When Harry met Marlon

Getting the Prince to pose like Brando in The Wild One was a bad case of the blind leading the bland.

Andrew Calcutt

Topics Culture

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Prince Harry likes to bomb around on a motorbike, right? Let’s have him posed like Brando in The Wild One. Plugging into pop culture will electrify the House of Windsor brand. A chance to make amends for the Nazi uniform incident. Pop culture references never did Blair any harm when he was re-branding.

Having Prince Harry photographed astride a motorbike in the manner of Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953, but banned in Britain until the 1960s) was short-sighted. The photo was released over the weekend as part of Harry’s twenty-first birthday celebrations. People in Clarence House must know it’s terribly bad form if two women are seen together wearing the same clothes – the similarity invites unkind comparison. Thus it takes a brave girl to wear Marilyn’s dress and stand waiting for the air to blow up it. Similarly, to pose the prince a la Brando is foolhardy. It cannot but put Marlon and Harry in competition and so sets up the latter to lose.

Why was Harry born to lose this one? Compared with Brando, he wins a few points on teeth and bone structure; not even his smile rules him out necessarily. Almost as long ago as the release of The Wild One, a grinning Elvis proved there were more ways to be cool than the Miles Davis sulk. In the quest for cool, privilege is usually a disadvantage but need not be prohibitive: Peter York and Joe Strummer have shown this, more or less. No, the problem with Harry is not that he has never been said no to, rather that he looks like he does not know what to ask for.

Beauty is in the mind of the beholden, not just the eye of the beholder; that is, the ‘look’ of people who are being looked at is now dependent on the extent to which they can give physical expression to something interesting in their minds. Harry is not arresting to look at because there is no physical evidence of anything interesting going on in his head: his regular form lacks irregular content. He is Cyrano de Bergerac in reverse.

In Cyrano’s story, his nose, irregular and therefore taken to be ugly, belied a personality which was regular to the point of nobility. The story of Cyrano was dramatised at a time when regularity of form was as much admired as irregularity – difference – is celebrated today.

In today’s context, whether Harry was directed to strike it or even if it only became apparent at the picture editing stage, the Brando-esque pose is a case of the blind (blundering PR) leading the bland (when Harry meets Marlon, his lack of character is more prominent than his jawline).

Brando’s face, by contrast, seems fat with downcast determination and (then) a new kind of criticism. We recognise in him his own recognition of a world of possibilities, although in his case recognition takes the form of negation. ‘Whaddya got?’ – his terse reply to the question asked of him in The Wild One, ‘what are you rebelling against, Johnny?’ – managed to acknowledge and at the same time reject a universe of left- and right-wing ideologies, the codification of human possibilities, in only twice as many syllables as it takes to say ‘W’.

With Harry, what you see is what you get. In Brando, what we saw was what he was not getting – a ‘hunger for wholeness’ only partly explicable in terms of the sexuality which came to stand for it metaphorically. Thus there was something dynamic about Brando even when he was standing still. Harry, on the other hand, would have looked static even if the bike had been in motion when his picture was taken.

(It was not; he has not passed his test yet, and if it were moving he would have been obliged to wear a crash helmet. Come to think of it, Harry might have looked better with a helmet on: such are the difficulties facing the monarchy that nowadays the man behind an iron mask would look more kingly than his fresh-faced brother.)

Harry’s Brando pic was briefly a talking point, but, in the heritage museum of pop culture which we are all invited to live in, it prompted a curator’s rhetorical question – ‘isn’t it mildly interesting that he is imitating Brando and thus showing how uninteresting he is?’, rather than a direct response: ‘Wow, he looks like Brando.’ As such it will have done little to extend the values of Brand Windsor. Neither will it damage the royal brand as his mother’s image did.

The image of Princess Diana, queen of ‘battered this and battered that’, worked on the public imagination, and against the Windsors, by association with the lineage of alienated angst and cool victimhood traceable back to the Beats. Her ‘wasted youth’ interview with Martin Bashir on BBC Panorama followed the vogue for ‘heroin chic’ in the fashion magazines of the mid-1990s – that is, the attempt to give depth to the decade by reference to the cultural rebellion previously personified in mid-century drug users such as Alexander Trocchi (Cain’s Book) and William Burroughs (The Naked Lunch), and, subsequently, the likes of Keith Richards. Ironically, even as the Diana icon recapitulated the power of such figures, in offering these cultural reference points in a diluted form it diluted them too.

In the 1990s it was still possible to gain depth by reference to the descent of man as previously plumbed by the denizens of the counterculture. Ten years after, and the image bank of the underground is so over-ground, so much on the surface and therefore superficial, as to have lost any depth it once had. Poor Harry, even if he was interesting, cannibalising the counterculture is no longer the way to demonstrate it. How could it be, when its legacy has even been embraced by government?

Hence for those with family access to it, Islam is the new rock’n’roll. But that’s another story….

Andrew Calcutt lectures in cultural studies at the University of East London, and is author of Beat: The Iconography of Victimhood, published by Sheffield Hallam University Press.

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