In “The Wild One,” how is Marlon Brando’s Johnny torn between civilization and chaos?


Marlon Brando is the original rebel without a cause in the motorcycle gang film The Wild One (1954). The actor plays the pack’s leader, Johnny, who exhibits a cool and detached manner but feels anger toward the “squares” who make up polite society, especially the police. When Johnny and his gang drive into town, they are viewed as a disruption of a motorcycle race sanctioned by the citizens. Johnny sees it as a double standard that the same activity is accepted or rejected depending on who is involved, so he and his bikers mock the race’s organizers who want to restrict what they can do. Although he and the gang are rejected by the establishment, they are not total pariahs - as they ride in, the gang’s cool and tough appearance excites the youth of the town. However, the faces of their elders reflect fear, as these people see Johnny’s riders as a threat to their stable life.

Marlon Brando as Johnny in The Wild One (1954)

Johhny’s contempt for the “straight” world is seen in small gestures and few words. At a bar, Johnny is given a glass for his beer, but he ignores it and drinks from the bottle. Somebody asks Johnny, “What are you rebelling against?” His total rejection of society is revealed when he responds, “What’ve you got?” When he asks local girl Kathie (Mary Murphy) what happens in town, she says that roses grow, people get married, and her father once promised to take her fishing, but it didn’t happen. His reaction to learning about this banal tranquility is to tell his friends that they will stay there for a while to “wait for crazy.” Johnny feels he can only exist in chaos.

However, despite their anarchic, nihilistic tendecies, Johnny and the gang reveal their need for some sort of order and justice when the town’s citizens want to set free the driver of a car who hits a biker. The gang apprehends the civilian and puts him in jail, taking the place of the ineffective police and playing a fundamental role for a civilized community. In another instance of alignment with the etablishment, despite his distaste for the police, Johnny is attracted to the police chief’s daughter, Kathie. When she is harassed by the gang, Johnny reverses roles and rescues her, taking her away to a park, a sanctuary from the confrontations between the two factions and a sort of demilitarized zone for those parts of Johnny fighting with each other.

Johnny (Marlon Brando) and Kathie (Mary Murphy) in The Wild One (1954)

Kathie is someone who is willing to listen to Johnny, and he admits to her that his father beat him as a child, offering her and the viewer a glimpse into the abusive childhood that may have set Johnny on his path. While he rejects society, he also clings to a stolen motorcycle-race trophy, revealing his desire to be accepted by a community. He rejects a biker girl in favor of the “square” Kathie, but he treats her roughly, exhibiting the civilized and uncivilized aspects of his personality simultaneously. At one point, he says to Kathie, “You think you’re too good for me.” As an individual, she represents what he wants: acceptance. But her role in society is also what he despises: the judgmental authority of the “square” world.

Since they are from worlds at war, they cannot be together. But Johnny finds some peace in the fact that he has found in Kathie a person from the other camp who understands him. Since he feels accepted, for the moment at least, he no longer needs the trophy. He gives it to Kathy and, smiling for the first time in the film, rides away.