The Cycledelic Years.
1966 is a year I’ve always considered one of the greatest years in pop culture. The mini skirt is all the rage, Batman and Star Trek premiere on TV, The Troggs’ Wild Thing hits number one on Billboard’s top 100, and ten days earlier AIP releases Roger Corman’s controversial and game changing biker flick ‘The Wild Angels’.
The Edgar Allen Poe pictures were still performing well at the box office but ‘Tomb of Ligeia’ would be Roger Corman’s last. Tomb of Ligeia was written by Robert Towne and is the most artful and thoughtful of Corman’s Poe pictures. Corman alum Martin Scorsese has cited it as his favorite Corman picture and featured it in a scene in his film Mean Streets.
AIP continued to make Poe films with other directors most notably Michael Reeves. ‘The Conqueror Worm’ also known as ‘The Witchfinder General’ would launch another wave of Poe pictures. Vincent Price considered this to be his finest performance in a horror picture.
In 1966 Roger Corman saw a photo of a Hell’s Angels funeral in an issue of Life Magazine and wrote a quick treatment called ‘All The Fallen Angels’ to pitch at Arkoff and Nicholson. They liked the idea but wanted it to be from the townsfolk point of view, similar to ‘The Wild One’. Roger Corman protested, he wanted to make a film about people on the fringes of society and tell it from their point of view. They finally agreed but Nicholson hated the title and came up with ‘The Wild Angels’.
Corman hired one of his go-to scribes, Chuck Griffith, to pen the script. Both Arkoff and Nicholson wanted George Chakiris (West Side Story) to play the lead as Jack Black, but he refused to do his own bike riding, so he was out. Corman instead promoted one of the secondary actors to the lead. Peter Fonda agreed but wanted to change the name to Heavenly Blues, when asked what that means he replied: “ Heavenly Blues are Morning Glory seeds when you grind them up and eat them they’re quite hallucinogenic.” Nancy Sinatra would play Heavenly Blues girlfriend Mike.
The rest of The cast is made up of great character actors: Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd (Bruce Dern’s real-life wife and mother to Laura Dern) Michael J. Pollard, Norman Alden, Gayle Hunnicutt and the great Dick Miller. Corman also cast a motley crew of boisterous real-life Hell’s Angels each getting paid 35 dollars a day plus beer and weed, and an extra 15 bucks a day for their “old ladies”.
Corman had just befriended a young writer/film buff for Esquire who had recently moved to LA from New York and asked him to read the script. “I don’t like it, it reads like a Disney Film.” was his remark and that is how a young Peter Bogdanovich came to work for Roger Corman. Peter worked as an assistant during the shoot as well as scouting locations with his wife Polly Platt.
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The Wild Angels was quite a dangerous shoot for all involved. At one point while shooting out in the Palm Desert, a few locals who had owned tanks drove out to harass the Angels in the middle of town. Always quick on his feet, Corman insisted his cameraman keep rolling “We can use this footage in another picture!” Sure enough, he would lend it out to his brother, Gene, who was making the Rock Hudson war picture Tobruk!
Violence found its way on set as well. Bruce Dern, while in costume was confronted by some bikers in Hollywood who demanded he take the colors of their gang off, before he could say anything they jumped him and beat him up. During the cemetery fight scene, Roger told Bogdanovich to jump in and be one of the town folks who is fighting the Angels. The bikers got carried away, or maybe they didn’t really like the clean-cut Bogdanovich, and roughed him up pretty good. Nancy’s Father Frank Sinatra appeared on set to warn the crew the dire consequences of what would happen if any harm were to befall Nancy with a laughing face!
“…Ugly piece of trash.” – Newsweek
When Arkoff and Nicholson screened it for exhibitors. People stormed out telling them they’d “gone too far this time”. Some outright refused to play it. It was banned in England for fear that Teddy boys would try and emulate what they saw on screen. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called it “…an embarrassment all right…” it was released July 20th, 1966 and was an instant hit. The exhibitors that once said they wouldn’t show where now on the phones trying to book it.
The controversial film ‘The Wild Angels’ would go on to be one of the biggest hits of the year grossing 6.5 million on a $350,000 budget and ranking in at #12 for the year, above such prestigious films as Antonioni’s ‘Blow up’, Bergman’s ‘Persona’ and Leone’s ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’.
Davie Allan and The Arrows ‘Blues Theme’ would stay on Billboard’s top 100 for 17 weeks and peaked at #37. AIP now had a new cycle, The Biker picture and Hollywood outsider Roger Corman was now considered America’s premier auteur.
“Corman tackles assignment with realism, taking apart the cult and giving its members an in depth study as he follows a gang headed by Peter Fonda in their defiance of common decencies”. – Variety
The Wild Angels will always be one of my all-time favorite pictures. Fonda will always be remembered as Captain America from Easy Rider, which would come out three years later at the end of the original biker cycle, but the difference between the two pictures are night and day. Easy Rider is essentially a hippy flower power film. Though an important film to be sure it is a product of its times. Whereas The Wild Angels is a violent, nihilistic film, more Punk Rock than hippie. In both pictures, Fonda has the main line of subtextual dialogue. In Easy Rider he says “We blew it, man.” Referring that somehow the hippies weren’t able to fight the establishment whereas in The Wild Angels after the Angels beat up the townspeople at The Loser’s funeral Mike asks “Where are you going?” His reply “There’s nowhere to go.” As Dave Allen’s fuzztone dirge score kicks in.
The Wild Angels are more about personal freedom than cultural freedom. Corman establishes this right at the beginning. A young boy rides his trike out of the white picket fence that surrounds his front yard and is almost run over by Heavenly on his cycle. The mother, Luana Anders, scolds her son and drags him back behind the white picket fence. Corman’s camera is outside the fence giving the illusion of bars of a cage, the little boy’s infant siblings play in a crib, another form of a cage. One assumes the two children will always be in mental prisons the rest of their lives, like most people, but not Heavenly Blues he’s outside the cage to be free to do what he wants, or so it seems.
-Phillip López Jiménez
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