Continuing with our theme commemorating Allstate’s 50th Anniversary of providing motorcycle insurance, we thought it might be fun to take a look at how motorcycles and their riders have been depicted on both television and the big screen during the past five decades.
Even though we are starting with the Sixties, no look back at the genre would be complete without first mentioning the 1954 classic film “The Wild One,” starring a then-unknown Marlon Brando. Without a doubt this iconic film would have a huge impact on the following decades of moto-cinema, continuing even up until now, depicting what is generally believed to be the first ever “outlaw biker gang” on film.
During the Sixties, it seemed that the movie studios couldn’t turn out “biker gang” exploitation movies fast or cheap enough.
Among them were such alluring titles as “Devil’s Angels,” “The Glory Stompers,” “Satan’s Sadists,” “Cycle Savages,” “She-Devils on Wheels,” “Naked Angels,” and the ever-popular “Chopper Chicks In Zombietown.”
And yet even within this incredibly low-brow genre there were a few fairly decent films which launched the careers of a few major stars of the future.
Steve McQueen’s chase scene in “The Great Escape” is considered by many to be one of the greatest motorcycle chase scenes ever filmed.
“The Great Escape”
Starring Steve McQueen
Among motorcyclists, the famous bike jump over the barbed-wire fence is considered one of the all-time great motorcycle scenes. Interestingly, though McQueen was a consummately skilled rider who could have made that jump, and often did all of his own stunts in movies, the production company’s insurance provider absolutely forbid it. The jump was performed by McQueen’s good friend Bud Ekins, a professional stuntman.
“The Wild Angels”
Starring Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern & Nancy Sinatra
Considered by many to be the first true biker gang movie. It featured professional acting and was filmed better than most of the biker films to follow.
“Hell’s Angels On Wheels”
Starring Jack Nicholson
Though featuring lots of fighting, “Hell's Angels On Wheels” shows the bikers in a much kinder light, fighting only when provoked by “squares” or rival gangs. Hell’s Angels President, Sonny Barger, was paid to consult and even appeared as an extra in the movie.
“Born Losers” was never really meant have bikers in it at all, but the biker gang was added to sell the script to a studio. “Easy Rider” is still to this day considered the quintessential biker movie. “Then Came Bronson” was popular enough to have probably helped improve the image of motorcyclists.
Starring Tom Laughlin & Jane Russell
Of course Russell didn’t actually have much of a part in the film as the producers were obviously just using her name for marketing. This movie is the first of the “Billy Jack” films, a very successful franchise that would make a star of Laughlin.
Starring Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson & Dennis Hopper
There is nothing I can say about this totally iconic film that hasn’t already been said. Definitely not a “biker gang” movie per se, it may very well have been the first film that attempted to explain the biker lifestyle without pandering to drugs and violence.
“Then Came Bronson”
Starring Michael Parks
Motorcycles virtually never appeared in television shows during the Sixties, most likely because they carried such a negative image. “Then Came Bronson” was an exception since it was a landmark in that it portrayed an “everyman,” fed up with his job and his life, who is bequeathed a Harley Sportster by his best friend.
The Seventies were much kinder to motorcyclists than the previous decade. Though a few of the biker-gang exploitation movies were still being made, most of the movies with motorcycles in them focused on much softer themes.
“CC & Company”
Starring Joe Namath & Ann-Margret
Yes friends, “Broadway” Joe actually made a biker movie, wherein he’s a motorcycle mechanic named CC who joins a biker gang. But when the gang kidnaps fashion model Ann-Margaret, he turns good guy to rescue her.
“On Any Sunday” would have to be my pick as the greatest motorcycle movie ever made—period.
“Electra Glide in Blue” didn’t have a lot to do with motorcycles, but it’s a pretty darned good movie.
“On Any Sunday”
Directed by Bruce Brown
A documentary and one of the very few films about motorcycling that had absolutely nothing to do with biker gangs. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, it stands virtually unchallenged as the greatest movie about motorcycling ever filmed.
“Electra-Glide In Blue”
Starring Robert Blake
A personal favorite of mine. Blake plays a Highway Patrol motorcycle cop in a movie that started him on the road to stardom.
Staring Henry Winkler
Though the show wasn’t originally built around him, “Fonzie,” played by Henry Winkler, was at first meant to be an outcast. The black-leather jacketed “Fonz” quickly evolved into a lovable caricature that had no relationship to any real biker of that or any other era.
Starring Larry Wilcox & Erik Estrada
Our heroes, Ponch and Jon, rode around the scenic byways of Southern California, righting wrongs and solving crimes. But it was fun, even if you could easily tell that 90% of the time they were filmed sitting on their bikes being hauled by a trailer.
Starring Mel Gibson
The movie not only made a star of Gibson, but created a hugely-successful movie franchise that carries on to this day.
The Eighties were a pretty slow decade for motorcycles in both the movies and TV, but they still popped up on occasion, even if not in “starring” roles.
Starring George Kennedy & Karen Black
Kennedy stars as a returning soldier who finds himself caught up in protecting a small Arizona town from takeover by a savage biker gang.
Starring Rex Smith
I can only think of one TV show in the Eighties that featured a motorcycle, and it lasted only one season. Obviously an attempt to cash in on the earlier and much more popular “Knight Rider” TV show, featured a futuristic combat motorcycle prototype that was supposedly being “tested” by a motorcycle cop who had been disabled in an accident. Capable of speeds over 300 MPH and with firepower to match an A1 Abrams tank, the Street Hawk bike was pretty awesome, but the stories and acting just weren’t.
“Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade”
Starring Harrison Ford
Okay, not quite a motorcycle movie, but the motorcycle chase scene where Indy is rescuing his father in a Nazi motorcycle sidecar rig is considered one of the best motorcycle chase scenes ever filmed. In fact, it was so iconic that the Lego Company created a special toy designed to emulate the scene.
An interesting decade, especially some of the eclectic TV shows with motorcycle themes.
“Law & Order”
Starring Sam Waterston
ADA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) was occasionally seen arriving to work on his BMW motorcycle. It was rarely mentioned in the show that he rode, but at times you could see his leather jacket and helmet hanging in his office.
“Harley-Davidson & The Marlboro Man”
Starring Mickey Rourke & Don Johnson
A somewhat weird combination of biker/cowboy/gangster movies.
Arnold did very little of the actual riding in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and the famous jump scene was done with a Kawasaki dressed up to look like the Harley he was on.
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day”
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger
Certainly not a biker movie, but the chase scene with Arnold as a cyborg riding a stolen Harley police bike was pretty memorable. Interestingly, the famous scene where he jumps the bike into the concrete LA river enclosure (a spot used in many movie scenes, including “Grease”) was actually performed by a stunt man on a totally different bike. The heavyweight Harley not being up to the task, a Kawasaki was used, covered with plastic parts to make it appear to be the Harley. That bike is on display at the American Heritage Motorcycle Museum.
Starring Haydn Gwynne
A four-part British TV series about time-traveling motorcyclists.
“Beyond The Law”
Starring Charlie Sheen
Charlie is an undercover cop who infiltrates a “murderous, drug-dealing biker gang” to bring them to justice. Riiiiiight!
Starring John Doe & Adam Horowitz
A truly bizarre movie about a guy riding his 1957 Harley into the desert to bury an old friend’s ashes. Only thing notable: watch for John Cusack and David Carradine in the minor cast of oddball characters.
“Biker Mice From Mars"
Voices of Rob Paulsen, Dorian Harewood, Ian Ziering & W. Morgan Sheppard
Animated TV show where three alien motorcycle riding mice are forced to leave their home planet of Mars thanks to the evil mining Plutarkians and rebel against their enemies on planet Earth and the city of Chicago. What else can I say?
“Two Fat Ladies” may have been a cooking show, but it was a hoot to watch.
“Two Fat Ladies”
Starring Clarissa Dickson Wright & Jennifer Paterson
An odd but popular cooking show from Britain that featured two old women traveling about on a sidecar rig, fixing large meals for groups of people.
This was the decade that saw a huge increase in reality-based TV shows, and the start of the motorcycle-building/customizing genre.
Starring Laurence Fishburne, Orlando Jones & Kid Rock
The son of the past leader of a legendary underground biker drag-racing gang tries to retain his championship title.
Starring Paul Teutul, Sr., Paul Teutul, Jr. & Michael Teutul
This was the first reality-based show that fueled a huge public interest in high-priced custom bikes. It followed the different creative styles (and personalities) of a father and son team and their resulting verbal arguments.
Starring Nicolas Cage
Based on the graphic novel, stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze gives up his soul to become a hell blazing vigilante, to fight against power hungry Blackheart, the son of the devil himself. Weird, but the special effects are mesmerizing.
Starring Tim Allen, John Travolta & Martin Lawrence
A great sendup of biker wannabes and biker movies. You gotta laugh, because it’s so true.
Starring Larry Bishop
A throwback to the “Wild Angels” days, this might be the worst biker movie ever made. I attended a private screening for motorcyclists, where half the viewers laughed themselves sick, and the other half walked out in disgust and disbelief.
More and more motorcycles are popping up in movies, including lots of sci-fi/futuristic bikes.
“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”
Starring Nicolas Cage
A 3D sequel to the 2007 film “Ghost Rider” and features Nicolas Cage returning to his starring role as Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider. Cage said no more sequels after this one.
“Mad Max Fury Road”
Starring Tom Hardy & Charlize Theron
Action-packed fourth installment of the Mad Max series features some really interested custom motorcycles.