Motorcycle Movies: History and Examples

From 'The Wild One' to 'Easy Rider'

Actors Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson ride motorcycles in 'Easy Rider' (1969)
Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda riding their chopper motorcycles, with Jack Nicholson on the back of Fonda's motorcycle. Publicity still issued for the film 'Easy Rider' (1969).

Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

A motorcycle or biker movie is any film that centers on motorcyclists as the protagonists or antagonists in the narrative. Typically, motorcycle movies depict biker gangs and culture, and often feature criminal and violent content. Though motorcycles have appeared in movies throughout the history of cinema (including silent comedies like Buster Keaton's 1924's film Sherlock Jr.), films that focused on biker gangs and culture were a later development. Biker movies peaked in popularity in the 1960s when interest in motorcycle clubs like the Hells Angels grew during the counterculture movement. 

Did You Know?

The highest-grossing motorcycle movie of all time is the 2007 comedy Wild Hogs.

Origin of Motorcycle Movies

In the United States, public interest in outlaw motorcycle gangs grew out of sensational media coverage of a riot involving biker gangs over the July 4 holiday in Hollister, California, in 1947. The events of the riot made up the basis for the plot of Columbia Pictures' 1953 film The Wild One, which starred Marlon Brando as the leader of a motorcycle gang. Brando, coming off a series of acclaimed performances in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), and Julius Caesar (1953), won over audiences as the tough-talking biker who was personified by his answer to the question, "What are you rebelling against?"—"Whaddaya got?" The film was even banned in the UK until 1968 because of its depiction of gang violence. Despite the popularity of The Wild One, the genre did not take off until the mid 1960s, when motorcycle clubs like the Hells Angels received increased media coverage. Because motorcycle movies often depict the characters on a journey, biker films are frequently similar to road movies.

In addition to narrative films, motorcycle and biker culture has been depicted in documentaries such as On Any Sunday (1971). Biker culture has also been depicted on television on shows like Sons of Anarchy (2008-2014). They have also been parodied in comedies like Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) and Wild Hogs (2007) .

Top Motorcycle Movies

Though many biker films have been made throughout cinema history, the genre hit its peak in the 1960s. These are some of the top biker movies.

The Wild One (1953)

Marlon Brando Riding Motorcycle with Others in The Wild
Marlon Brando in scene from The Wild One. Bettman/Getty Images

Director László Benedek's The Wild One almost single-handedly created the entire outlaw motorcycle film genre, though it would take another dozen years before it would really take off. Marlon Brando stars as Johnny Strabler, a motorcycle gang leader, who battles with another biker gang led by Chino (Lee Marvin) with a small town stuck in the middle. The film introduced many moviegoers to the concept of outlaw motorcycle gangs.

The Wild Angels (1966)

Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra in 'The Wild Angels' (1966)
1966: American actors Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, and others in a still from the film 'The Wild Angels' directed by Roger Corman. Photo by American International Pictures/American International Pictures/Getty Images

B-movie master Roger Corman both produced and directed this exploitation film about a chapter of Hells Angels led by Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda) and his friend Loser (Bruce Dern). The film also stars Nancy Sinatra and Diane Ladd. The Wild Angels, which included real-life bikers in bit parts, featured lawless, misogynistic, and violent bikers, and it was a box office success that inspired dozens of imitators. The Hells Angels even filed a lawsuit against Corman over how the club was depicted in the film and, according to Corman, also threatened to kill him.

Born Losers (1967)

Elizabeth James riding a motorycle in The Born Losers (1967)
Elizabeth James in The Born Losers (1967). American International Pictures (AIP)

In Born Losers, Tom Laughlin stars as a loner who is mistakenly arrested while getting involved in a fight between a motorist and a member of the Born Losers Motorcycle Club. The film also features a storyline with actress/screenwriter Elizabeth James as a bikini-wearing "biker babe" and her path crossing with Laughlin's character. Laughlin co-produced the film to great box office success. Most importantly, Born Losers introduced Tom Laughlin's signature character Billy Jack, a half-Navajo Green Beret Vietnam veteran dedicated to social justice. Laughlin would portray the character in three sequels that increasingly focused more on political issues.

Hells Angels on Wheels (1967)

Jack Nicholson on a motorcylce in Hells Angels on Wheels (1967)
Jack Nicholson in Hells Angels on Wheels (1967). Fanfare Films

In one of the Hollywood icon's first starring roles, Jack Nicholson portrays a young man who is rides with the Hells Angels after a chance encounter and experiences first-hand the club's fights, parties, and acts of revenge. Famed real-life Hells Angel Sonny Barger appears in the film in a cameo role.

Easy Rider (1969)

Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider
Dennis Hopper (L) and Peter Fonda riding bikes in a scene from the movie Easy Rider. June 30, 1969. Bettman / Getty Images

In what has been considered the ultimate biker movie by fans and critics, director Dennis Hopper stars alongside Peter Fonda (who co-wrote the script with Hopper) as a pair of motorcyclists who encounter various aspects of counter-culture America while smuggling cocaine from Mexico to New Orleans. The independently-produced film was a huge box office success and has since come to symbolize both early independent filmmaking and motorcycling. The film's soundtrack features music by The Band, The Byrds, Steppenwolf, and Jimi Hendrix, and is considered by film fans one of the best movie soundtracks of all time.