“Hey, Johnny, What are you rebelling against?”
“What’ve you got?”
It’s the famous riposte from Marlon Brando in The Wild One, a line that sent a tremor of fear through the British establishment. Strange to think now, but back in 1954, The Wild One was considered such a serious threat to British society it was banned by the Board of Film Censors for 14 years.
You see, those thin-lipped, blue-pencil censors believed Marlon Brando and his band of slovenly bikers would give youngsters “ideas on how to brutalize the public.” This was hyped response to the fact the film was loosely based on a real event, when a band of bikers took over the town of Holister in California in July 1947, during the Gypsy Tour Motorcycle Rally. Around 50 people were arrested, mainly for drunkeness, fighting, reckless driving, and disturbing the peace. Sixty people were injured, 3 seriously. Even so, it’s hard to see how the chubby Brando and his non-sensical mumblings could have inspired anyone into revolt.
Afterall, austere 1950s Britain, with its food rationing and shell-shocked, ruined cities, wasn’t Technicolor America, something John Lennon found out when he visited his local cinema to see Bill Haley and his Comets in Rock Around the Clock. Lennon had heard how riots and revolution were taking place at the film’s screenings. However, instead of seat slashing and fighting in the aisles, the nascent Beatle was dumbstruck to find his generation watching the film in silence.
If it did cause any rebellion, then it was a revolution in the head of a young English poet called Thom Gunn.
On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boy,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt–by hiding it, robust–
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.