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The Wild Angels, Roger Corman’s 1966 motorcycle exploitation flick about the Hells Angels, begins with a little vignette as exhilarating and provocative as the first sound of a combustion engine rocking into ignition. A boy, no older than six, steps onto a small toy bicycle and circles around a suburban backyard before leaving the safe confines of a white picket fence and heading a few blocks down the street. The camera moves with him in one of those no-holds-barred virtuoso shots typical of 1960s American independent cinema—traveling as swiftly as if it were filmed from another plastic bicycle beside him. We hear a woman screaming. The boy’s mother runs behind him, with her hands out, and just barely grabs him in time to avoid a fatal encounter with the devil himself—a chrome beast of a chopper wheel fills the screen, a black leather boot just outside the frame. But unlike that of his mother behind him, the boy’s face isn’t terrified or panic-stricken. He assumes a look of awe, of lovestruck naivety. And right then and there we see what that boy will grow up to be; what the tough guy sitting on the motorcycle now must once have been. The two are, at that moment, one.

We never see that same boy again for the rest of the film, but one gets the sense that for the entire rollicking duration of The Wild Angels he never leaves us. He pervades the screen constantly, riding around in a leather jacket, dancing to idyllic ’60s surf rock, beating up “the man.” The man is any one who gets in this boy’s way—whether it’s the Mexicans working at a garage whom he joyfully spits racial slurs at while kicking to the ground, the nurse whose shirt he rips off while breaking his comrade out of a hospital, or the preacher whom he hog-ties and throws into a casket wrapped in a Nazi flag at that same comrade’s funeral. These are his villains, the people he has been taught to senselessly hate. No matter how much we try to reach out and grab him, like the concerned mother of the film’s first scene, there’s no stopping it. This boy hasn’t just met the devil, he has become the devil, and he’s here to tell you so until you’ve become absolutely sick of it—and of that damn catchy organ rock tune that plays everywhere he goes.

The film’s plot could be summed up with a list of its victims, beginning with the Mexicans at the garage, the police officer who careens over a cliff in the chase that ensues, and the parade of caricatured innocent bystanders that follow from these two. The Angels’s behaviors and principles almost immediately begin to irritate the viewer as the bikers follow around their leader, Peter Fonda, while he bellows cliché commands like “let’s ride!” or “everyone behind that wall!” Their ideals, based on ambiguous notions like freedom and the man, don’t seem to mean a damn as the pack of cyclists brainlessly follows around the leader, embodying the exact idea they claim to oppose. Certainly Corman doesn’t wait around to let this central theme rise to the surface. One of the film’s opening shots finds the gang riding in two lines that flank either side of the camera, following the commands of Fonda, and it’s clear right off the bat that this band of anarchists is no more anarchical than a group of leather-clad Boy Scouts. They’re a living contradiction—the oxymoron in the name of both their gang and the film made manifest. The film’s breakneck descent into complete depravity finds the crew going on one small tirade after another until finally reaching the grand finale of it all—the moment that apparently redeems their hypocrisy, yet also solidifies them as some of the nastiest boys to grace the silver screen since Peter Brooks’ Lord of The Flies, made just three years before The Wild Angels.

Near film’s end, the gang has just sprung one of their comrades from a hospital and impending prison sentence; yet without proper medical treatment he dies just shortly after. Fonda decides they have to hold a funeral for him, so they all head to the woods of California with his corpse in tow. When we get to the funeral—one might expect a kind of hyper-masculine Satanic ritual, given the earlier events—it ends up being a pretty conventional affair in a small church. The deceased’s body is in a casket, and a preacher stands at the altar behind it and starts to deliver a run-of-the-mill sermon. The preacher’s awkwardness as the hoodlums in the pews taunt him, and his glances at the swastika-bearing flag laid over the casket, are uncomfortable to watch and not in the least funny. But in the film’s most redemptive scene, preceding its most ridiculous, Fonda approaches the pew and begins a kind of salt-of-the-earth soapbox speech, characteristic of the monologues his dad (Henry Fonda) delivered in films like Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath and Twelve Angry Men. But such a soapbox-esque, “wherever there’s a fight I’ll be there” monologue requires real ideals and real spirit, in which The Angels are altogether lacking.

“We don’t want people telling us what to do! We don’t want people pushing us around!” Peter Fonda heroically tells the preacher, his comrades cheering behind him. The preacher looks straight at him, and in a moment of sincere curiosity asks, “Tell me. Just what is it you want to do?” It’s that question that pervades all the film’s plotless antics. Even Fonda seems stumped. His face loses its youthful vigor, his eyes lower to the floor behind his sunglasses, his body slouches into his leather jacket shell. With that one question, Corman puts the entire youth counterculture movement of the ’50s and ’60s on trial. The only answer the Angels can think up is to tear the church apart and throw a party. From there we watch as the the gang falls into the kind of anarchy they’ve been promoting all along—the members begin to fight and rape each other, all while dancing to that same annoyingly upbeat organ rock tune on loop.

Fonda’s character in The Wild Angels emerges from the tradition of the teenage counterculture movie for which the motorcycle was central, beginning with Marlon Brando in The Wild One in 1953 and reaching its peak in 1969 with Easy Rider starring Fonda and Dennis Hopper. The iconography of the young motorcycle hero is unreachably triumphant. He rides down the highway on his chopper with his hair blowing in the wind, his sunglasses glowing like two torches in the sun, his black leather jacket withstanding anything that comes it its way. To imagine him doing anything else is just about as impossible as imagining Fred Astaire doing anything but wearing a top hat, white tie and tails and hoofing to a tune from the great American songbook. But that iconography, the impossibility of it, and indeed its very “movie-ness,” is exactly what Corman challenges with The Wild Angels. That Corman made this film three years before the motorcycle film genre reached its peak of popularity with the cinematically superior Easy Rider, a more heroic portrayal of motorcycle counterculture, is notably daring. The mystique that surrounds the heroes of the silver screen—both past and to come—is here entirely lifted, and what we’re left with are some silly people wearing some silly clothes doing some really nasty things. Corman locks us in with their lot, barreling down the road of depravity—full speed ahead.

The Wild Angels played as part of Anthology Film Archive’s year-end series “Bikers, Drugs, and Rock & Roll,” and is now available on Blu-Ray through Olive Films.