It’s not just that a film projector and a bicycle are both identifiable by two round shapes that prove to be vital to their running, since the beginning of the cinema bicycles have been on our screens. If you look at 1895’s Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, the 46-second shot that some consider to be the first film ever made, there’s a bicycle being wheeled out by one of the Lumiere brothers’ departing staff members. Since then not only has there been many movies about the bicycle, especially a glut of documentaries on professional cycling, but the humble pedal-driven two-wheeler has found its way into the strangest cinematic locales, much as it has done in real life.
Best Use of a Bicycle to Thwart the Undead: World War Z (2013)
It is the zombie apocalypse, things are looking bad for humanity, and the mission to find a cure has taken Brad Pitt and some particularly fine hair (shoulder length, glinting, cool dad personified) to a U.S. military base in South Korea where some of the earliest reports of strange doings emanated from. He doesn’t find much – and his optimistic expert virology expert dies almost immediately – but the evacuation reveals that one way to avoid zombies is to use bicycles instead of motor vehicles: the lack of sound keeps the hungry brain-eaters unawares. The theory, cribbed from Max Brooks’ eponymous source material, does work, but then they start a transport plane engine…
Most Seductive Use of a Bicycle: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969)
In George Roy Hill’s revisionist western, which basically invented the modern buddy comedy, Paul Newman and Robert Redford make riding around on horses (and trading sardonic dialogue) look like the coolest thing in the world. So, naturally, when there’s wooing to be done, it’s time for a bicycle. “Meet the future,” declares Newman’s Butch to Katharine Ross’ Etta as he dinks her around a bucolic corner of the Wild West. Quite how she keeps her flowing white dress out of the spokes is unclear, but Butch’s simple stunts – he planks! – soon have him arm in arm with Etta.
Most Traumatic Bicycle Theft: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
And you thought it was time for the obligatory mention of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. In what may still be one of Tim Burton’s best films – rarely has the material so enlightened his aesthetic instead of merely confirming it – the adorkable man-child Pee-Wee Herman travels the length of America to recover his beloved red bicycle and its many associated gadgets. With just a touch of John Wayne in The Searchers, just a touch, Pee-Wee (if you’re young you may need a search engine) eventually ends up in Hollywood, where his bike is starring in a movie. Naturally.
Worst Attempt to Jump a Bicycle: Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Bicycle stunts in the movies tend to be triumphant or disastrous. In Jared Hess’ cult comedy, where oddball teenager Napoleon (Jon Heder) and doleful Pedro (Efren Ramirez) have just bonded over Pedro’s Sledgehammer mountain bike, it is most definitely the latter.
Best Valuation of a Bicycle in a Grim Dystopic Future: Time of the Wolf (2003)
The world – or at least France – has collapsed due to an unspecified disaster, and the attempt by Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) and her family to flee to their country villa has ended in abrupt, cold murder. Sitting in a train station that may never see a train again, Anne shares a cigarette with a seemingly rational woman who tells her that she’ll be able to trade the humble family bicycle with a group of rural men who’ve become powerful. In a time when the internal combustion engine is about to become extinct, a bicycle has genuine currency. Of course, the woman then starts talking about the traders as immortal gods. Her perceptions might be off, but the valuation is correct.
Most Obvious Portent of Doom Involving a Bicycle: City of Angels (1998)
It is a beautiful day, and Meg Ryan is at one with the world. Her character, the tender, beautiful, brilliant and anguished surgeon Dr. Maggie Rice has found emotional buoyancy, after her angel admirer, Seth (Nicholas Cage), has decided to embrace humanity and renounce his spectral state so he can bask in her perfection. (Seriously, at what point do you think Wim Wenders walked out of this Hollywood remake of Wings of Desire?) At her Lake Tahoe cabin, with Seth enjoying his first human shower, Maggie goes on an early morning bike ride, growing ecstatically happy and rolling down the ride with her eyes closed and arms wide open, embracing life and, seconds thereafter, a truck.
Most Violent Evocation of the Bicycle Business: Cyclo (1995)
In Tran Anh Hung’s pungent yet lyrical second feature, the poor unnamed cyclo who pedals his way on a rickshaw around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City to help support his family, is forced to join a crime gang run by a cruel pimp who also writes poetry (Tony Leung – was there anyone else who could play the part convincingly?) after his converted bicycle is stolen. It turns out that the city doesn’t have motorcycle gangs running criminal enterprises, it’s cyclo gangs, with one of the young and desperate protagonist’s most shocking acts a petrol bomb attack upon their workspace and bicycles. The innocence of the bicycle is explosively shattered.
Most Tragic Use of a Bicycle for Non-Bicycling Purposes: The Cider House Rules (1999)
In this decent adaptation of John Irving’s novel about a young man raised in a 1940s orphanage that doubles as an abortion clinic, Tobey Maguire’s naïve Homer Wells is trying to teach Rose Rose (Erykah Badu), the teenage daughter of picking crew boss Arthur Rose (Delroy Lindo), to ride a bicycle at the orchard where Homer has found a home. Despite the grim seriousness with which she’s undertaking the task, Rose keeps falling heavily on the frame’s top tube. Eventually it becomes clear, to Homer and the audience, that she’s doing it deliberately. The frightened girl is trying to force a miscarriage after her father has raped her.
Best Deadpan Destruction of a Bicycle: Rushmore (1999)
Bill Murray’s Herman Blume has just realised a plague of bees in his hotel room are the work of one time schoolboy protégé Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), with whom he has fallen out over their mutual attraction to a widowed primary school teacher. Impressed but desiring revenge – the emotions that flicker across Murray’s face are sublime – he drives to the public school Max has been exiled to in Wes Anderson’s brilliant second feature and proceeds to cut Max’s bike chain off and calmly drive his luxury car back and forth over the prostrate bicycle. The masterstroke: he takes the ruined bicycle back to the racks and neatly ties the broken chain back around the mangled front wheel.
Scariest Bike Rider: The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Miss Almira Gulch, who like the Wicked Witch of the West was played by Margaret Hamilton, descends on Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her Kansas farming family, determined to take the girl’s dog Toto and have it put down. There’s something about her forthright fanaticism and rigid posture that is terrifying, and she arrives on a bicycle in a way that is as scary as her parallel role atop a broomstick in Oz.