Get Your Motor Runnin’ with THE WILD ANGELS (AIP 1966)

Roger Corman  kicked off the outlaw biker film genre with THE WILD ANGELS, setting the template for all biker flicks to come. Sure, there had been motorcycle movies before: Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE and the low-budget MOTORCYCLE GANG spring to mind. But THE WILD ANGELS busted open box offices on the Grindhouse and Drive-In circuits, and soon an army of outlaw bikers roared into a theater near you! There was BORN LOSERS , DEVIL’S ANGELS, THE GLORY STOMPERS , REBEL ROUSERS, ANGELS FROM HELL, and dozens more straight into the mid-70’s, when the cycle cycle revved its last rev. But Corman’s saga of the freewheeling Angels  was there first; as always, Rapid Roger was the leader of the pack.

Our movie begins with the classic fuzz-tone guitar sound of Davie Allen, as Angels president Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda ) rolls down the road to pick up club member Loser (Bruce Dern ). The two then gather up the club and ride to the desert town of Mecca, where a Mexican gang have Loser’s stolen chopper. A fight breaks out, the ‘man’ comes, and the Angels take off, with Loser stealing a cop’s bike to join them. He’s shot in the back while riding away, and the cops take him to the hospital under armed guard. Loser’s ‘old lady’ Gaysh (Diane Ladd ) is worried, but Blues has a plan to “bust him out”, using his girl Mike (Nancy Sinatra) as a decoy. The club brings Loser home, but he soon dies, right after toking his last jay. The club then takes his body to his hometown for an Angles style send-off, a wild Bacchanalia of desecration, degradation, destruction, and decadence….

That’s about all the plot there is, a loose frame to hang some scenes of sex, drugs, violence, and the Angels cruising down the highways. Biker flicks were never meant to be plot-heavy; they serve to show the nihilistic viewpoint of an alienated part of our culture, who reject (and are rejected by) conventional society and form their own “family” units. It’s a theme as old as mankind itself, and Fonda sums it up best:

Right up there with his dad’s speech in THE GRAPES OF WRATH! Notice none of the actors are wearing any “official” Hell’s Angels colors, patches, or rockers. That’s because the real club (some of whose Venice chapter appear in the film) don’t allow it… Bruce Dern alleges he copped a beating for doing so, despite the fact his character was already dead!

 

Besides those mentioned, the cast features Buck Taylor , Norman Alden, Michael J. Pollard, Lou Procopio, and Marc Cavell as club members, along with Familiar Faces Art Baker , Kim Hamilton, Gayle Hunnicut, Frank Maxwell (as the preacher), Dick Miller (naturally!) , Barboura Morris, and veteran tough chick Joan Shawlee as Momma Monahan. Charles B. Griffith wrote the script, which Corman hated, so he gave it to his assistant Peter Bogdanovich for a complete rewrite! Bogdanovich did so without credit, also working on some second unit directing, cinematography, editing, and even playing a bit part in the final fight scene at Loser’s gravesite! THE WILD ANGLES is as much Bogdanovich’s film as it is Corman’s, and the work he did for Roger helped launch his own career as a filmmaker. Those of you who dig biker exploitation will surely dig THE WILD ANGELS. Those who don’t… well, you’re just too square, man.

Star Vehicle: Burt Reynolds in WHITE LIGHTNING (United Artists 1973)

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Burt Reynolds labored for years in the Hollywood mines, starring in some ill-fated TV series (his biggest success on the small screen was a three-year run in a supporting role on GUNSMOKE) and movies (nonsense like SHARK! and SKULLDUGGERY) before hitting it big in John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE. Suddenly, the journeyman actor was a hot property (posing butt-naked as a centerfold for COSMOPOLITAN didn’t hurt, either!), and studios were scurrying to sign him on to their projects. WHITE LIGHTNING was geared to the Southern drive-in crowd, but Reynolds’ new-found popularity, along with the film’s anti-authority stance, made it a success across the nation.

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WHITE LIGHTNING takes place in rural Arkansas, and Gator McKluskey (Burt) is doing a stretch in Federal prison for running moonshine. His cousin visits and tells Gator his younger brother Donnie was murdered by Sheriff J.C. Connors, the crooked boss of Bogan County. A raging Gator tries to escape, but is immediately caught, so he makes a deal with the Feds to get the goods on the sheriff. Not that Gator’s eager to assist those damn revenuers… his main goal is to avenge Donnie’s death.

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Gator’s given a souped-up 1971 Ford Galaxie Custom 500, complete with a 429 Police Interceptor/Cobra Jet engine, and a link to mechanic/moonrunner Dude Watson, who’s violated his Fed Pro (that’s Federal Probation to you non-criminal types). Dude’s reluctant to trust Gator, considering him a snitch, but reluctantly agrees to go along, and introduces Gator to runner Rebel Roy Boone, who’s got a hot babe named Lou eager for Gator to “try my shaky puddin'” (he does!).

Gator acts as a “blocker” for Boone, running interference with the law while the good ol’ boy makes his moonshine run. When Boone’s car is temporarily disabled by Dude, Gator is allowed to accompany him to Big Bear’s still, a large enterprise out in the hill country. The Sheriff gets word the Feds have sent a spy to nose around, Dude gets killed, Gator and Lou are captured by Big Bear, who’s in cahoots with Connors, and things begin to look bleak….

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That Reynolds charm is on fine display here, with his sly smile and that unmistakable laugh. Burt’s physical acting takes precedent over his dramatic skills, but hey, it’s an action flick! Besides, his charisma is more than enough to carry the film, even without his trademark 70’s ‘stache, that and all the car chase scenes, staged by stunt coordinator/2nd unit director Hal Needham, who’d later direct Burt in five films, including the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT series.

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That Ford Galaxie’s not Burt’s only co-star here. Ned Beatty plays the coke-bottle-glasses wearing, pot-bellied villain of the piece, and he’s meaner and ornerier than Sheriff Buford T. Justice could ever hope to be. Jennifer Billingsley (Lou) is a sweet Southern potato, best remembered for her film debut in 1964’s LADY IN A CAGE. Matt Clark is funny and poignant as Dude, and Bo Hopkins is good as the jerk Rebel Roy. Perennial Western baddie R.G. Armstrong makes a nasty Big Bear, while Diane Ladd (billed with one D, for reasons unknown) elicits sympathy as Dude’s wife (her daughter Laura Dern appears unbilled as one of their kids). Director Joseph Sargent was a four-time Emmy winner who had his good days on the big screen (THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE) and not-so-good (JAWS THE REVENGE); this is one of his better efforts.

Every character in this film hates the system! Sheriff Connors hates the Commies infiltrating Washington, the moonshiners hate the IRS, and those damn long-haired, pot smoking hippies are always protesting. This is because screenwriter William W. Norton was a rebel in his own right; a card-carrying member of the Communist Party since the paranoid 50’s, Norton’s life is as interesting as the story. After a career in Hollywood, penning THE SCALPHUNTERS, I DISMEMBER MAMA, BIG BAD MAMA, and this film’s sequel GATOR, he moved to Ireland in the 1980’s and became a gunrunner for the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army), until he and his wife Eleanor were busted in France, and sentenced to prison. After doing his time, and learning a warrant was issued in America, he sought asylum in Nicaragua, where he killed a man who broke into his house. Then he moved to Cuba, but found living under a Communist regime was a lot different from just carrying a card, so he fled to Mexico, eventually being smuggled back into the USA by friends, where he lived out his life. He summed up how he felt about his film career to a nurse who asked him if she’d know any of his movies; Norton replied, “I don’t think your IQ is low enough”. His son William “B.W.L” Norton is still active in movies and television.

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Norton’s opinion aside, I thoroughly enjoyed WHITE LIGHTNING. It’s a fast-paced film filled with plenty of action, solid character actors, humor, and Burt Reynolds lighting up the screen as only Burt could. His movie output from ’73 til about the mid-80’s were all for the most part entertaining, and worth rediscovering if you only know him as the old guy from BOOGIE NIGHTS. I recommend you start right here with WHITE LIGHTNING.

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