To gauge the influence of 1953's The Wild One, screening as part of the Northwest Film Center's Top Down movie series, look no further than last summer's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in which a swaggering Shia LaBeouf donned a garment-for-garment replica of the outfit that Marlon Brando wore in his portrayal of The Wild One's titular motorcycle rebel. (If for some reason you're skeptical as to the cinematic staying power of the Beef, other Wild One adherents famously included Elvis Presley and James Dean.)
So it's established that The Wild One was instrumental in defining a certain strand of American masculinity—or at the very least, defining an aesthetic that became synonymous with a certain strand of American masculinity. And as a visual relic, it certainly holds up: Brando on a motorcycle practically generates his own pheromonal force field.
But it's hard to scratch the stylish surface of The Wild One. Proto-rebellious Brando and his motorcycle gang zoom into a little Western town, start fights and trash bars, and a small-town girl pins her hopes of escape on Brando's (admittedly strapping) shoulders. But Brando's vacuous rebellion, his "Whaddaya got?" posturing, is pitched against a bygone world, one that even within the film seems like a caricature. In fact, it'd be easy to chalk the film's inscrutability up to the times. It's old, after all, set in an alien landscape of small-town values and small-town fears. Such a view, though, would disservice other films of the era: Compare The Wild One to, say 1955's The Blackboard Jungle or even Rebel Without a Cause, both of which are infinitely more resonant. These films hold up, feel relevant and relatable in a way that The Wild One does not. So what is it about Brando's aimless rebellion that still appeals?
Maybe it's as simple as a friend's explanation, offered as I puzzled over the film's staying power: "Marlon Brando invented being cool in that movie. Before that there was no such thing."