The original outlaw biker film, which made a 1950s cultural icon out of Marlon Brando’s performance as Johnny Strabler, was, said Memphis censor Lloyd Binford, “the most lawless picture I ever saw.” According to Memphis journalist Michael Finger, Binford declared Brando’s portrayal of Strabler to be “rowdy, unlawful, and raw.”
The film was released exactly two years and two days before Binford stepped down as head of the censor board on January 1, 1956. When he retired, Binford’s draconian attitudes were so notorious that Hollywood insiders adopted the term “Binfordized” in reference to films that were heavily censored and banned. However, as Edwin Frank’s entry in Censorship: A World Encyclopedia notes, “though he was attacked by journalists and civil libertarians, Binford spoke for many white Americans who feared social unrest and racial upheaval.”
Public paranoia about unlawful biker gangs was reaching fever peak by the time of the release of The Wild One in December 1953. The film is based on a 1951 Harper’s Magazine short story “The Cyclists’ Raid,” itself a fictional take on the sensationalist media coverage of a 1947 Fourth of July American Motorcyclist Rally that was given national attention via a Life Magazine story that depicted a drunken man on a motorcycle. In general, rebels were causing moral panic. Brando’s portrayal of The Wild One’s anti-hero, Johnny, influenced both Elvis Presley and James Dean. But more importantly, the film follows revisionist westerns such as Broken Arrow and High Noon in subverting the concept of entertainment as an example of moral responsibility. In The Wild One, Tate Britain archivist Darrah O’Donoghue notes, the townspeople, which in a less subversive picture, would be the heroes of the film, turn “on [themselves], with violence that was previously spent on easily recognizable, external enemies, forced to implode.” Such is the state in post-WWII America.
Wayne Dowdy, author, historian and manager of the Memphis Public Library and Information Center’s history department and Memphis and Shelby County Room, will introduce The Wild One and lead a short discussion after the screening.
Director: Laszlo Benedek | USA | 1953 | 79 minutes
$9/$5 Brooks members and students with valid id/Free with VIP Film Pass.
Tickets are available online until 2:30 pm the day of the screening or 2:30 pm on Friday for weekend matinees. Tickets are also available at Visitor Services, or by calling 901.544.6208 during regular business hours. Unsold tickets are also available in the rotunda immediately preceding a screening.
Banned in Memphis is an ongoing series of film screenings highlighting work banned from Memphis theaters by Lloyd Binford, the head of the Memphis Censor Board for 28 years. Regarded as “the toughest critic in America,” the former railway clerk turned insurance executive was notorious for his views on white supremacy, womanhood, and outsider views of the American South. Binford banned films with African American stars or unsegregated scenes, films that featured violence or teenage rebellion, and even film that he disliked because of the personal conduct of the actors rather than the content of the script. Upcoming screenings in the series include:
Cabin in the Sky, introduced by writer, filmmaker and producer Willy Bearden.
Wednesday, June 21 | 7 pm
The Outlaw, introduced by author and archivist Vincent Astor.
Wednesday, July 12 | 7 pm
Stromboli, introduced by author and columnist Richard Alley.
Wednesday, August 23 | 7 pm