Nobody went to see "Easy Rider" (1969) only once. It became one of the rallying-points of the late '60s, a road picture and a buddy picture, celebrating sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and the freedom of the open road. It did a lot of repeat business while the sweet smell of pot drifted through theaters. Seeing the movie years later is like opening a time capsule. It provides little shocks of recognition, as when you realize they aren't playing "Don't Bogart That Joint" for laughs.
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper play Captain America and Billy, journeying cross-country on their motorcycles, using a drug deal in Los Angeles to finance a trip to Mardi Gras. The drug is cocaine (sold to a dealer played by rock producer Phil Spector), but their drug of choice is marijuana. Billy gets the giggles around the campfire at night. Captain America, who could handle it better, is cool, quiet, remote, a Christ figure who flies the American flag on his gas tank, his helmet and the back of his leather jacket. (It would be a year later, after the release of "Joe," that flag decals were co-opted by the right.)
The making of the movie became a Hollywood legend. Fonda and Hopper took their screenplay (co-written with Terry Southern) to the traditional home of motorcycle movies, American-International Pictures. But Sam Arkoff turned them down, and they finally found funding at Columbia. The budget was so limited, there was no money for an original score, so Hopper, the director, slapped on a scratch track of rock 'n' roll standards for the first studio screening. The executives loved the sound and insisted the songs be left in, and "Easy Rider" begat countless later movies that were scored with oldies.
Motorcycle movies were not fashionable in 1969, although "Hell's Angels on Wheels" made an attempt in 1967 to break free of the booze-and-violence cliches. Directed by Richard Rush ("The Stunt Man"), it was a largely overlooked precursor to "Easy Rider," sharing the same cinematographer, Laszlo Kovacs, and even the same little-known actor in a colorful supporting role: Jack Nicholson, who played a gas station attendant named Poet. "Hell's Angels on Wheels" is a great-looking movie, but it took "Easy Rider" to link two symbols of rebellion -- motorcycles and the hippie counterculture -- and catch the spirit of the time.
"Easy Rider" was playing in theaters at about the time Woodstock Nation was gathering in upstate New York. It plays today more as a period piece than as living cinema, but it captures so surely the tone and look of that moment in time. There's heavy symbolism as Fonda throws away his wristwatch before setting off on the journey, and the establishing scenes, as Captain America and Billy stash their loot in a gas tank and set off down the backroads of the Southwest, are slowly paced -- heavy on scenery, light on dialogue, pregnant with symbolism and foreboding.
One of their bikes needs work, and they borrow tools at a ranch, leading to a labored visual juxtaposition of wheel-changing and horse-shoeing. Then they have dinner with the weathered rancher and his Mexican-American brood, and Fonda delivers the first of many quasi-profound lines he will dole out during the movie: "It's not every man who can live off the land, you know. You can be proud." (The rancher, who might understandably have replied, "Who the hell asked you?" nods gratefully.)
A hitchhiker leads them to a hippie commune that may have seemed inspiring in 1969, but today looks banal. A "performance troupe" sings "Does Your Hair Hang Low?" on a makeshift stage, while stoned would-be hippie farmers wander across the parched earth, scattering seed. "Uh, get any rain here?" Billy asks. "Thank you for a place to make a stand," Captain America says. The group leader gives the Captain and Billy a tab of acid and the solemn advice, "When you get to the right place, with the right people -- quarter this."
If "Easy Rider" had continued in the vein of its opening scenes, it's a good question whether anyone would remember it today. The film comes alive with the electrifying entry of the Jack Nicholson character, a lawyer named George Hanson whom they meet in a jail cell. (They have been jailed for "parading without a permit" after wheeling their bikes into a small-town parade.)
Historic moments in the cinema are not always this easy to identify: Nicholson had been in movies for years, but his jailhouse dialogue in "Easy Rider" instantly made him a star. "You boys don't look like you're from this part of the country," he says. He's an alcoholic lawyer on good terms with the cops; he arranges their release, supplies the name of a topnotch whorehouse in New Orleans, and says that he's started out for Mardi Gras many times without getting past the state line. That sets up the film's most famous shot: George on the back of Billy's motorcycle, wearing a football helmet.
Nicholson's work in "Easy Rider" created a sensation. Audiences loved his sardonic, irreverent personality and were primed for his next film, "Five Easy Pieces" (1970), with its immortal chicken salad sandwich dialogue. Then and now, "Easy Rider" comes alive while the Nicholson character is in the movie. That night around the campfire, he samples grass for the first time ("Lord have mercy, is that what that is?") and then explains his theory that extraterrestrials walk among us. He uses a confiding tone, sharing outrageous information as if he's conferring a favor; it would become his trademark.
George is killed shortly afterward, by rednecks who have seen them in a roadside cafe and decide they look "like refugees from a gorilla love-in." The impact of his death seems shortchanged in the movie, which hurries on to New Orleans.
Captain America and Billy find the legendary whorehouse and drop acid in the cemetery with two hookers (including Karen Black in one of her earliest film roles). It's a bad trip, but maybe they chose the wrong place with the wrong people.
The last act of the movie is preordained. There have been ominous omens along the way (and even a brief flash-forward to Captain America's flaming death). Rednecks in a pickup truck use a shotgun to blast both men from their bikes. The camera climbs high into the sky on a crane, pulling back to show us the inevitable fate, I guess, of anyone who dares to be different.
The symbolic deaths of heroes became common in movies after "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), and Pauline Kael noted in her "Easy Rider" review that "the movie's sentimental paranoia obviously rang true to a large, young audience's vision. In the late '60s, it was cool to feel that you couldn't win, that everything was rigged and hopeless."
One of the reasons that America inspires so many road pictures is that we have so many roads. One of the reasons we have so many buddy pictures is that Hollywood doesn't understand female characters (there are so many hookers in the movies because, as characters, they share the convenience of their real-life counterparts: They're easy to find and easy to get rid of.)
The motorcycle picture was a special kind of road/buddy movie that first came into view with Marlon Brando in "The Wild One" (1954), flourished in the late 1960s, and more or less disappeared a few years later. The movie grew out of pictures like "The Wild Angels" (1966, also starring Fonda), but it also expressed a notion that the counterculture believed in at the time: You could leave the city and return to more natural roots. A sweet idea, but one that did not coexist easily with drugs. In scenes like the one where Hopper and Fonda teach Nicholson how to inhale, there's a quietly approving air, as if life is a treatable disease, and pot is the cure.
But Billy is paranoid, probably because of all the grass he smokes, and in later scenes, they're oblivious to the dangers they invite with their strange appearance. (There's a scene where they excite teenage girls in a restaurant with their aura of sexual danger, and local Good Old Boys feel threatened and plot revenge.)
Many deep thoughts were written in 1969 about Fonda's dialogue in a scene the night before his death. Hopper is ecstatic because they've made it to their destination with their drug money intact. "We blew it," Fonda tells him. "We blew it, man." Heavy. But doesn't the movie play differently today from the way its makers intended? Cocaine in 1969 carried different connotations from those of today, and it is possible to see that Captain America and Billy died not only for our sins, but also for their own.
This essay is based on my 1994 re-review of the film, revised for inclusion in the Great Movies series. My original review is online at rogerebert.com, where there are also reviews of the similarly themed films "Hell's Angels on Wheels" and "The Wild Angels."
December 30, 2001
Easy Rider : A Historically American Classic
by Dustin Putman
After sampling the cocaine he is about to purchase in a Mexican drug deal, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) remarks, "Si pura vida (Yes, it's pure life)." Thus begins Easy Rider, the indelible 1969 drama about two social outcasts not afraid to be themselves who take to the open roads of the southwest on their patriotically decorated Harley Davidson motorcycles, headed for Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Directed by Dennis Hopper and co-written by Fonda and Terry Southern, the film is a multilayered, important film about striving for freedom in a conformist, frigidly corrupt America. Making Easy Rider a durable classic are the powerful, varied statements it makes, both about our culture and the individuality of the time period, as it speaks loudly, and differently, to everyone who sees it, whether they grew up in the '60s, were already adults, or had not yet been born.
1968, the year in which Easy Rider was filmed, was a year of great change and turning points in American society, with the Revolution in Paris; Russian tanks in Prague; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; Richard Nixon elected President; the American death toll in Vietnam going past the 30,000 mark; and the Woodstock concert. States film writer Peter Thompson of the web site, Encore Australia, "To many people all over the world, the Establishment, or the path of the straight and narrow, was looking sinister and the protest movement--the counter-culture-- was a promise of liberation and renewal." This fresh, disengaged lifestyle is largely represented in the characters of the smooth, introspective Wyatt and the shaggy, mustached Billy (Dennis Hopper), who are about as free as two people can possibly be, and having the time of their lives simply living. Wyatt and Billy, unmistakably alluding to Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, are modern-day cowboys who have replaced their horses for choppers, and sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll for guns and saloons. Planning to reach Louisiana and sell their bags of cocaine for an enormous sum of "easy" money, Wyatt and Billy stand for the American Dream in their beliefs that being financially well-off will give them further reason to continue joyously moving through life without a clear-cut destination in sight. Says Tim Dirks, of FilmSite.org, "their costumes combine traditional patriotic symbols with emblems of loneliness, criminality and alienation - the American flag, cowboy decorations, long-hair, and drugs." Further signifying their idiosyncratic view on life, Wyatt takes off his wristwatch near the beginning of the film and tosses it to the dusty ground, a literal, as well as allegorical, flourish that shows his new-found freedom and rejection of time constraints in modern society. Later, when they stop off at a horse ranch to change Wyatt's flat tire on his bike, Wyatt remarks to the rancher (Warren Finnerty), who has invited them to have lunch with his family, "You've got a nice place. It's not every man that can live off the land, you know. You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud." Wyatt is able to respect and admire other people's way of life, even while admitting that comfortable domesticity is not the road he himself was meant to travel. Another lifestyle is glimpsed upon when they pick up a gracious hitchhiker (Luke Askew) who leads them his happy, easy-going New Mexico commune of hippies, a place of idealized dreams which Wyatt and Billy find themselves comfortable at. Their way of dress and hairstyles mix effortlessly with the counter-culture of the commune. When Wyatt and Billy give a lift to two of the commune residents, Lisa (Luana Anders) and Sarah (Sabrina Scharf), to a hot spring across the mountain, the four of them erotically skinny-dip, suggesting the freedom they feel with their human bodies, and the innocence of a time period that may have been suffering from war, but had not yet been affected by deadly sexually-transmitted diseases. The freedom of sex and drugs is considered again in the climax, as Wyatt and Billy finally reach New Orleans. What follows is a whirlwind, acid-induced ride through the streets of Mardi Gras and in a gothic cemetery with two eager prostitutes (Karen Black, Toni Basil).
A third major character enters into the film in the form of southern ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), a genial, if slightly paranoid, alcoholic whom Billy and Wyatt meet in jail. They are arrested for "paradin' without a permit" in the middle of a red-white-and-blue celebration in Las Vegas, and George, a binge drinker experienced in the ACLU rule of law, is able to get his new friends out of jail for just $25. In an attempt to get away from the city for a few days, as well as avoid the disappointment of his wealthy, influential father, he joins Wyatt and Billy on their trek to New Orleans. Wearing his high school football helmet--a symbol of his reluctance to completely do away with his past as he looks on to the future--George hops behind Wyatt on his Harley, and the three of them zoom off together. It gradually becomes clear that George admires Wyatt and Billy, no more so than following a bad experience in a restaurant. Intending to have a nice meal, they are ignored by the waitress because of their long hair and non-conformist clothing, and looked at by the narrow-minded townspeople as if they are hardened, lethal criminals. Around a campfire, the three of them discuss the rejective society which Wyatt and Billy have encountered, and George laments freely about his concerns and theories on why they have not been accepted by the general public:George: This used to be a helluva good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it.George understands that Wyatt and Billy spark intolerance from the way they look, but as Tim Dirks of FilmSite.org says, "[he] reasons that they represent something much deeper and more fearful - freedom and experimentation in a materialistic, capitalistic society:" Making George's words all the more prophetic and tragic, that same night their camp is ambushed, and he is beaten and killed.
Billy: Huh. Man, everybody got chicken, that's what happened, man. Hey, we can't even get into like, uh, second-rate hotel, I mean, a second-rate motel. You dig? They think we're gonna cut their throat or something, man. They're scared, man.
George: Oh, they're not scared of you. They're scared of what you represent to 'em.
Billy: Hey man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody needs a haircut.
George: Oh no. What you represent to them is freedom.
Billy: What the hell's wrong with freedom, man? That's what it's all about.
George: Oh yeah, that's right, that's what it's all about, all right. But talkin' about it and bein' it - that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. 'Course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they're gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em.
The unconfined, liberating existence of Billy and Wyatt is very much a late-'60s ideal, and while their dreams remain relevant even today, their actions are largely a product of their times. Were Easy Rider made in 2001, the story and characters would lack the authenticity they held thirty years ago. Times have definitely changed over the last few decades, both for the good and the bad, and its portrayal of two outsiders almost aimlessly wandering through the landscapes of America on motorcycles, unrestricted in their marijuana usage, would not be as believable or admirable. In 1969, such a notion might have been inspiring. In the 21st-century, Wyatt and Billy would likely be viewed negatively as pot-headed losers without any worthy goals in life by those very people who might have felt the exact same way the characters felt in the '60s.
George Hanson could more proficiently stand outside of the film because he has found a well-paying profession as a lawyer. In other words, he has been able to adapt to the American norm and, thus, can be widely accepted by the other citizens of the nation. The drinking problem that George has gives him a human flaw not so out of the ordinary that people cannot recognize and sympathize with. Unfortunately, the relationship George evolves with Wyatt and Billy turns out to be his one misstep, as it is the ultimate cause for his death in the third act. This bleak plot development acts as foreshadowing for the danger that lies ahead for Wyatt and Billy, who are brutally murdered in a drive-by shooting by rednecks in the final scene. True to their characters, time period, and the suggestion that they are, indeed, a definite product of their times, they die doing what they love to do, despite the many objections of the side characters they encounter while on the road. Says Tim Dirks, "Death seems to be the only freedom or means to escape from the system in America where alternative lifestyles and idealism are despised as too challenging or free."
Whether Easy Rider embodies a mythic representation of the way Americans viewed themselves is up to those who lived through the 1960s to consider, rather than someone born in 1981. That the picture has stood the test of time and is still lovingly looked upon by viewers thirty years later, however, suggests that it is a celluloid version of "the real America." Time Magazine has even gone on to call the film "..one of the ten most important pictures of the decade," further proof of the lasting impression it holds. With an unforgettable soundtrack of classic '60s music, including Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" and The Band's "The Weight," Easy Rider is probably as close to the truth of being a rebel in 1969 as any one movie could be. It reflected and defined a moment in history, and it is remains a vivid record of a period of dynamic social change.
©2001 by Dustin Putman
Dirks, Tim. Greatest Films. "Easy Rider." http://www.filmsite.org/easy.html, 1997-2001.
Hopper, Dennis. Easy Rider. Columbia Pictures, 1969.
Thompson, Peter. Encore Australia. "Easy Rider." http://www.encoreaustralia.com, 2001.