“Hey, Johnny, What are you rebelling against?”
“What’ve you got?”
Strange to think now, but back in 1954 ‘The Wild One‘ was considered such a serious threat to British society that it was banned by the Board of Film Censors for 14 years.
It was believed that Marlon Brando and his band of slovenly bikers would give youngsters “ideas on how to brutalize the public”. More understandable once you know the film is 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. 60 people were injured, 3 seriously. Even so, it’s hard to picture how the chubby Brando and his non-sensical mumblings could have inspired anyone.
Afterall, Britain wasn’t America, as John Lennon later found out when he went to his local fleapit to take part in the alleged riots inspired by Bill Haley and his Comets in ‘Rock Around the Clock‘. Instead of seat slashing and fighting in the aisles, Lennon was dumbstruck to find orderly youngsters appreciatively watching the screen.
If the film did inspire any rebellion, then it was in the imagination of a young 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.”
Gunn’s poem critiqued the film’s sensibility, its search for purpose for meaning, while noticing the underlying homo-eroticism, contained within the denim and leather of its biker heroes.
“Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.”
‘The Wild One’ presented a portrait of a world where the individual could control their own destiny. This appealed to Gunn, who was a young gay man at time when homosexuality was a criminal offence in Britain. To the poet, Brando and his rebellious cohorts presented a sharp contrast to the gray and repressive world Gunn inhabited. .
“A minute holds them, who have come to go:
The self-denied, astride the created will.
They burst away; the towns they travel through
Are home for neither birds nor holiness,
For birds and saints complete their purposes.”
Gunn’s analysis in ‘On the Move‘ provides a literal manifesto, that later became the poet’s own.
“At worse, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.”
For Gunn never kept still. He followed his lover to America, where the tolerance he found in San Francisco changed his verse style from English tradition to American idiom; from strict form to free verse. In the same way Gunn by day was a disciplined intellectual and by night a physical hedonist, who cruised for sex and indulged in drugs.
However, the excesses of his personal life never detracted from the discipline of his poetic vision. He was once described as “the only poet to have written a halfway decent quintain while on LSD.”
Gunn used his experiences as material with candour and sympathy, which led many to believe he “seemed to hold no small number of life’s mysteries and meanings within his grasp.” A truth that is more than evident when you read his brilliant, beautiful and inspiring poetry.