We know, we know, it’s a controversial subject! But, based on serious scientific research (by which we mean watching a few dozen DVDs and arguing about them over coffee!) here are what we think are the definitive seven films to feature a motorbike or two. The list spans seven decades and we promise you that it does not feature Wild Hogs or Werewolves on Wheels at any point. So without further ado, coming in at number 7 is…
- Mad Max (Australia, 1979)
Directed by: George Miller
The dystopian classic chase / revenge movie set in the Australian desert against a backdrop of a collapsing society launched Mel Gibson’s career and features some badass Kawasaki Kz1000 motorbikes, modified to make them look suitably post apocalyptic. All the chase scenes were real, filmed by stunt camera operators riding the bikes at speed. There are some cars in the movie too and the lead character played by Mel Gibson is a car driver, but the central role given to motorbikes in this dark epic with sparse dialogue means it edges it onto the list at number 7.
- Touki Bouki (Senegal, 1973)
Directed by: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Set in Dakar, this lost African classic of world cinema, Touki Bouki (translated from the Senegalese Wolof language as “the hyena’s journey”) follows the story of Mory, a young cowherd who rides what looks like a Triumph Tiger Cub motorbike with a bull’s skull mounted on the front and his girlfriend Anta, an intellectual and politics student. Alienated and bored of life in Senegal they dream of going to Paris and embark on a minor crime wave to finance their plan. The film is very different from much African cinema of the time, fast paced with frenetic cuts and reminiscent of French “New Wave” cinematography. Unique and engrossing, and well deserving of the number 6 spot on this list!
- Terminator 2: Judgement Day (USA, 1991)
Directed by: James Cameron
One of the greatest action movies of all time, and arguably the pinnacle of Arnie’s career, it features him as an unstoppable time travelling killer cyborg riding around on a massive Harley Davidson with a shotgun and fighting an even more unstoppable time travelling killer cyborg who can shapeshift. It’s worth noting that even though Arnie’s character gets to have all the fun with the motorbike, his adversary is portrayed by the character actor Robert Patrick who is a real life biker and whose recent credits include an appearance on the iconic biker TV series Sons of Anarchy. Since the motorbike featured is not the central focus of the film, despite its badassness it makes it as far as number 5 on our list.
- The Place Beyond the Pines (USA, 2012)
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Arguably one of the best independent films of the last decade, The Place Beyond the Pines starts in 1997 and features Ryan Gosling as motorcycle stunt rider in a travelling circus (apparently riding a Honda XR650L) who turns to robbing banks using his advanced riding skills. His life overlaps with a cop’s (portrayed by Bradley Cooper) and the knock on effects of their interaction produce a lasting legacy. Despite its mesmerising storytelling and an engrossing plot, only one of the film’s main characters rides a motorcycle, so the number 4 slot it is.
- Easy Rider (USA, 1969)
Directed by: Dennis Hopper
Produced by Peter Fonda, directed by Dennis Hopper and starring them both, Easy Rider is a landmark counter culture film of the 1960s. It tracks the journey to Mardi Gras of two motorbike riding hippies, and explores their outsider relationship with society and the people they meet along the way. Much like riding a motorbike, the film is less about the destination and more about the journey. One of the most influential motorcycle films of all time it captures the sense of emptiness and alienation in Vietnam War era America. It’s also worth noting that the lyrics of the Steppenwolf song Born to Be Wild featured on the film’s groundbreaking soundtrack use the words “heavy metal” for the first time in popular culture. A deserved top 3 spot on this list.
- Akira (Japan, 1988)
Directed by: Katsuhiro Otomo
Widely considered one of the greatest animated and science fiction movies of all time, Akira is set in 2019 and follows several members of a bōsōzoku biker gang as some of them try to prevent and others to cause a sort of psychic apocalypse. The motorcycles are styled in a way which in the 80s was considered futuristic and central to the film’s twisting and epic plot. The film went on to influence pretty much all of the anime produced since and has had an impact similar to Bladerunner on the science fiction genre. It inspired real life motorbikes too, with Honda’s recent bizarrely cool futuristic looking half cruiser half goodness knows what NM4 Vultus owing its exotic appearance fairly directly to the bikes seen in Akira. With Akira at number 2, there can be only one motorcycle film which has been more iconic and influential and that is…
- The Wild One (USA, 1953)
Directed by: László Benedek
The film which started it all by creating the motorcycle film genre, and which has had a huge influence on motorcycle culture over the course of the last six decades. Starring a young Marlon Brando as charismatic anti hero called Johnny and Lee Marvin as his rival and even more wild biker called Chino, the film gave rise to the legend of the outlaw biker and the alienated rebel without a cause (“What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Whaddaya got?”). Based on the events of the infamous 1947 Hollister Riot in California which was in its turn exaggerated by the news outlets of the time, the film no doubt inspired many thousands of rebellious young people to take up biking over the years. It also stands up as an important snapshot of history: Brando’s character rides a British motorbike, a Triumph, rather than an American one, and the film’s setting predates the advent of rock’n’roll music and the 1950s phenomenon of “the teenager” as a social class, making for an altogether colder and darker experience than the fun heady days of the late 50s and early 60s, almost echoing the seemingly pointless and frustrated rebellion of the bōsōzoku gangs of the dystopian Neo Tokyo future setting of Akira. Marlon Brando became a huge star and the film has been the main caretaker of the folklore of outlaw bikers for over sixty years. It’s number 1 on this list, and if you only watch one motorcycle film in your life, it should be The Wild One.