Combustible Celluloid
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With: Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, Buck Taylor, Norman Alden, Michael J. Pollard
Written by: Charles B. Griffith
Directed by: Roger Corman
MPAA Rating: R for drug-related material
Running Time: 93
Date: 07/20/1966

The Wild Angels (1966)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Hell and Back

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1966, Roger Corman had put in ten years of directing several movies per year. He had wrapped up his Poe series and was looking for new artistic directions. He hit upon the idea of making a real Hell's Angels movie, wherein the angels were the heroes (as opposed to the 1950s movie The Wild One). He hired real Angels to work on the movie, and though the shoot was far from smooth and incident-free, The Wild Angels turned into one of Corman's biggest hits. It inspired a whole slew of biker movies and counterculture movies, such as Corman's own The Trip (1967), Richard Rush's Psych-Out (1968), and eventually, Easy Rider (1969).

Peter Fonda stars as "Blues," the leader of a San Pedro chapter of bikers. As the movie starts, they ride to the desert to find a stolen bike belonging to "Loser" (Bruce Dern). There's a fight, the cops arrive, and the Angels try to escape, but "Loser" is caught by the police, shot, and goes to the hospital. The Angels try to break him out, but he dies. They take "Loser's" body to his hometown and attempt to have a church funeral for him, but it quickly degenerates into a violent "orgy." (Peter Fonda's speech, "We wanna be free... to do what we wanna do...!" has been much-quoted and even used in songs like Primal Scream's "Loaded.") The movie ends as the Angels stage a funeral procession and bring the body to the graveyard; the locals begin attacking the Angels, and "Blues" makes a final stand.

Nancy Sinatra was cast as Fonda's girl, though she really doesn't have much to do. Diane Ladd plays Dern's lover, as she was in real life (their daughter, Laura Dern, was probably conceived around this time). Michael J. Pollard, who would achieve much greater fame a year later in Bonnie and Clyde, has a small role as another Angel. Peter Bogdanovich worked on the film as an assistant director, and has some interesting stories to tell about the experience.

Corman's skills were sharpened by this time, and though he's still focused on economy and speed, he manages some cleverly effective shots from time to time, and the images themselves are often striking. Of course, the material has dated quite a bit, and you have to imagine the fears and ideas of the time, but it's a very potent movie. Olive Films released a fine-looking Blu-ray edition for 2015, and though it would have been amazing to have a commentary track, there are no extras.

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