditch and repairs to a small town that could be any normal burg. But it’s not: the men-boorish, aggressive, small-minded are terrorizing the local women. Asta takes up the cause of a girl who’s been gang raped and becomes a one woman army for justice; she relies on her fists and deft riding when wits are not enough. That’s when the action accelerates like a motorcycle doing a wheelie. Directed by Steve Jodrell, Shame is clearly a movie with a (feminist) message. It’s also one that breaks all the biker-and manycinematic=-clichés.
EAT THE PEACH (1986). A charming Irish movie that charts the progress of a dream: its birth, its death, and the renewal of hope. Arthur (Eamon Morrissey) has been let go from a Japanese computer concern in Northern Ireland; his brother-in-law, Vinnie (Stephen Brennan), has never been much good at steady work. After watching their favorite movie, Roustabout, on video, the two suddenly come up with an answer to the unemployment blues: they’ll build a cylindrical “wall of death”-a high-speed stunt ride just like Elvis’s in the movie. To finance their enterprise, they engage in a little “commodity relocation”- smuggling-for a local politician’s brother. Come opening day, Vinnie takes his motorbike for a first ride up the wall-a triumph, but for one small miscalculation…. The end? Peter Ormrod’s film, a parable about the necessity of doomed optimism in strife-racked Ireland, is also a lovely story about the human spirit.
MASK (1985). How deep runs the “vicious biker” stereotype? Deep enough that some reviewers of this movie didn’t buy the idea that a gang could be a loving and protective family to its members. That’s their problem; Mask, after all, is based on a true story. Rocky Dennis, affectingly played by Eric Stoltz, has grown up among just such a gang of bikers. They manage, better than anyone else, to see past his facial disfigurement (Rocky has eraniodiaphyseal dysplasia-the Elephant Man’s disease) to the heart of a normal teenage boy. His never-say-ever mom (Cher) is~ coiled spring of strength. for her son but not always for herself. Drugs and her few-too-many boyfriends become a source of friction between them, as well as a note of complicating realism in the script. Rocky’s 5! hopes for the future are literally pinned to a map of Europe, which he plans to tour on a Harley. Some biker bromides persist: the gang’s notion of entertainment, for example, is a bit, well, wanton. And though director Peter Bogdanovich keeps sentimentality largely at bay, if you don’t let a sniffle or two escape when Rocky finds first love with a blind girl (Laura Dern), you’re a better man than most bikers.
SPETTERS (1980). Although three young aspiring motocross champions are the ostensible stars of this Dutch film from Paul Verhoeven, Futility and Meaninglessness steal the show. Imperious Rutger Hauer is the reigning race winner they’re trying to unseat; juicy Renee out end is the prize. The plot has more curves, turns, ups, and downs than the racecourse, with bike culture (always more fervent in Europe) the glue that binds together its half-baked notions about sexuality, religion, and opportunism. And on all these counts, there’s something to offend almost any viewer. Bleak and brutal-virtually every character comes to a bad end-Spetters is a complex tale told with economy and style.