Since the end of World War Two and the emergence of counterculture films in otherwise mainstream Hollywood, the motorcycle has almost constantly been a major visual aid in establishing outlaw cool. Film as a medium thrives on visual shorthand and simple clues to convey much of its subtext and deeper meanings, and the motorcycle, with its tang of forbidden freedom and reckless romance, has long been a convenient way to establish setting, mood, and character point of view quickly and with credibility. Actors of no less modern stature than Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, John Travolta, and Arnold Scharzenegger have used the motorcycle to show themselves as outsiders on the brink of society's expectations, impressing audience with their blasé disregard for society's rules and strictures.
Brando in many ways started the trend, of course, with the 1953 film The Wild One, playing the head of a motorcycle gang disfranchised from with post-War society. Though the film takes an outward stance of disapproval of the gang's reckless, anti-authoritarian lifestyle, the emphasis is clearly on their hip behavior and outlaw freedom, and celebrates the lifestyle as much as it professes to condemn it. The film also starred a young Lee Marvin, who in later years would come to personify the rugged, ornery outlaw in much of America cinema during the 60s and 70s.
Motorcycles got another boost in the 1963 semi-classic The Great Escape, in which Steve McQueen gave a starmaking performance as an American fighter pilot who literally rides a motorcycle to freedom from his Nazi captors. Though McQueen is eventually recaptured and imprisoned in a stalag, the film's long, trailing of images of his (literally) newfound freedom while biking over an idyllic Bavarian countryside as much as said, "Make an escape - ride motorcycles." By the late 1960s, motorcycle gang culture had become marginalized even as motorcycles themselves continued to be perceived as vehicles of freedom by the public at large. This attitude came to a climax with the 1969 film Easy Rider. An overlong, rambling narrative about two hippies' road trip to New Orleans, the film nonetheless captured the public's mix of fascination and contempt with hippie subculture, and cemented the idea of motorcycle as instrument of freedom irreversibly in the mass consciousness. Motorcycles - the film cried from the rooftops - were the vehicle of choice for the disenfranchised, those who felt trapped, and those wanting adventure.
In the 1970s, John Travolta led a biker gang in the classic musical Grease, recalling the idyllic freedom of the 1950s and showing the biker movement as a time of goodnatured adolescent rambunctious-ness and gee-whiz mischief making. By the 1980s, the prevailing mood of the country was reflected in the Terminator films starring Arnold Scharzenegger, whose killer cyborg rode a motorcycle - helmetless, no less - as a gesture of contempt for notions of safety or legal obedience. More recently, films such as Biker Boyz (2003) are once again attempting to bring that outlaw chic to a new generation.
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