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Feature: Top 10 Movie Rebels

Frank Ochieng
Feature: Top 10 Movie Rebels

As a whole, cinema fans have always been intrigued by edgy movie characters that are always willing to go against the grain. After all, what is a little rebellion on the big screen worth? Well, it definitely makes for three-dimensional angst and psychological depth for those troubled film protagonists struggling with their distorted philosophies on life, love and everything in between. In Top 10 Movie Rebels we will look at the selected choices for some of Movieland’s most roguish souls.

There are various degrees of “rebels” that can be defined and the ones mentioned in this article certainly do not disappoint in this regard. The Top 10 Movie Rebels below are as follows: (NOTE: The selections will be in ALPHABETICAL order according to film title):


In director James Foley’s crime drama, “At Close Range,” the apple does not fall far from the tree in terms of a deranged daddy and his misguided teen sons that find fitting time for committing some arbitrary crimes. Based on a true story we are introduced to rural Pennsylvania crime lord papa Brad Whitewood Sr. (Christopher Walken) who returns to the lives of his offspring Brad Jr. and Tommy (Sean and the late Christopher Penn) and introduces them into the world of professional criminal activities.

When Brad Jr. becomes “soft” in the eyes of his law-breaking father and starts a sweet romance with local girl Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson) all hell breaks loose. Needing complete control of his son Brad Jr. and fearing that Terry is a bad influence to his criminal enterprise Brad Sr. decides to do the unthinkable to split the lovebirds apart. After Brad Sr. rapes Terry in a motel room and puts out a hit on her and Brad Jr. (resulting in Terry’s death although Brad Jr. manages to barely survive) all bets are off as the rebellious Brad Jr. wants revenge and rebels against his twisted old man whose misplaced actions resulted in the tragic ending of his brother Tommy and now sweetheart Terry. Penn’s Brad Whitewood Jr. is an effective badass and perhaps one of the actor’s most underrated solid performances that graced his early movie career back in the mid-eighties.


The crusading Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) is an ex-Green Beret who detests violence and struggles with his cultural make-up (he is half Native American Indian/half white) but is enthusiastically discovering the spiritual side of his heritage (Indian) that promotes harmony and self-discovery while the conservative side of his white bloodline demonstrates subversive chaos and alienation.

Billy Jack is schooled in the martial arts and fights for the underdog causes that range from protecting innocent creatures from slaughter to empowering his students that take lessons from the hapkido master fighter in the middle of the barren desert. Billy Jack is clearly a counter-cultural icon that stands up to the injustices of societal and environmental recklessness and the inhumanity of the majority exploiting the minority. Billy Jack’s Billy Jack is not afraid to use his disillusioned backbone to stand up to the anti-establishment sentiment that runs through his rebellious consciousness in the pursuit of peace and propriety.


If there was ever a film that captured the essence of counter-culture alienation and strife-ridden judgmental America in the late 60’s then it has to be director/co-star Dennis Hopper’s biker road trip feature Easy Rider. Los Angeles-based motorcycle hippies Wyatt and Billy (Peter Fonda and Hopper) wanted to experience the scenic country on their treasured bikes en route to the Mardis Gras in New Orleans. They were free-spirited rebels for the mere fact that they were just being themselves-–a couple of colorful and carefree cads who are not what one would label the “corporate type” as they simply marched to their own drum beat. Getting high off of an acid trip or frequenting brothels was just the norm for the easy riding methods of Wyatt and Billy whose only expectation was to live in their own bubble of tranquil self-indulgence.

The tragic demise of the traveling twosome at the hands of bias shotgun-toting detractors defiantly laid out the out-of-control intolerance and senseless attitudes that made the free-love youth movement that Wyatt and Billy represented in a conflicting and turbulent late 60’s America more outraged, intolerable and skeptical.


Western anti-heroes, some may argue, are a dime a dozen. But who cares when one of the most amoral of this breed is one Hud Bannon (Paul Newman). You see Hud is prone to his structured self-destruction as he dabbles in booze, broads, back talk, bad temper and brawls in the dusty atmosphere of West Texas.

The rough-and-tumble Hud lives on a struggling ranch and shares a volatile existence with his elderly father Homer (Melvyn Douglas), nephew Lohnie (Brandon De Wilde) and their housekeeper Alma Brown (Patricia Neal). Basically, Hud answers to no one and does what he pleases to suit his personalized vices. No one is spared from his cheating ways as the carefree cowboy finds various avenues to vent out his youth-oriented indiscretions.

Sure, Hud Bannon is a bad boy bronco whose rowdy rebel routine is stuck within his own defiant value system. He feels defeated and detached courtesy of his obvious lashing out and constant clashing with his frustrated old man that signifies a certain standard of expectation from another generation. Martin Ritt’s Hud is a smoldering western with an impish devil performance by Newman.


Labeling Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-winning turn as the rebellious pot stirrer and leader/motivator R.P. McMurphy as wildly inspired would indeed be an understatement of the century. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s McMurphy was a proud cynic of authority and what made his case for such a staunch stance even more profound stood in the person of the white stocking-wearing witch known as the stern Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).

McMurphy pushed buttons and played by his own against-the-grain rules as he tried to humanize his fellow mental patients and show them how to live outside of their controlled and restrictive environment where the flexibility of hope and freedom was nothing more than a foreign expectation at best. Nicholson’s McMurphy was not a choirboy in the least and he took being exasperating to the limit on several occasions. Still, McMurphy (and Nicholson for that matter) reminds us that the craziest route to take is sometimes one of the wisest chances being explored. And there is nothing that a self-serving sourpuss such as the wicked Nurse Ratched can do to dampen that kind of off-kilter, lingering spirit.


One can make the sound argument that the late and great method actor James Dean is the very embodiment of a movie rebel whose slow-burning moody antics of angst-ridden proportions is what solidified him as the voice of youthful America in the conservative Eisenhower-era America where early rock n’ roll tunes and Dean-oriented despair echoed the dissatisfaction of a young generation.

As everyone is aware Dean’s life was cut short in that horrific car crash that ended a promising film career that was destined for the cinematic stratosphere. Some would say that James Dean was the all-time rebel on and off the big screen and that his iconic turn as Rebel Without a Cause’s Jim Stark certainly put the icing on the cake as far as teen torment was concerned.

Jim is the new kid on the block as he must start over after leaving his troubled existences elsewhere. When he is not budding heads with this father Frank (Jim Backus) Jim must find an angle where he can prove his worth to his equally alienated peers. Fitting in with his peer group at school and other social scenes will take a toll as the risk-taking Jim will put everything on the line to go above and beyond his duty to make his presence known. Jim has his supporters in galpal Judy (Natalie Wood) and crony Plato Crawford (Sal Mineo) but it will take a series of switchblade showdowns and drag-racing challenges to let the community know that Jim Stark is here to stay.


Sometimes the unlikeliest rebel is driven by their nagging consciousness to do the right thing and expose corruption where silence and safety are best considered. Well, director Mike Nichols’s earnest biopic Silkwood certainly details the real-life murder mystery of an Oklahoma-based nuclear plant worker Karen Silkwood (played by the Oscar-nominated Meryl Streep for this particular portrayal) whose courageous if not risky whistle-blowing tactics regarding the Kerr-McGee plant’s dangerous and unethical practices may have caused her the ultimate price–her precious life. Silkwood’s sense of rebellion was undeniably unselfish as she put her neck on the line to upset the power plant’s misguided tactics that could actively jeopardize her personal welfare as well as those around her in a toxic environment in violation of spreading possible severe illness and death.

Karen Silkwood was a vulnerable yet unshakable Wonder Woman whose drive to shed some light on the unthinkable disastrous direction of her cynically principled employer conveyed a sense of dutiful bravery that made her stand out as a pressured pawn in the political potboiler of Nichols’s morality play commenting on the blue-collar sacrifice of humanity.


Filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s blistering urban drama Taxi Driver presents the calculating complexity of a disturbed insomniac-ridden ex-Vietnam vet named Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) whose sordid mission is to tackle the cesspool of humanity he witnesses on a nightly basis while driving a cab in the seedy darkened streets of New York City. Bickle is vehemently disgusted with the harsh hedonistic realities of his surroundings and deems it his personal goal to become the salty city’s (if not entire world’s) savior in bringing some needed decency and discipline during his nighttime travels in city-wide corruption, deterioration, and despair.

De Niro’s Travis Bickle is insanely delusional and an unstable loner whose only redeeming salvation and taste for violent impulses lies in his heavy-handed quest to tackle the ever-lasting sleazy transgressions of his fellow misguided man. Specifically, Bickle wants to bring some reforming and rescuing to a young teen prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster) whom he feels he needs to protect from the predatory gritty alleyways. Scorsese’s explosive and problematic protagonist rebelled against the worldly weariness that numbed him from the battlegrounds of the controversial Vietnam War to the inhumane war in the unsavory urban jungle of the Big Apple.


One certainly cannot argue the rebellious nature of a youthful and cynical Marlon Brando as The Wild One’s motorcycle gang leader Johnny Strabler from The Black Rebels. Rabble-rouser Strabler and his raw-minded renegades have a hearty taste for intimidation and insolence. In particular, Strabler was not a fan of conformity when it comes to authoritative figures so the natural instinct is to exploit the fears and vulnerabilities of the quaint communities they visited in bringing havoc to a motorcycle racing event.

After creating a dastardly disturbance in the first town that the Black Rebels instigated (they stole a second place racing trophy for the self-entitled Johnny) Strabler and his pack of punishers invade another small town where they learn to take complete control of the surroundings headed up by an indifferent sheriff and residents that only care if the motorcycle monsters muster up some much-needed revenue for their region. However, this outlaw biker icon in Brando’s Johnny Strabler is the typical, if not trend-setting, a showcase for misunderstood and troubled youth with symbolic bikes and leather attached to the ribaldry. The Wild One and its leading bad boy biker Strabler (not to overlook Lee Marvin’s menacing turn as rival Beetles’ gang leader Chino) have left an everlasting impact on the violent biker gang cinema scene as it explored the haughty attitudes of disconnected rebels looking for security in a world that is looking to be manhandled on their irreverent terms.


Actress Glenn Close scored a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress portraying the defiant and militant nurse with vehement feminist leanings in the potent dramedy “The World According to Garp.” Jenny was fiercely independent and had no dependency or devotion for men whatsoever. She did desire to have a child but obviously required a man’s biological touch to pull off her quest for motherhood without an anchor for a husband. Thus, Jenny’s unorthodox agenda to conceive a child involves “raping” a brain-damaged soldier in lethargic Technical Sergeant Garp to successfully impregnate her and grant her wish of motherhood without the attachment of a man at the marital hip. The result of her questionable relations with the dying ball turret gunner gave Jenny her treasured son TS Garp (Robin Williams), a devoted wrestling coach and fiction writer whom she raised all alone.

Jenny Fields is not always on the same page philosophically or emotionally with her son Garp. In fact, Garp constantly worries about his mother’s controversial stances in the world of sexuality and women-based exploitation and abuse. Jenny’s best-selling novel Sexual Suspect wins her critical acclaim especially among the ardent men-bashing feminists that hang on her every word. Also, Jenny’s women center catering to violated victims (which includes transsexuals) is another brewing concern to those that feel the outspoken nursing phenom’s presumed hatred for men is careening out of control. Jenny Fields, much to the detriment of her son Garp’s worries concerning her endangered life, is finally silenced when an assassin’s bullet takes her out at a political rally. Outraged and extremely heartbroken, Jenny’s mourning masses (known as the Jamesians) are out for blood in the name of their slain and rebellious leading voice–even if it means attacking the well-being of her surviving son in the conflicted TS Garp.



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