Easy Rider. Motorcycle Diaries. World’s Fastest Indian. These same old, same old movies always seem to be included in top 5 lists of moto flicks like some Groundhog Day nightmare with bikers instead of weathermen. And while we’ve certainly written about the motorcycle from The Batman, or the bike from the latest Bond movie, there’s more, I tell you. So much more! If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find some genuinely good—and sometimes hilariously bad—big-screen biker moving pictures that’ll not only keep you entertained; they’ll also remind you just why you love to ride motorcycles in the first place.
And please excuse the blatant Aussie bias in this list. As a Sydney biker born and bred, it’s in my veins. But there’s also the fact that as movie makers, we’re more than a little obsessed with the outdoors, internal combustion and long journeys. It’s just part of our psyche; or more accurately, it’s what the continent demands of us. But fear not, there will be some international inclusions just to make sure no one dies of an accidental outback overdose.
And for the Aussie readers here—yes you may well have seen some of these flicks before; you can consider this a timely reminder to watch them again. So in no particular order, please grab your popcorn and dim the lights. Here we go.
5. “Stone” – Australia, 1974
While just as drug-addled, B-grade and dated as Easy Rider, Sandy Harbutt’s 1974 film “Stone” also manages to be a lot less experimental and eminently more engaging thanks in large part to the inclusion of a raft of upcoming Aussie actors including Hugh “Toecutter” Keays-Byrne from Mad Max.
Shot around Sydney, it’s not only an amazing time capsule of a city that’s been lost to history, but also of a lifestyle that (while massively overblown in the film’s portrayal) just doesn’t or can’t exist in the modern world. The story revolves around a police officer who goes undercover with the Gravediggers Vietnam-vet outlaw motorcycle gang to find out who is trying to kill their members “one by one”.
Pretty clear where Mad Max got its love of the Kawasaki Z 1000 from, yeah? That’s right, Stone did it first. And while there’s also the prerequisite sex, drugs and satan worhsip, Harbutt also addresses issues around returned war vets, PTSD, the role of women in ’70s Australian culture, and even indigenous issues.
But let’s not over-egg this custard—this ain’t high art. It’s a schlocky rollercoaster ride that was probably shot without permits and definitely without any safety officers, and it also features one of the two all-time best moto stunts ever captured on film—the other one appearing in the movie below.
Other interesting little tidbits include Australian shock jock John Laws doing the trailer’s VO, the fact that the director also plays the role of the Undertaker, and the Sydney chapter of the Hells Angels helping out with the production. Can you imagine that happening these days? Do check it out.
4. “Mad Max” – Australia, 1979
Okay, okay. I know this isn’t strictly speaking an exclusively motorcycle film and that it’s also not really a hidden classic, but bear with me. See, I think most people would see it as a car chase film, meaning it often gets overlooked in moto circles. And as a movie that I think has some of the best moto action ever exposed onto celluloid, that’s a big oversight.
You’ll also notice that even in the most recent instalment of the film, motorcycles played major roles both in their creative designs and the movie’s storyline. Put simply, the Mad Max franchise is one of the most important series of motorcycle movies ever made.
Clearly channelling Stone and another non-moto Aussie classic, excitingly entitled, “The Cars That Ate Paris” (see it here), it chronicles the story of, “A self-destructing world, in which Max Rockatansky, a vengeful Australian policeman, sets out to stop a violent motorcycle gang after they murder his wife and son.” We’ve got the trailer below. Sadly, only the US Release trailer seems to be available on YouTube. It still rocks, though.
According to Quentin Tarantino, the film single-handedly rewrote the handbook on shooting chase scenes for both cars and bikes and became legendary in film production folklore by staging many of the stunts without any permissions; they’d simply rock up to an unsuspecting country road, throw a few cars and bikes around, sweep up the broken glass and radiator fluid, and then piss right off again.
With my heart on my sleeve, I’ll tell you that this is one of my all-time favourite movies and that seeing it for the first time as a kid had a formative effect on me. Hell, it’s probably why I ride bikes today.
Fun facts: the famous “car through the caravan” stunt at the start of the film saw the stunt guys strap a Myth Busters-style JATO rocket to the HQ Holden to liven things up. And boy oh boy, did it do its job well.
“Murray, the explosives expert who came up with the idea of the rocket car, is nostalgic about the science experiment that almost killed them, admitting he wouldn’t do the scene like that nowadays,” says Guardian Australia journalist Luke Buckmaster.
3. “The Leather Boys” – United Kingdom, 1964
Stop laughing up the back, you lot. Then again, you aren’t far off, either. See, while the title of this classic Brit working-class, cafe racer drama might raise modern-day eyebrows with its homoerotic overtones that are painfully obvious to us modern types, it wouldn’t have been taken that way back in the much more naive and rainy Great Britain of the 1960s.
But the real truth is that the film did actually tackle the subject matter of being queer in and around the now famous cafe racer scene in London in the late ’50s and early ’60s. How’s that for cutting edge, huh? A film about motorcyclists that also blatantly broke the Hollywood Production Code, too. Rebels with a cause, much?
And while the kitchen sink drama element does heavily outweigh the sweet Triumph motorcycles and Nortons in the film, this is a real classic that has really stood the test of time.
But putting on my moto glasses for a second, just how amazing is it that we have a motion picture made right in the heart of the cafe racer era that captures the phenomena in such amazing detail? It’s like having a movie shot at the Hollister riots or at the Los Angeles Motordrome at the height of the Boardtrack racing era.
Given an X rating at the time due to its “controversial” content, the film tells the story of “An immature teenager [who] marries a young biker but becomes disenchanted with the realities of working class marriage and her husband’s relationship with his best friend.”
Locations used for the film include the legendary Ace Cafe in its heyday and a textbook and dreary early 1960s London. Extras used in the film included local cafe racers and the Ace Cafe crowd, too. Put simply, if you’re into cafe racers and you haven’t seen this film, you’re really missing out.
Clearly a prototype Easy Rider of sorts, this 1966 film sits squarely between Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” from 1953 and 1969’s Easy Rider, replete with Peter Fonda in the lead role, along with the uber popular Nancy Sinatra and Father of Jurassic Park’s Laura Dern, Bruce. Also very much inspired by the rise in popularity of the Hells Angels, thanks in no small part to Hunter S. Thompson’s book of the same name, director Roger Corman used real club members as extras while also ensuring that all the actors cast for the movie could ride bikes to up the realism.
The story follows “The ‘Angels’, a San Pedro motorcycle gang that parties in the Coachella Valley’s Palm Springs Indian Canyons, California, and wreaks havoc with the local police.” Basically one long build-up to the story’s climatic final party in which a funeral is held for (not spoiling any paper thin plots here) one of the movie’s main characters.
Musically famous for its, “Just what is it that you want to do?” quote as sampled by British band Primal Scream, it’s also a very good catalogue of proper 1%-er motorcycles of the mid ’60s. Or as Fonda himself put it about his “Dragon” bike he rode in the film:
“In some ways, the Dragon is even more of a biker’s bike; it’s the granddaddy of all choppers and it cemented my role as the original, in chopper history. The bike was built from the ground up to ride. It handles pretty well, feels comfortable, has good power, and you hardly ever run over lil’ kids on tricycles.”
Being a Roger Corman film, it’s exploitation par excellence—and in my book a far more enjoyable movie to watch than its younger sibling, Easy Rider. You can see the full thing here.
1. “Silver Dream Racer” – United Kingdom, 1980
One of those “let’s shoot at an actual, real life event so we don’t have to spend too much money on extras” movies ala James Garner’s Grand Prix, the movie stars UK pop star David Essex and a very Liv Tyler-looking Cristina Raines in a classic underdog-with-untested-idea-beats-the-big-boys-after-a-series-of-heartbreaking-setbacks type affair. As with many films of this genre, the reason to watch the movie is mostly to do with the quality racing (including Brands Hatch, Donington Park, and the famous Silverstone circuit) and the period hardware on display.
Most surprising is the fact that the bike at the centre of the story is a real racer developed in North Wales by Barry Hart and his Barton Motors, and named the “Phoenix”. And while some reports suggest that the bike wasn’t close to being competitive back in the day, I have to say that its looks were pretty ahead of the game when you compare and contrast it to the other “real” bikes in the movie. Hell, from some angles, it almost looks like a ’90s bike.
WIth a bunch of Americans also cast in a clear attempt to widen the movie’s international appeal, you’ll also see Beau Bridges (brother of Jeff Bridges) and a raft of usual suspect British Actors trying to make ends meet between stints in West End Shakespeare gigs. Any adult who grew up watching British TV of the ’80s will recognise a whole slew of ’em in there; even Doctor’s Who’s assistant Sarah-Jane Smith makes an appearance.
A quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes will prove that it’s not the world’s best movie by any stretch of the imagination, but for those of us who get all hot and bothered by historical moto racing footage (that means you, dear readers) then I’d suggest that there’s no finer record of late ’70s British GP racing than this fine way to spend an hour or two with some beers and a few mates. You can see the full movie here.