It was the mid-60s, and youth rebellion was in the air. Hollywood could see opportunities for profits in this, but at this stage the studios were still very nervous about dealing with such a potentially controversial subject. No such fears held back Roger Corman, and in 1966 he made his outlaw biker epic The Wild Angels, complete with real Hell’s Angels as extras, and with Peter Fonda (three years before Easy Rider) creating a new kind of youth icon. Fonda is Heavenly Blues, leader of the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels. He and some of the Angels set off for Mexico to retrieve his buddy Loser’s chopper, stolen by a Mexican gang. A brawl ensues, Loser steals a police motorcycle, is shot by a cop. And ends up in hospital. Blues decides that it would be a really fine idea to bust Loser out of the hospital before he can be transferred to prison. Well it seemed like a good idea at the time.
This is a remarkably hard-hitting film. There are several rapes, a church gets trashed during a funeral service, a preacher is beaten up, and there’s plenty of other incidental violence. Not all the violence is committed by the bikers either – the police are shown as being disturbingly willing to gun down people who are unarmed. The movie doesn’t flinch from examining the belief systems that motivate Blues and his pals – they not only wear the symbols of fascism, such as swastikas, they live out a fascist fantasy of power, violence and nihilism. But at the same time the movie doesn’t merely demonise them. They have a dream of freedom, and their behaviour is a weird mix of loyalty and viciousness, of idealism and selfishness. When Blues is asked what he believes in, and can come up with nothing better than vague mumblings about freedom and the right to get loaded, we can see his awareness of his own tragedy, that he knows the emptiness of his own rhetoric. His alienation is complete, and it’s real. He isn’t evil – he simply doesn’t have enough awareness to be evil.
Corman does a great job as director. The scenes of the bikers partying, and of the drunken orgy in the church, have a frenetic and rather frightening energy to them. The unpredictability, the potential for sudden explosive violence, is conveyed very effectively indeed. Peter Fonda’s very considerable limitations as an actor don’t matter at all – he’s an icon, icons just have to look iconic, and he does that extremely well. Much the same argument applies to Nancy Sinatra’s performance as his girlfriend. The movie doesn’t have the embarrassingly dated look that most 1960s movies about youth have – the fact that bikers still look pretty similar to the way they looked in 1966 certainly helps, and Corman’s bikers look dirty and dangerous. The Wild Angels works extremely well as a film about alienation, about being young, and as a film about the 60s. In fact it works on every level, and may well be one of the very best movies of its type ever made.