What does the swastika mean in Wild Angels (1966) and other biker movies of the 1960s?

Rev. December 31, 2015.

Note: Warning, this one has some of my agency-graphs in it.

In the not terrible 1966 Roger Corman biker movie, The Wild Angels, the movie that apparently launched the biker subgenre, there are a lot of swastikas. All the bikers wear them, and Bruce Dern as Blues has a white helmet with Swastikas on the front and at the ear. There is a confrontation early on, when he is fired from his job, when his older employer protests the donning of these emblems of an enemy they fought, and lost many men against. So, for the men of World War II, it is clear what the swastika meant, it meant Nazi Germany, and all the evil of Nazi Germany,

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But, then, time moves on, and the whole World War II experience is parentheticated in a cult status, with the swastika, in the context of the cult array developed by veterans, who are proud of but silent about their service, coming to mean not only it’s original meaning, a symbol of the evil of the world that one must maintain one’s vigilance against, but then also a new meaning as, in fact, a relic, or badge of honor, symbolic of whom they defeated, and the new world they made because of this defeat (this was why my dad would only read books with swastikas on the cover, and why there were so many Nazi movies, it served as a symbol of all that was accomplished and won)

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Then a third cultivation occurred, without addressing the previous formation in any novel way, after the war, the war itself, as the 50s moved on, was folded into a cult experience that was then wanted to be forgotten, and a new apotropaic counter-culture, that coped with the memory of the war by turning away from it, and making all the negatives of the war positive, took over, thus, against killing?  how about a Baby Boom (see Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties), against chaos?, how about order (Ike), and so on and so forth, resulting in the 50s, as conventionally understood, but in my reading, it was a counter-culture set up in opposition to the previously created cult of the War

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This then, in still another, fourth cultural shift, circled down, with reverse agency, through a primarily apotropaic drive, to create calm and peace for some, and then came prosperity, but from the Right still came a resistant culture of fear in which men demanded respect for having fought. Let’s just say that in the defensiveness and routineness of this counter-culture, “the Man” developed as a cultural type. “The Man” was the conventional, oppressive, norm-setting man in charge of postwar common culture. The Man was also all the organs of order of that culture, including the police. The Man, therefore, became the symbol of law and order, and, while in the early 60s he was put on the defensive, and in duress, in the late 1960s, The Man made a comeback, and all of this took place in California, with the return of the new right.

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If you followed the rules, you were in, if, however, you did not, you fell out, and then you had no other choice but to devise a contradictory position vis a vis the new mainstream, and become something else. But, this turn is not simply another apotropaic turn, it is not just another counter-culture spun out against a counter-culture itself spun out of the cult-relic culture of the war. It is a counter-negative culture, rejecting outright all the values of the mainstream culture of the Man

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How would that counter-negation work? They would appraise the mainstream, and reject it, entirely negating it. Then, looking at the negation, they would take from its bowels the only parts of the culture they wanted, its flushed out the bottom excess, the bad side-effects of the clash of cultures the Man hated most, the partying, the sex and violence, the booze and drugs, not to mention the bikes (the only positive cultural aspect of their life). But, then, in that negated anticulture or opposite-, or bottomfed-culture, they do not have enough power to act with agency (parentheses), so every act is exploitative-reactionary, that is, acting out, senseless, stupid, no point to it, evil, if you will, and thus they exploit each element to kill it off, to drain the life out of it, to empty it out completely

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Therefore, having wound down a four-stage turn away, a counter-negating, exploitational-acting out,  destroying posture to The Man, this four-stage zig zag of chaos imports from the repertore of the trophied heroic symbolism of The Man and the world he protected, the swastika, for it to become the symbol of their chaos world, their underworld of senseless acting out, of human depravity and, interesting enough, as I have mapped it out, to get from The Man to the chaos of the Angels you have to zig-zag four times in a negative downward spiral, that is, you have to “swastikate”, and the goal of swastikation is to create Mayhem against The Man.

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As a result, the swastika in biker movies, and as worn by bikers in real life, has little to do with actual historical Nazis. It has to do with representing negatively the victory of The Man, the badge of honor of the major enemy that he defeated. And then it symbolizes for the Angels, because the Man will not show it out in the open, a rejection of everything the Man stands for, and a desire to, as a result, act out against it all in a senseless way, creating Mayhem. It is rather interesting, the gang’s got a lot of really good Nazi artifacts. Here, in the biker bar, the flag swathes the whole back wall, and, along with a nifty statue of Satan, backdrops Peter Honda’s mental confusion, his cantankerous, senseless, defensive hate of The Man. At this point, between the swastika and the Satan, he makes a really stupid decision

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After they bust Blues out from the hospital (only to kill him, as a result of this), we see in a beachside clubhouse, again, nice nazi flags, here the swastika placed next to the TV screen means that it is more than an F you, it is a counter-negated-exploitative-emptying out embrace of Mayhem, that is, it swastikates, all the “bullshit” and word from The Man found on TV

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Then, when they see Blues really is sick, they bring him into Gayle Hunnicutt’s room, and she not only has an iron cross over her bed, but a swastika at the center of the cover. When Dern’s body is lowered, all cramped up into a twisted shape (nice directing, nice acting) it represents the physical result of the fucked up acting out counter-negative-exploitational-swastikating mayhem motivation of the gang

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It also marks the spot in bed where rest and consensual sex occurs, where home values are cultivated, as another place of mayhem, and mayhem in bed would be drunk wild sex with strangers, or being raped, and gang raping of course would become the movie calling card of these gangs (they will later get Blues wife). When they first do this, Hunnicut protests, because her baby (lower right) is sleeping, but then they are like, are you serious? It is not enough to say that the swastika negates the values of the bed. It counters those values, and then negates them. But then, those counter-negated values are themselves criminally exploited, to empty them out to their essential senseless evil, it swastikates, in four evil spins, the meaning out of all prior order.

Later in the movie, the swastika comes up against the cross, in a rather more dualistically formatted battle of good and evil. We get a hint of the twistedness of the biker culture as it relates to the apotropaic uprightness of Christian culture, when the minister comes through a parking maze of bike metal, cross overlooking (on the left), into the church

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Then he comes up to the podium, and the bikers, for the funeral, have draped a swastika Nazi flag over it, comparable here visually to, as opposite to, and mocking the flowers

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This then is directly contrasted with the cross, in the more general way, and this then stages the rather silly debate between the minister and Peter Fonda, who states the cause of the gang in rather succinct terms, they are not for anything, they are just against The Man, and all they want to do is have fun, party, be free, do whatever they want. It is a statement of the rejection of the mainstream culture of the Man,  and of their philosophy of mayhem (it is important here that the bikers disrespect the cross and any attentive address in upright form from it by not assuming the posture of bodily uprightness, but lounging about  with their hands and arms back, in a posture of relaxation and freedom and disrespect of what is going on, their body language partly mirroring the swastika

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It is at this point that one of the staples of the genre, the wild party scene, takes places as they trash the pews, and have a very wild party. This is signified as quartered against order, and as total mayhem, by their all over the place body language, and I suppose it is surprise that Gayle Hunnicutt, who up to this point has been rather quiet, takes over as the sassy wild broad who is flinging her body parts all over, in what might work out, if I studied it in more detail, as swastikated body language

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she is likely the candidate to go wild because she was a bit uptight when they brought the body of Blue into her bed, for him to die there, now she is in the opposite position, as they take the corpse out of the coffin, and prop him up as if he is partying, and she courts him, that is, lies with her head on his shoulder, and flirts with him, it is a weird sort of transposition. And I think throughout the movie there was an attempt to set down a character, and then make the character go off in a 180 degree direction away from their former character , to represent them as completely wild in nature

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It is also in this context that Blues’ ex twists several ways. She is the only biker truly grieving for the dead man, and she in fact has a moment of after life with him, hugging and kissing him, happy in a way to be back with him one last time

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But she is conflicted because, in the biker world, a chic only lives under the protection of a biker, the moment that biker loses power, the chic is fair game, and, worse, until she makes a decision as to whom she wishes to be with, she seems to be the communal property of the gang. For this reason, she is vulnerable, and, at her husband’s funeral, five guys at least take her into the back of the chapel behind the pulpit and rape her, thus the gang rape, one of the main tropes of the biker genre. But, then, in this shot, this is after she has, not ten minutes before, been gang raped, than she comes back to her beau and apologizes to him or his soul for being so weak, she could not help it, meaning that she sort of let it happen, it was not actually nonconsensual rape. So, biker movies are noted for their twisted up emotional abuse in this way, they are worse than dysfunction, they represent emotional mayhem, no sense at all.

That is the full extent of this note: to point out that in biker movies the swastika has been processed through the pluses and minutes of the pushes and pulls of power in present active time in senseless ways that made its relationship with real history and the real Nazis somewhat distant and unreal. This processing actually took place in the 1960s, any further consideration of the use of the swastika in any other subsequent appearance in American popular culture would have to take into consideration this processing at this time, and the fact that after it had occurred, the swastika never again actually referred to the Nazis, but mainly was simply a worn down simplified symbol of total anarchic dumbass mayhem. This assertion is reinforced by the fact that in other biker movies it did seem that in the art direction there was a concerted effort to “quarter” the imagery on screen, so that it’s elements jarred against each other in ways that could not be reconciled, and, thus swastikated, simply visualized the emotional abuse and mayhem on screen. This occurs, for example, in the Bruce Dern movie, Cycle Savages , in which there is a much more pronounced, and demonizing gang rape (as the biker genre developed, the ability of its makers to glory in the pure mayhem of the culture waned, and as things surfaced, and came under the aegis of second thought and reason, things began to dualize, and become moralized, making for less good movies). Here, the gang rape

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And then, there is a club house, and it is a hoot, because, as above, the gang rape takes place in the shadow of an image of John Lennon! And then, later, when Dern learns that an artist who lives downstairs from his babe has painted her in the nude (and made love to her too, because artists were unable to resist their models, or rather models were unable to resist the attention they received when modelling, mistaking it as love). And so there is a wonderfully swastikated, quartered, all pulled apart absurd shot of the artist who his hand in a vice (plan is to maim him, so he cannot draw, smart right?) And again he is watched over, in the maiming of his artistry, by John Lennon

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One does wonder, here’s a more profiled shot with a swastikated formal zig-zag from Lennon’s glass to the girl on the left’s red-bloused boobs

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What did the Savages read in Lennon that related to them? Was it his use of drugs, the trippiness of this poster, Happiness is a Warm Gun, the exploitation of the White Album by Charles Manson, associating the Beatles with bad things coming, or he is just there because they thought he was a faggot? really, the mind boggles, but in this shot, it is a kind of missing of the point to seek out a point, the Beatles, entirely drained of their actual meaning in the culture, are made use of in an occult way. For all of this, biker movie swastikas were symbolons (symbolsplaced immediately over the site of their meaning) of the mayhem depicted in the movie, they were read by the bikers as related only to their direct immediate will to fuck with The Man, to create mayhem, to just have fun and be free and make trouble and mess everything up.The biker movie swastika has nothing to do with history, Hitler, or anything else related to the Nazis. That, at least, is my reading of the symbol, as it is used as a property in the art direction of two biker movies of the late 1960s.