Hell's Angels rev up for legal battle with Disney over new film

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The Independent US

The movie in question is Wild Hogs, starring John Travolta and Tim Allen, and filming starts in the autumn for a release in 2007.

Disney describes it as a story about a group of budding motorcyclists who set out on a road trip, on which they run into a chapter of Hell's Angels. The real group says characters in the film are specifically identified as its members, wearing the organisation's famous death's head logo. They have accused Disney of not providing them with a copy of the Wild Hogs screenplay. A Disney spokesman dismissed the legal action as "without merit".

The Hell's Angels Motorcycle Corporation (HAMC) was founded in Fontana, California 1948, billing itself "a motorcycle enthusiasts' club", and now has chapters all over the world. The origins of the name are debatable. It first appeared in the 1930 film Hell's Angels, directed by Howard Hughes and starring Jean Harlow. Others contend it was set up by former members of the Hell's Angels B-17 bomber group from the Second World War, anxious to find new excitement after hostilities had ended.

Today, the group is an indelible symbol of a biker counterculture, existing within, yet at the same time apart from, American society; its riders and their ferocious-looking machines part of the legend of the American road. The dust-up with Disney is only the latest of many cases in which the organisation has crossed paths with the US entertainment industry.

The most notorious occasion was the 1969 Altamont concert, where Hell's Angels' members had been hired for crowd security. A scuffle developed while the Rolling Stones played "Under My Thumb" and in the mêlée a spectator was stabbed to death by an Angel, Alan Passaro. He was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence, and Hell's Angels said later the violence began only when elements in the crowd began to vandalise members' bikes.

Angels have featured, less controversially, in other Hollywood films, includingHell's Angels on Wheels, made in 1967 with Jack Nicholson and members of the Oakland chapter of HAMC.

At that time, Hunter S Thompson travelled with the Angels and recounted his adventures in the book Hell's Angels: the Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs that made his name as the main counterculture journalist of his era. The Angels also were closely identified with the Grateful Dead, an association chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

But there has always been a darker side to the organisation. In the United States and Canada in particular, Hell's Angels have been linked with crime and racketeering, most recently in the production and distribution of methamphetamine, a drug that is the scourge of rural and small-town America.

Hell's Angels says any such activities are the work of individual members, not the group as a whole. But in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, the Angels have been accused of widespread involvement in organised crime.