From youthful rebellion to the vehicle of spiritual awakening, motorcycles in film are culturally significant in their embodiment of timeless human themes. More than an assembly of Yamaha parts or a mere mode of transportation, these motorcycles are machines of great symbolic importance in the following films.
The Wild One – 1953
One of the original motorcycle movies, “The Wild One” starred Marlon Brando as the brooding Johnny Strabler, leader of The Black Rebels motorcycle gang. Johnny, riding on an awe-inspiring 1950 6T Triumph Thunderbird, and his gang invade a small town causing no small amount of mischief and mayhem. This landmark 50s film led the way for a slew of films concerning teenage rebellion and was one of the first to glamorize motorcycle culture.
Easy Rider – 1969
Two outlaw hippies ride eastward to New Orleans for Mardi Gras after scoring cash from a successful drug sale. Cue “Born to Be Wild.” The duo, played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, was created as modern incarnations of Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid traveling on their gas-guzzling steeds. The bikes used in the film were four used police Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glides (1949, 1950 and 1952 models) reconstructed as choppers. “Easy Rider” explored the hippie movement, communal living, psychedelic drug use and the illusive American Dream—the road movie quickly became a cinematic icon of the 60s counterculture era.
Knightriders – 1981
Directed by none other than zombie film pioneer, George A. Romero, “Knightriders” tells an Arthurian tale of a jousting motorcyclist troupe. The traveling troupe, complete in medieval getup, is led by Billy or “King William” played by Ed Harris who courageously jousts atop a Honda CBX. The group struggles to maintain unity as they face corrupt cops, pressure to sell out their vision in favor of commercial success and their leader's worsening mental stability. Despite the seemingly silly premise, the film uses a powerful pathos, and in the character of Billy, a poignant character. Splicing biker culture with renaissance flair, “Knightriders” is an original and surprisingly compelling movie.
Tron – 1982
Not a true motorcycle (not yet at least), nor a true motorcycle film, we still felt compelled to include the futuristic light cycles of “Tron” that astounded audiences with its original idea in 1982. Conceptualized by Syd Mead, these two-wheeled virtual-reality bikes were constantly on the move and created trails of colored light behind them. Syd Mead said that science fiction was “reality ahead of schedule.” His contributions to the movie made “Tron” excel. The film was one of the first to extensively incorporate CGI, yet missed out on any Academy recognition at the time. The light cycles were so beloved that a fully-functional, street legal version was built in 2011, and can be yours for only $55,000. Syd's vision came true after all—without the trailing lights, of course.
The Motorcycle Diaries – 2004
In 1952, two friends set out on an expedition across South America by way of “La Poderosa,” a derelict Norton 500 motorcycle. It just so happens that one of these friends is Che Guevara who, during the course of their Latin American journey, evolves politically and spiritually into the famed Marxist revolutionary. Even though “The Motorcycle Diaries” depicts one of the most influential people of the 20th century, Che's awakening takes backstage to the story of two buddies on a transcendent two-wheeled road trip from Buenos Aires to Venezuela.
The Great Escape (1963)
The legendary Steve McQueen’s motorcycle chase in “The Great Escape” likely graces every list of “Best Movie Motorcycle Scenes Ever” and, unsurprisingly, here it is once more. McQueen was an accomplished driver (see his other classic car chase from “Bullitt”) and, in fact, only accepted the role of Virgil Hilts to show off his motorcycle skills on screen. The motorcycle scene in question takes place when Allied prisoners enact a daring escape from a German POW camp and follow through on the movie’s title. McQueen’s great escape was accomplished on a 60s Triumph TR6 Trophy which was cosmetically altered to hide the fact that—in the movie’s WWII timeline—this bike wouldn’t be created for another 20 years. The famous scene where Hilts rides his bike over the fence into Switzerland is not actually driven by McQueen—though the German who is in pursuit of Hilts is McQueen, according to GeekyRant.com. Didn’t see that one coming, did you?
Mad Max (1979)
“Mad Max” takes place in a post-apocalyptic Australia featuring a slew of motorcycles driven by Max’s partner Goose and deranged biker gang members. The eponymous “Mad Max” (Mel Gibson in a career-launching role, for better or worse) is a law enforcement officer hell bent on avenging his family. Kawasaki donated their three and four cylinder late model demo units for the film crew to crash, destroy and otherwise give the pyrotechnics crew a field day. One of these bikes belonged to Goose, an imposing 1977 Kawasaki KZ100 or “Kwaka” in the movie. Unfortunately, “Mad Max” isn’t immune to Hollywood’s remake fever—look for the franchise’s resurgence in 2013 where Tom Hardy plays the titular antihero.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
When a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger asks you for your clothes, boots and motorcycle, you comply. A bemused biker does indeed comply in “T2” leading to one of the best chase scenes ever filmed. Terminator Arnie hops on the 1990 Harley-Davidson FLSTF “Fat Boy” to defend the dirt bike-riding John Connor from an impervious tow truck of mass destruction driven by an amorphous liquid metal machine man. Sure, it’s as over-the-top as that previous sentence was long, but director James Cameron struck action-movie gold with this iconic sci-fi pursuit.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Bat-Pod. Just when you thought Batman’s behemoth Batmobile—or, Tumbler— was destroyed, out blasts the Bat-Pod courtesy of the brilliant minds at Wayne Industries. Director Christopher Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley brought the Pod to fruition from its feeble start as a plastic and foam model to a fully functional (and nigh impossible to master) vehicle, much to the stuntman’s dismay. A high-performance, single-cylinder engine powered this impressive 20-inch wide wheeled feat of engineering, allowing the Dark Knight to roam the Gotham streets.