“Beer and marijuana was their trip” —Roger Corman, regarding the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, circa 1966.
As any regular long-term reader of The United Provinces of Ivanlandia knows, we here at the High Command love us some Roger Corman(even getting into a very heated debatewith a close friend over it), and Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters is one of my all-time favorites, with a megapost about that classic is HERE .
The Wild Angels (1966; American International Pictures) Produced and directed by Roger Corman Executive producers: Samuel Z. Arkoff & James H. Nicholson Written by Charles B. Griffith Cinematography: Richard Moore Film Editor: Monte Hellman Music: G.P. IV Productions and Mike Curb Sound: Ryder Sound Services Inc. Mixer: Phil Mitchell Starring Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Nancy Sinatra, Diane Ladd, Joan Shawlee, Michael J. Pollard, Dick Miller, Barboura Morris 86 min
After a slew of Poe-inspired Gothic horror, Roger Corman needed to, ahem, switch gears.
At the time, the villain/social problem of the week was the emergence of the “outlaw biker gang,” with big spreads in LIFE magazine and the best-selling of HS Thompson’s Hell’s Angels.
In The Movie World of Roger Corman, edited by J. Philip di Franco (published in 1979 by Chelsea House Publishers), Corman says: “AIP wanted a contemporary film. I had seen a picture in Time magazine of a funeral of a member of the Hell’s Angels and been really struck by the graphics of it. The Hell’s Angels were in the news media all the time then. So I said I wanted to do a picture about the Hell’s Angels. [AIP] said fine. It was really that fast.”
The Wild Angels is a turning point in Corman’s career, one where he sets a trend instead of following it, creating a new sub-genre of exploitation movie: The Biker Flick. How cool is that?
To research the flick, Corman sponsored some parties and sent long-time collaborator Charles B. Griffith (screenwriter on plenty of Corman flicks, including superfaves Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Little Shop of Horrors and Death Race 2000) to take notes.
According to Corman, “We went through a whole series of Hell’s Angels parties…. We would buy them marijuana and beer—their essentials. They didn’t take any drugs other than marijuana then, and they didn’t seem to drink whiskey. Beer and marijuana was their trip. And they would tell us these stories of sexual action, fights, raids with other gangs—one time they stole a member… out of a hospital in Tijuana because he’d been arrested and they knew that as soon as he came out of the hospital, he was going to be thrown into a Mexican jail.”
“The entire storyline of… The Wild Angels, which I shot under the title of All the Fallen Angels, is based upon a story the Hell’s Angels told us. As a result, it is not much of a plot picture—it’s more of a picturesque story of a way of life.”
Before the opening credits begin, we see a young boy riding a Big Wheel carelessly down the street—his mother runs after him, frantic— The front wheel of a chopped motorcycle enters the frame, screeching to a stop, right in front of the kid, as at the same time, the Big Wheel rider is grabbed by his worried mom. On the motorcycle is a stoned and sneeringly unconcerned Heavenly Blues— He roars off— We see the mother return the child to the fenced yard, the camera tracking low, the picket fence like prison bars, two other kids in a fenced-in playpen— From the beginning, the flick’s saying riding free means being outside of mom’s yard. If you want to ride outside the cage, you have to do it on your own: No momma, no poppa, no authority but your own.
And to smash that point home, Corman & Co. include the swastika in the “T” of the “The” of the film’s title—this ain’t social responsibility, it is a line in the sand—it’s saying, “We’re the bad guys.”
Plotwise, the flick starts off with the bikers already behind— Loser (a fabulous Bruce Dern, all snarls and jitters) has had his bike stolen by a Mexican gang. Heavenly Blues, played by Peter Fonda, is the president of the “Angels MC, San Pedro,” and he shows up at Loser’s job in the oilfields of Southern California to give him the news they know where the bike is. A foreman (played by Corman regular Dick Miller) wises off to the two bikers because of their Nazi regalia. After threatening the loudmouth citizen with bodily harm, Loser gets sacked, later telling his old lady, “Yeah, the fool fired me: he was hasslin’ my mind.” (Loser’s girlfriend is played by Diane Ladd, then Dern’s real-life old lady.)
Throughout the movie, there are various examples of “citizens” giving the Angels shit for no other reason than they way they dress and the bikes they ride. No wonder they’re anti-social—which makes the squares hate them more, accelerating the downward spiral…
Heavenly Blues, Loser and some other club members head off to the desert to get back Loser’s chopper.
The Angels kick some ass, but no bike is retrieved. The rumble is interrupted by the highway patrol, and everyone splits—with Loser swiping a motorcycle cop’s big cycle. But after being chased and shot by another motorcycle cop, Loser crashes at a police roadblock.
To prevent any jail-time, the Angels bust Loser out of the hospital—raping a nurse in the process—but with no medical care, he dies almost as soon as they get him home—with one of his last requests being for a “straight” cigarette.
The club makes a run to Loser’s hometown in bury him there, but at Loser’s eulogy, the preacher can’t even get the dead biker’s legal name right, giving a sermon full of clichés and other oft-repeated (and thus meaningless) religious claptrap.
When the preacher gets to the “Blessed be the Name of the Lord,” Heavenly Blues pipes in: “The Lord never did nothing for the Loser! What’s all this stuff about ‘The Lord gave and the Lord taketh away’?” The Preacher (played by Corman semi-regular, Frank Maxwell, who also had a major role in The Intruder) replies: “He gave him that most precious gift, of life.”
Heavenly Blues: “Oh, WOW. Man, you’re so full of bull, you don’t even know it.” Preacher: “It’s true, the Lord gives life and man can make of that what he will! Why this young man could have made of his life any number of things.”
Heavenly Blues has been doing a slow burn since Loser bought the farm, and the Preach’s platitudes really make the Angels’ Prez start to lose it: “Oh YEAH? Well let me tell you something, MOTHER. Let me tell you what life made of him—about how life never let him alone to do what HE wanted to do. About how life made him always be good, always pay the rent—and to shovel it! Oh no, preach, not children of God, but Hell’s Angels!” The MC filling the church cheer and whistle—there’s a bit more banter, and then the Preacher asks directly, what do you want?
Of course, Heavenly Blues’ beautiful, fractured, almost inarticulate answer is now part of the pop-culture landscape, especially in more punk or rockin’ sectors: “We want to be free. We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride. We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man… And we want to get loaded! And we want to have a good time. That’s what we’re gonna do: we’re going to have a good time. We’re gonna have a party.”
And that’s what they do, have a wild pagan death party, at one point, propping up Loser’s corpse, and sticking a joint in this lips.
Meanwhile: Heavenly Blues makes it with his old lady, Monkey (also called “Mike,” played by songbird Nancy Sinatra, who honestly seems out-of-place—but isn’t really around the movie that much despite her second billing), right on the floor; then turns her out, giving her to another Angel. Loser’s widow gets gang-banged behind the church altar; pews are busted, dope is smoked, bongos are pounded; and Heavenly Blues succumbs to heroin, which he’d previously banned from the club.
Once they are done partying, the Angels get it together enough to form an impressive funeral procession, but the burial is interrupted by rock-throwing townie rednecks. The bikers retaliate, and are kicking ass, but approaching sirens mean The Man is on the way— Everyone scrams except Heavenly Blues, who stays to bury his friend, saying, “There’s nowhere to go.”
As the sirens get louder, FADE TO BLACK
I think one reason I love Corman’s flicks is that his protagonists are always doomed. He doesn’t make flicks about winners—he makes movies about losers, man, beautiful losers.
And how many movies have a philosophical discussion? I notice B-movies are will to go to these weird gray areas—much more than A-pictures which, if anything, reinforce the ruling power’s POV, that gosh-darn paradigm: no boat rocking. But B-movies love to rock the boat.
With B-movies, you may sacrifice budget and some technical prowess for truth (whether emotional or socio-political-economic). Just because these flicks were being made for a quick buck does not mean they haven’t got something else going for them.
So, is The Wild Angelsa good movie? Well, I love it! Yeah, man, despite any limitations, it is absolutely worth a viewing, and I don’t think its being selected to be the opening film at the 1966 Venice Film Festival was a fluke: Its existential documentarianism works to its benefit, and the flick is very punk rock in attitude—like fuck you, man: When Heavenly Blues is cruising to Loser’s job during the opening credits, at one point he gives his crotch a mighty scratch/nutsac shuffle. A film about an outlaw/counterculture gang should antagonize some viewers. Especially the squares, maaaaaan....
No doubt The Wild Angels is dated—just like all exploitation movies get dated—there’s nothing wrong with being “of the time and place”— then you could consider them as more “important” than “serious” flicks which try to be timeless or uncontroversial and end up being nowhere.
The only problems I have with The Wild Angels are the party scenes—and the music—
Like your pals’ YouTube-posted party video, the party scenes from The Wild Angels look more fun to have participated in than watch—but folks were getting wasted as the cameras rolled—that guy carving into the busted church pew was so trashed he fucked up carving the swastika he wanted to (see above). I like that Corman kept the footage.
And while I am a fan of the flick’s soundtrack by itself, in the context of the movie it is often too jaunty and peppy: It’s surf guitars with fuzz and bongos—I think it needed to be darker, slower and more sludgy, like Black Sabbathor Blue Cheer (who, when they first started out, were managed by a Hell’s Angel nicknamed “Gut”).
The flick had a 15-day schedule, and featured some up-and-comers in behind-the-scenes roles: Peter Bogdanovich was Corman’s assistant and wore a multitude of hats on set, Polly Plattwas another assistant as well as costume designer, and Monte Hellman edited the movie. Cinematographer Richard Moore, before he ended up an exec at Panavision, went on to shoot the films Sometimes a Great Notion, The Life & Times of Judge Roy Bean and the Michael Winner/Charles Bronson classic The Stone Killer.
Technically, The Wild Angelsis the tits: After the mostly studio-bound Poe flicks, Corman goes to fucking town using natural location and cloudy skies to great effect, filling the Panavision frame with plenty of shots of hogs on the highway.
The sound design is layered and often mysterious— weird sing-song whispers mixed in with the bongos and conversations, and yowling cats over Heavenly Blues’ sneaking around midnight back alleys on his bike. I remember reading an interview where Bogdanovich claimed that that scene was supposed to be about Fonda fucking his motorcycle, but I cannot find the reference, so… Personally, I think the cats shrieking adds a texture of tension and weirdness— a screechy-scratchy creepy-crawl vibe of madness and hostility.
As for the cast, “We used the Hell’s Angels themselves to play the members of the gang,” says Corman. “I used professional actors only for the leads. One thing I insisted upon—all the professional actors had to ride the bikes themselves. I wanted to be as authentic as possible.”
Stars Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern didn’t enter the film with the roles they wound up with: “AIP has some theory…that since [George Chakiris] had been the lead in West Side Story as the leader of a Puerto Rican gang, he would be a natural here.”
But Chakiris didn’t know how to ride a hog, and “just before shooting,” said Corman, was fired. “I immediately moved Peter Fonda up from the second lead to the first lead, and moved Bruce Dern from the third lead to the second lead; everybody else moved up one.”
[Which means that Fonda was originally going to play Loser!] The lead character had originally been named Black Jack, but Fonda suggested/changed it to Heavenly Blues—some damn drug referenceI bet!
How somebody as obviously skinny and slight as Peter Fonda becomes the Prez of a MC is beyond me, but Corman’s smart enough to stage several fight scenes where Fonda’s outlaw biker is right in the middle of the action, (and through the magic of Hollywood) kicking ass and taking names. Of course, I’ve known some really tough and mean and crazy ectomorphs in my day (one of whom blacked out both my eyes and proceeded to give me a concussion), so who knows?
It was also a casting coup/subtextual publicity gimmick having the offspring of Hollywood legends like Henry Fonda and Frank Sinatra as dirtball white trash low-life scum.
Meanwhile, according to Corman, working with a pack of genuine One-Percenters had its own brand of troubles: “The state police were tracking us. We were shooting on location, and they were with us every day. They had warrants out for the arrest of every single one of the Angels; they all had records a mile long….The Hell’s Angels were really feared at that time.”
Corman had his assistants talk to the fuzz—they told the cops “these guys are working legitimately, we’re paying them a salary—probably the only honest work they may ever do in their lives—why arrest them now? Let them work and earn their money.”
At the same time, Corman told the bikers hired that the cops were sniffing around. He told them, “We advise you to get out when we finish shooting on the last day, get out of here. Don’t come back. Just spread. Meanwhile [the police are] not going to hassle you during the shooting, providing you’re straight. And they were.”
In Hell’s Angel, his very readable autobiography, Sonny Barger, the infamous and legendary former president of the Oakland Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, writes that the club wasn’t exactly pleased with The Wild Angels: “We sued the producer, Roger Corman, for five million bucks and threatened to beat the crap out of him. We eventually settled for ten grand and no stomping. We still have a rule that a filmmaker can’t use a Hell’s Angels patch unless it’s voted on by the members.”
Not that Corman used the actual, copyrighted “deathshead” logo of the HAMC (see picture at right), but of course, others might remember it differently— Corman: “When The Wild Angelswas completed, and it turned out to be rather successful, the Hell’s Angels sued me for defamation of character....because they were portrayed in the picture as an outlaw motorcycle gang whereas in reality they were a social organization dedicated to spreading technical information about motorcycles. They’d been fully paid, but they were looking for a way to pick up a few bucks. Once a Hell’s Angel, always a Hell’s Angel.”
Fuck with one Angel, and you fuck with the whole club, and things can get tense: “The suit dragged on—they were asking for $2 million—and then the word got out that they were going to kill me. Big Otto Friendly, the head of the Hell’s Angels, called me up… ‘We’re gonna snuff you out.’ I said, ‘Otto, this doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. You are suing me for $2 million, and you also stated to everyone you’re gonna snuff me out….If you do snuff me out…the police are going to be all over you immediately.”
[The “Big Otto Friendly” Corman is referring to is probably Otto Friedli, a former bigwig in the HAMC. Lemme tell ya, who ever did the transcriptions for di Franco’s The Movie World of Roger Corman was lousy—and the copy editors were asleep at the wheel, too: At one point, Corman talks about shooting at inner California’s Salton Sea—and the book calls it the “Salt And Sea.” Sheesh! The book is fascinating, though, as it’s an oral history with quotes from many people. But I also think that the book was greatly inspired and influenced by the now gray-market-only/never-released-to-DVD documentary Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel (1978).]
Corman, the consummate businessman, also informed Big Otto that killing the director would mean the lawsuit would be over. Corman says he said, “‘my advice to you is to forget the momentary pleasure of snuffing me out and go for the $2 million.’ There was a silence on the phone, and then Otto said, ‘Yes, that makes sense. I will do that, we’ll do that, we’ll go for the two million.’ So—needless to say—they never snuffed me out… I think they settled finally for $2,000—just a nuisance kind of thing.”
And Roger, let’s not forget: it’s great publicity, too!
A special thanks to Baron Otto Von Mannixfor the help with some research (BTW, Mrs. Otto Mannix is a dead ringer for Diane Ladd in The Wild Angels. Except not blonde.)
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