Biker War Movie Review

This week I had occasion to watch two movies that turn, in important ways, on bikers' relationship with the military. The first was 1971's The Hard Ride, a Vietnam-era story about a Marine who comes home with his best friend's body to try to arrange a funeral with his biker friends. The second was 1984's Tank!, where the military aspects are central, but bikers play a pivotal role in the final outcome.

Together with other movies of the era, these sketch an outline of a transformation in American culture. Spoilers below the break line.

The Hard Ride fits neatly into its era, which include a number of surprisingly hopeless films. In films like Vanishing Point and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, these are stories about men with military backgrounds and war-hardened virtues who are destroyed by the society that can no longer accept them. The Hard Ride lacks the anti-authority themes of the other films for the most part. The only policeman in the movie is "a pretty nice guy" who just wants to talk about the cool bikes because he's building a custom chopper of his own. The priest in the movie is a genuinely kind and upstanding man (who also takes a chopper out for a spin once in a while). He runs an orphanage that at no point is painted as anything other than a wonderful place that kids genuinely love and appreciate.

Nevertheless it is clear that the virtuous man returned from war is alienated from American society. His best friend was black, we learn, and their friendship born in fire and shared hardship is not accepted as valid by anyone from the peaceful world. No one can believe that this Marine is really willing to work so hard, and make so many sacrifices, out of friendship for a black man. Almost no one is willing to confess to having had any serious friendship for that man themselves, not even the white woman who had loved him (and is deeply defensive about the shame she feels for that fact). The bikers' outlaw culture was the only place where the lovers had found any acceptance, but even there it was grudging and partial. In the end, it is the peaceful world that proves unworthy. The ending of the film will not be surprising to anyone who has seen the other early '70s outlaw films.

Tank!, too, is a product of its era. 1984 was the tail end of the Outlaw Country era of movies that began in those early '70s films, including Easy Rider, Convoy, and Burt Reynolds' Gator films. The Burt Reynolds films show the arc of the evolutionary trajectory: the Gator films were morally bleak and showed an American society and law that was corrupt and twisted. In 1977, the very same crew -- Reynolds, Jerry Reed, and the lot -- made Smokey and the Bandit and changed the game. Now the law was corrupt, but American society was basically good -- and united with the outlaws in defying a set of laws that was sometimes corrupt, but not always so. That basic model was adopted by the "Dukes of Hazzard," which straddled the 1979-1981 period. By 1984, it was a model that was well-established.

The bad guys in Tank! are corrupt Southern law enforcement officers, just as in Bandit and the "Dukes." But no one else in society is corrupt. In fact, they are all rooting for the virtuous military guy who is drawn into conflict with the vicious corrupt sheriff. In the end, a division commanding general and the governor of Tennessee are both on the ground to help defy a sheriff from Georgia, but they can't cross the state line into his county. The ones who make it happen are outlaw bikers, who build a ramp with wood they brazenly steal off a nearby truck -- the best line in the movie happens here -- and carry out a daring rescue under fire.

I'm not sure that Tank! was the very last of these movies, but it was at the end of the genre. It is interesting to me that this genre deeply doubted American society, but never the virtues of the American military. At a time when other genres associated with Vietnam painted military men as monsters, this one consistently saw the virtues that this life produced. At its most hopeless, it saw them as too good for the fallen world that America had become. At its most hopeful, it saw them as paladins to root for and support as you could, because in fighting for them you could help them carry us all to a better world.


raven said...

It was a wild sort of time. The mid 70's saw a mix of guys just back from the war, old school hippies and bikers, lot's of spontaneous music and drinking... I was on the road a lot then, working where ever there was a job- logging, fishing, construction. You'd pick up a guy with his thumb out and find out he was on leave from fighting in SA, , or a ex medic with graze marks all over and a remarkably calm demeanor, hardcore acid rock rats with tats all over, pretty young women with guitars, all sorts of folks being stirred together. Things were lively.

Grim said...

One of the nice features of The Hard Ride is that you get a feel for that. America was a different place at that time in a lot of ways. I was a kid in the 70s, so for me these movies are about the world I remember as a boy.

It is striking to me how much Hollywood itself has changed since the early 70s. Maybe the shift from the early 70s movies to the Bandit-style movies in 1977 was a product of Star Wars: there was clearly an appetite for good-vs-evil movies in which the good guys were rebels, and the bad guys were the Empire. Clearly that changed the tone, in that people could believe in good guys who won again. The best people in the early 70s movies are tragic heroes without a place.

Another big change is the depiction of people. There's a kind of realism that's absent today. Hollywood today puts almost no one on screen who hasn't been living in a gymnasium while eating a combination of plain air and protein powder. The men and women in the early 70s movies are frequently very ordinary in their physical attractiveness, which makes them easy to relate to in a way. The Marine just back from Vietnam is tough, but not so tough that he can take on five guys at once and win. The problems are serious problems that aren't going away, so you just have to work out a way of living with them -- or not, in which case they'll kill you.

It's a bleak but humane view of the world, and entirely at odds with the superhero fare that seems to be all we do now.

Grim said...

No, Bandit and Star Wars were released almost the same day. It's not a direct influence, then. It's just a change in the culture that both movies managed to capture in the same hour.

raven said...

" The Marine just back from Vietnam is tough, but not so tough that he can take on five guys at once and win."

most of them, but I did know this Cajun Gunny I would have taken bets on.....!

Grim said...

Yeah, I'm not saying nobody could do it. I've taken three at once myself, and I was good and drunk at the time.