Orphée featured the first portrayal of menacing bikers.
For the past several decades, motorcycles and the people who ride them have represented something evil in the minds of many. Where did that association first begin? Jean Cocteau’s 1950 surrealist masterpiece Orphée may have played a part.
Orphée is based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, wherein a Talented young troubadour enters the underworld, charming Charon, ferryman of the river Styx, and even Hades, lord of the underworld himself, in an attempt to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice. Hades agrees, with one condition. Orpheus is not to look upon his wife until they reach the surface. When Orpheus sees the light of the outside world, he forgets himself and turns to her. She vanishes, and he is subsequently torn to shreds by the furies.
Cocteau’s update is set in postwar France, although at the beginning of the film, Cocteau invites the viewer to use their imagination as time and place are irrelevant. In his version, Orpheus is a poet who is popular with the public, but is seen as a sellout amongst his younger peers. As he is leaving a café, he witnesses an upcoming young poet staggering drunkenly across the street when he is struck by two hoodlums on motorcycles. The young poet’s patron orders Orpheus to come with her in her car as a witness to the accident.
As Orpheus soon finds out, the lady is actually the embodiment of Death, and the motorcyclists are her servants, although they seem to be merely on loan to her from the underworld. The riders effectively serve as the police of the underworld, which explains why they dress similarly, although somewhat exaggerated, to motorcycle cops of the day.
The riders say very little during the film, but that only makes them more menacing. Even Death herself is afraid of them once they’re no longer under her control, especially when they come to take her away to be punished for disobeying orders.
The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin and depicting a somewhat exaggerated version of the Hollister riot of 1947, was released a few years later, further cementing motorcyclists as pariahs in the minds of the people. To this day, there are some in the motorcycle community who revel in this image of something to be feared. Fortunately, there are more and more who are working to dispel this negative stereotype through acts of community outreach and charity.