Marlon Brando plays Johnny Strabler and sports sideburns. He wears a black leather bomber jacket with epaulets and his name stenciled across the left side. All of Johnny’s riders have the symbol of a skull with two pistons criss-crossed beneath it on the backs of their leather jackets. Johnny leads the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. After they disrupt a motorcycle rally race in the nearby town, Johnny and his gang roll into the sleepy little town of Wrightsville where most of the action transpires. While they are in town, the BRMC riders guzzle lots of beer at Bleeker’s Café, cause a wreck on main street, and brawl in the street. An elderly man, Art Kleiner (Will Wright of “All the King's Men”), tools into town in his Ford when a group of cyclists plan to drag for beers. As they roar into the street, Kleiner swerves to avoid them and smashes his front fender on a telephone pole. One of Johnny’s riders, Crazy (Gene Peterson of “Hiawatha”) slams into Art’s Ford and injures his ankle. Initially, the locals embrace them, but the BRMC wear out their welcome quickly when they enrage a high-profile citizen, Charlie Thomas (Hugh Sanders of “The Pride of St. Louis”), when they tip his car over. Somebody mentions that Charlie has always been a bully since the third grade and he uses his standing in the town to respond to the threat that he feels the bikers pose. By the time that this has happened, a rival motorcycle gang, the Beetles, lead by Chino (Lee Marvin of “The Big Heat”) cruise into town. Chino steals a second place trophy that one of Johnny’s riders stole for him from the race. They are beating each other up when Charlie decides to move his car through the crowded streets. The local lawman, Sheriff Harry Bleeker (Robert Keith of “Duel of Champions”) does his best to look the other way, but he is forced by the townspeople to throw Chino in jail. Johnny complains about Charlie Thomas, but Charlie is such a big-wig that Harry refuses to jail him.
Later, Charlie mobilizes a vigilante committee, and they track down Johnny and beat him up. Things turn ugly when the motorcycle gangsters run Dorothy, the telephone operator, out of her office and nobody can get through to the state police. By this time, Frank Bleeker (Ray Teal of "Ace in the Hole") regrets having had anything to do with Johnny and his ruffians. Frank owns the local café and his niece Kathie Bleeker (Mary Murphy of "Live Fast, Die Young") has attracted Johnny's attention. During a scene in the café, a hair stylist dancing with one of Johnny's riders asks him what he is rebelling against with his outlaw gang. Johnny has no clue, "What do you got?" At one point, a gang of motorcyclists corner Kathie in a back ally, but Johnny roars in to her rescue and they later have brief romantic entanglement where they kiss. After Johnny has dropped her off, the vigilantes attack him. Eventually, Johnny escapes, but he is pursued by dozens of townspeople. Johnny races onto main street and somebody slings a tire iron at him. The tire iron strikes Johnny and knocks him off his cycle. The unmanned cyclist careens into a crowd of spectators and an old man, Jimmy (William Vedder of "The Senator Was Indiscreet"), dies when the bike hits him. Johnny barely misses going to jail when Sheriff Stew Singer (Jay C. Flippen of "Jet Pilot") arrives with two carloads of deputies. Based on some last minute testimony, Singer releases Johnny, but warns him, "I don't know if there's any good in you. I don't know if there's anything in you. But, I'm gonna take a big fat chance... and let you go." Johnny and the two motorcycle gangs leave town. Later, Johnny slips back into town alone and gives Kathie the stolen trophy. They smile and "The Wild One" concludes.