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.