Title: Easy Rider
Release Date: July 14, 1969
Director: Dennis Hopper
Production Company: Pando Company Inc. | Raybert Productions
I knew Easy Rider was a movie with two men on motorcycles while “Born to be Wild” plays in the background, but other than that I didn’t know what to expect. It turns out to be a much quieter movie than I expected, the kind of movie with lots of long conversations by campfires where what’s not being said is as important as what’s actually uttered. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) smuggle cocaine over the border from Mexico and sell it for a profit in Los Angeles. They then ride east with plans to go to Mardi Gras. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker (Luke Askew) who takes them to a dysfunctional commune for a few days. Later they meet an ACLU lawyer, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), in a Texas jail who joins them for a time. Finally, in New Orleans they drop acid in a cemetery with two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni Basil) in a devastatingly trippy sequence.
Probably because of the tie between Peter Fonda and his father Henry Fonda, I couldn’t help thinking of this movie as being a generational follow-up to The Grapes of Wrath. Wyatt and Billy even cross the same bridge in Arizona that the Joads crossed, just heading in the opposite direction. A farmer they eat with along the way could’ve been a Dust Bowl refugee as a child. And just as the Okies were hassled by small-minded locals and cops, the longhairs suffer similar discrimination. Nicholson’s George sums up the attitude best when he notes that the typical American talks a lot about individual freedom, but are scared when they see someone actually living it:
“I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of 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 movie is said to be representative of the Baby Boomer generation at its counterculture peak. But there is no “flower power” here. This is a portrait of a hopeless and directionless time, which lacks the optimism of a Tom Joad willing to fight for the people. It’s interesting that as this generation grew older, many (but far from all) affiliated themself with Tea Party and MAGA movements that would look down on longhairs like Wyatt and Billy rather than see them as representatives of their generation. But they do share the same sense of cynicism over losing “their” America.
The conclusion of the movie is shocking in much the same way as Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, I’d say it’s more of a shock since it depicts an act of completely senseless violence against people who had not been violent themselves. It’s a weird and unsettling finish to a movie that never seems certain about what kind of story it’s trying to tell and being totally okay with that too. I wouldn’t put Easy Rider in my greatest movies of all time list but it is an interesting time capsule for an era in American history as well as the evolution of American filmmaking.