Director: Roger Corman
Cast: Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Diane Ladd
Length: 93 min
Label: Olive Films
Release Date: Feb 17, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
You don’t get more ‘Hollywood biker’ than Peter Fonda. The star became the ultimate poster boy for sixties counter-culture when he found international acclaim for his cult hit Easy Rider (1969). Fonda wrote, produced, and co-starred—next to the equally iconic Dennis Hopper—in that unforgettable 60’s gem, becoming synonymous with freewheeling on a Harley chopper, after his part as Easy Rider’s Wyatt “Captain America.” However, it was here, just three years earlier, that the actor stumbled onto his niche in Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels, sowing the seeds that would later inspire his own screenplay. Although the film never achieved the status of its successor, Fonda’s rousing “I just want to be free” speech from The Wild Angels’ climactic scene, achieved an iconic status all its own by being used in the opener to Mudhoney’s 1989 In ‘n Out of Grace, and then a year later in Primal Scream’s Loaded.The latter song became something of an anthem for the UK 90’s indie music scene and has since become amongst the most influential songs of the decade. The likelihood is, even if you haven’t seen the film, you will know those words from the aforementioned tunes.
And it all started here, as part of A.I.P’s cycle of biker and hippiesploitation films—a cycle that inspired many other films, and a thriving subgenre that ran right into the seventies. Director Roger Corman, fresh from his extremely successful Edgar Allan Poe series for the same company, continued his attempt to thrill teenage drive-in audiences, this time with something completely different, and succeeded. The film became one of the highest grossing of 1966, once again proving that Corman wasn’t called King of the B’s for nothing.The story follows Heavenly Blues, aka Blues (Fonda), the leader of a biker gang, the Angels. After some wrangling with police and general biker-type public disorder (such as fisticuffs with locals) the gang find themselves being chased by cops in typical high octane fashion. Gang member Loser (Bruce Dern) finds himself worse for wear after being hurt in a shootout with the law and is taken into custody at the local hospital. Here, he has to undergo surgery to save his life. The gang, including Blues’s girlfriend Mike (Nancy Sinatra), decide it’s a good idea to spring their friend, coming up with a plan that involves Mike posing as Loser’s distraught sister to trick the police. If only life were that simple though. The gang are about to find out that as much as they would like to believe they are untouchable, nothing is without consequence, and this time they might just have gone too far. The film carries on in the tradition of previous examples of Outlaw Biker flicks—such as Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho! (1965)—and the type of biker involved here is the rough and ready, traditionally-styled greaser as opposed to the popular psychedelic hippy variety; demonstrated in an array of retro, oil-stained denim and leather fashion, an abundance of Nazi regalia, and the fantastic spectacle of vintage motorcycles that are crammed into nearly every shot. Corman used actual bikers to bulk up his ensemble cast, and reinforces the hip style of the period further with the use of a surf and rock n roll-based soundtrack that fits well. While the story starts in a rather conservative narrative style, things quickly go overboard, but, then, Corman was never one to tip toe around the bush in getting his point across. As a result, things build rapidly into a crazed crescendo that features concepts like a gang-raping of a widow at a funeral under a coffin draped in a large Swastika flag, priests getting punched out, and out of control fist fights with locals. Things also end on a surprisingly grim and nihilistic note, which doesn’t appear to force-feed any morality messages, but instead adds a layer of sympathy to the main protagonist’s plight. As for the cast, Fonda is suitably moody in giving his audience a taste of what was to come later in his career. Not being a physically large actor, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe he has 50 or so anarchist bikers under this thumb—but come on, it’s Peter Fonda, and he looks pretty cool sporting his shades and riding his chopper at the front of the convoy (what more can you ask for?). Meanwhile, Nancy Sinatra as Mike looks a tad on the glamourous side for someone who is supposed to spend half her days on the back of a motorcycle, yet arrives everywhere without a hair out of place. Nevertheless, she makes for a welcome addition and adds some much needed allure. Stand-out mention, however, has to go to both Bruce Dern as Loser, and his, then, real wife Diane Ladd, seen here playing his on-screen wife Gaysh. The two make for a formidable pairing. Ladd is the direct contrast to Sinatra’s slick fashion look, instead providing a strong, and not to mention highly sympathetic, characterization in her role as the highly strung Gaysh. Dern, likewise, as the Swastika helmet brandishing wild cat biker Loser is memorable for all the right reasons. You really get a sense, from the energy on screen, that this was an exciting time to be a young actor working on the independent scene in the US.
This 1080p transfer of The Wild Angels to BD from MGM and Olive Films has been given a respectful treatment. The print isn’t pristine but, as such, it’s fitting to the down and dirty nature of the feature in question. White pecs and occasional dust are minimal and never distract. Colors are well saturated and have a tendency to veer toward the brown/blue hues (with reds presenting more as earthy tones than scarlet), but again this works well for this moody piece, suggesting a strong 60’s glow. Film grain is present, and there are moments where it becomes heavier, such as the murky exterior day for night scenes of the bikers partying. But this is due entirely to the low budget of the production. All in all this is a fine transfer for a film of its age/type.
The soundtrack, again, fits the piece perfectly. Free from any major defects, the sound—especially the musical accompaniment—is presented in clear, simple, flaw-free mono audio. There appears to be no damage or distortion to any of the audio elements.
This release comes with no extras.
Peter Fonda demonstrates why he was born to be wild, in a film that tends not to get the attention it deserves, but is nevertheless a bit of a forerunner and inspiration for its time and place. A lot of free-wheelin’ fun, some great performances—especially from team Dern/Ladd—and some memorable set pieces, make The Wild Angels a prime example of mid-sixties exploitation from Roger Corman. That, and a good transfer from MGM and Olive Films makes this a worthy addition for all fans of 60’s drive-in fare.