International Scholars of the Western Network member Peter Stanfield’s new book Hoodlum Movies: Seriality and the Outlaw Biker Film Cycle, 1966-1972 (Rutgers University Press, 2018) focuses on one of the Western genre’s more exploitative present-day offshoots.
“From The Wild Angels in 1966 until its conclusion in 1972, the cycle of outlaw motorcycle films contained forty-odd formulaic examples. All but one were made by independent companies that specialized in producing exploitation movies for drive-ins, neighborhood theaters, and run-down inner-city movie houses. Despised by critics but welcomed by exhibitors unable to book first-run films, these cheaply and quickly made pictures were produced to appeal to audiences of undereducated mobile youths.
Plagiarizing contemporary films for plotlines, the cycle reveled in a brutal and lurid sensationalism drawn from the day’s headlines and from earlier exploitation fare. Collectively, these movies portray a picture of America that is the inverse of a progressive, inclusive, and aspirational culture. A nihilistic taint runs through the cycle without providing much in the way of social or aesthetic compensation. Neither on original release nor subsequently have these films accrued cultural capital. In kind, they are stuck with a legacy of negative critical equity. These are dumb, uncouth, loutish films made for real or imagined hoodlums who had no interest in contesting or resisting the entreaties of popular culture. Biker movies are repetitive, formulaic, and fairly indistinguishable from one another. Disreputable and interchangeable these films may be, but their lack of cultural legitimacy and low ambition is a large part of the rationale for this study, inviting questions about seriality and film cycles that are otherwise ignored in histories of 1960s and ’70s American film.
Many of the filmmakers involved in outlaw biker movies—Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Laszlo Kovacs, among them—would play a significant role in New Hollywood. The biker cycle was not, however, about the new beginnings and open horizons that films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Picture Show (1971), and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) projected. Even as their characters were gunned down or burnt out in the final reel, directors Arthur Penn, Dennis Hopper, Bob Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, and Monte Hellman were seen to be laying to rest the monolithic Hollywood studios, with their hidebound practices that produced irrelevant movies with aging stars—dramas that were far removed from the interests and concerns of the baby boom generation these cineastes played to. The biker picture offered an altogether bleaker vision of the state of things in Hollywood; as they trampled over and despoiled past glories, the films in the cycle held out no hope of better days ahead. Like a murder of crows feeding on the carrion of pop culture, the biker film besmirched all that it touched. While Hopper in The Last Movie (1971), Bogdanovich in The Last Picture Show, and Fonda in The Hired Hand (1971) paid homage to the movies made by Howard Hawks, John Ford, and the like, even as they gainsaid the myth of the West, the biker movie merely picked over the genre’s bones for opportunistic story ideas and stylistic gestures.
The grandeur of Ford’s Monument Valley or the Rocky Mountain locations of Anthony Mann’s westerns was supplanted in the biker movie by the scrubland surrounding Bakersfield or the dilapidated ranches once used for numerous western film productions and later leased to television companies. A purveyor of national mythologies unequaled in modern popular culture and a cornerstone of American film production that had once accounted for a third of all films produced in Hollywood, as seen through the filter of the biker movie, the western was in a penurious and parlous state. Stripped of its epic stature, the landscape no longer represented the promise of change and renewal. The spectacular deserts of California, Arizona, and Nevada were rendered in the cycle as sprawling junkyards, slag heaps spilling over with the detritus of modern life.”