Where do we start? Well The Wild One (1953) I guess is the obvious year zero choice. Brando and his boys roll into small town Americana, shake up the squares, “What are you rebelling against?” “Whad’ya got?” etc. All good, but not quite there, Lee Marvin is pretty brutal, but they’re all riding Triumphs! Forget it. The rest of the 1950’s is all generalised teenage delinquency and Hot Rodders on chicken runs.
Suddenly though, the 60’s brings the real biker gangs! Grease stained romanticism, men of the road, free from the constraints of society man! Fightin’ and fuckin’ and chain whippin’ themselves into straight society’s consciousness. Who are these devils? Dr Thompson is certainly intrigued, enough so to write them into urban legend with Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Motorcycle Outlaw Gangs (1966). Ok now our interest is piqued, and that goddamn’ Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964) sure ain’t doing no one no favours. It’s ok, it’s 1966, Roger Corman knows a scene ripe for exploitation when he sees one, The Wild Angels (1966) is released, records are broken, ladies and gentlemen we have a new movement to exploit, let’s get loaded and have a good time.
Over the next five or so years, a plethora of piteous ‘bikesploitation’ flicks were released, most of them it seems by sub z-grade schlock meister Al Adamson. The fact that Hells Angels on Wheels is one of the ‘gems’ of the genre says a lot.
The unique selling point of this picture at the time was its accreditation as the only biker picture ‘officially endorsed’ by the Hell’s Angels themselves. This approval is confirmed with a brief cameo from Sonny Barger, the leader of the Oakland chapter planting a smooch on an uncomfortable looking Adam Roarke during the opening credits. Its place in bikesploitation history now is maintained by the fact that the main star of the picture is a pre superstardom Jack Nicholson.
Nicholson played a bad boy biker in the same years risible The Rebel Rousers, a film so poor it didn’t actually get a release until three years later on the back of his fame in the most iconic bike pic of them all Easy Rider (1969). But here Uncle Jack plays ‘Poet’ a petrol station attendant drawn into the world of biker gangs after proving himself worthy in a ruck at a local bar. Unfortunately Poet takes an increasing liking to the leader Buddy’s (the aforementioned Roarke) gal, a few more rucks, rides, a wedding and a PG level orgy later, and everything comes to a tragic head.
Predictable enough stuff, and the usual problems that beset a lot of these biker movies remain evident here. There seemed to be much confusion between biker and hippy ethos for the makers of these flicks at the time, I can’t imagine that many of the Hell’s Angels spoke like beatniks and lived in bohemian enclaves with conceptual artists attending their socials. Our bikers are just a bit too clean cut, there is always one token beardy mentalist at the back of the pack, but in general the stars are just a bit too preppy, the chirpy jingle-jangle low rent psychedelia of the soundtrack hardly helps convey their menace either.
That said, as I implied, this is one of the better entries in the genre. Whilst Uncle Jack comes across too much like the existential everyman he would portray so well elsewhere, Adam Roarke manages a certain charm (that would carry him through several other biker pics, including The Losers (1970) with the magnificent high concept of a biker gang being sent to Vietnam to rescue a captured American agent) and brings a bit of excitement to the picture, the film also manages to move at a fair click, cramming in all the requisite signifiers of the genre, Richard Rush may be considered somewhat of a journeyman director but his pictures of the time (including Psych-Out (1968) a fantastic time capsule of a picture featuring several of this film’s cast and crew) always entertain.
The film’s strongest suite though is clearly the photography, and when you realise it was provided by a young Lazlo Kovacs (a personal hero who DP’d some of my favourite New Hollywood road movie pics such as Five Easy Pieces (1970), Slither (1973) and Paper Moon (1973)) it all makes sense. The camerawork is as frenetic and freewheeling at times as the shooting schedule would imply, whilst sun baked colour bursts from the screen time and time again, it may be cheap, but the film looks great.
The bikesploitation genre really isn’t worth the dedication idiots like me have put into watching them, see this and The Wild Angels, and you really don’t need to delve any further, as the budgets and the enjoyment factor quickly dropped through the floor for the shortly lived genre. Still, it’s better to burn out than fade away man...