Director: Dennis Hopper
Screenwriters: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern
By Roderick Heath
A few years ago, I went to a revival screening of Easy Rider in a town that’s something of a magnet for alt-culture people. I sat encamped literally and figuratively between two other generations, with some aging former hippies a row behind me, reminiscing with a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment, and a troupe of young people – late teens, early twenties – settled a few rows down, who had clearly not seen the film before and were there to bone up in their bohemian catechisms. The film’s infamous climax still had its effect: several members of the young troupe were left blubbering and clinging to each-other. Not bad for a movie often written off with that dread phrase, “time capsule.” What’s most fascinating about Easy Rider is that it continues to evolve: every time I’ve watched it it’s felt like a different movie. With my most recent viewing it felt not just still vital but disquieting, even shocking, in how relevant it felt. In its cumulatively devastating wrestle not just with general and pervasive worries of the modern world, but with specifically American symptoms of that worry, particularly gun violence. And a more elusive, existential dagnosis, a background hum of anxiety that’s only grown louder in the last few years. The loss of the pioneer spirit, so long celebrated in the culture, now like a narcotic addiction deadly to kick, the sense of the USA as a place on the move breaking down and squelching through the mud of Vietnam. Call it Hopper’s How The West Was Lost.
Easy Rider owed much of its genesis to beloved low-budget impresario Roger Corman, who had, as the exploitation film market evolved in the 1960s and the youth audience’s tastes grew more rowdier along with the ‘60s zeitgeist, set out to please them with films about various precincts of the culture like the biker movie The Wild Angels (1966) and the LSD experimentation flick The Trip (1967). Both of those films starred Peter Fonda, son of Hollywood legend Henry and brother of fellow rising star Jane. The Trip also sported a small supporting performance from Dennis Hopper, and was written by Corman’s star discovery and acting protégé Jack Nicholson. American International Pictures, the low-rent but high-energy exploitation film studio Corman had helped make into a force, also made “hippiesploitation” films like Richard Rush’s Psych-Out (1967). Those films were interesting and popular with the kinds of young folk rushing to the countercultural scene, but also held in not-so-faintly sarcastic amusement by many of them, as movies that strained to encompass an experience based around rejecting establishment entertainment factories run by old people trying to get their heads around the scene and treading fine censorship lines.
Easy Rider proved a key moment in the changeover to a new generation of filmmakers now often called the New Hollywood, following Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967) but excelling both in reaping credibility as a work of generational, artisanal authenticity. Hopper and Fonda were, despite their flirtations with mainstream stardom, leading figures in Hollywood’s rising bohemian scene and drug culture. Few expected much better of the notoriously combative and wilful Hopper, who had already torpedoed his Hollywood acting career once and was still on a comeback trail, but Fonda was seen as foiling a promising career in becoming “a bit of a dropout.” Somewhere out on the fringe of Hollywood legend Hopper and Fonda decided, after their experiences on those Corman films, to make a movie that would nail down a more immediate and personal piece of expression contending the ructions gripping America at large and the various new and old concepts of society it contained. Hopper, with his experience in photography and general livewire energy, would direct, and for a script Fonda approached Terry Southern, then a very popular and famous writer for his erotically-tinged and satirical novels and co-writing Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) with Stanley Kubrick. The film also presented a translation-cum-riposte to On The Road, Jack Kerouac’s novel which had popularised the “Beat” movement as the first post-war manifestation of a new bohemian culture, but where Kerouac and the other Beats had been charged with electric positivity Hopper confronted a national mood rapidly turning sour and balkanized.
After failing to get Corman and AIP to back them, nervous as they were about Hopper directing a movie, Fonda obtained a roughly $400,000 budget from Columbia Pictures, but also paid for elements of the production out of his own pocket. That Fonda sought out Southern indicated the larger aim of the project, which was to create a kind of contemporary take on classic texts about wandering seekers like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Voltaire’s Candide, the latter of which Southern had already burlesqued as his novel Candy. The film’s shoot was messy and contentious, starting with writing credits: Hopper later claimed he had to write most of the movie when Fonda and Southern were taking too long, Southern said the two actors suddenly wanted credit when it was clear the movie would be a hit, and Fonda’s contributions to making the film were overshadowed by Hopper, whose difficult behaviour on set was often trying, setting the scene for his brilliant meltdown with The Last Movie (1971). Rip Torn, hired to play the supporting role of George Hanson in part thanks to his friend Southern, got into a fracas with Hopper that would prove the subject of litigation decades later, and in more immediate consequence Torn was sacked. Nicholson was swiftly hired to take over and brought onto the shoot several weeks in. The initial intent of picking up crewmembers along the route of the shoot saw Hopper constantly struggling to keep control of the set, and after Hopper got into a fistfight with a camera operator he and Fonda finally hired a professional crew. By the end of production all of the customised bikes Fonda and Hopper had rode in the film had been stolen.
Despite all that, Easy Rider proved an instant cause celebre upon release, capturing the Camera d’Or at Cannes and becoming a runaway hit with levels of profitability starkly contrasting the weak returns for many a big-budget bomb a faltering and sclerotic Hollywood was putting out at the same time, and set the big studios to eagerly producing imitations. Of course, that didn’t last, any longer than the hippie-era dream did. For all the film’s repute as a specific epochal touchstone, it would only require a few revisions and a shift of hipster lingo to seem a product of today’s independent film scene. Part of that’s because Hopper and Fonda wisely didn’t make a movie about hippies. Certainly both of their characters in the film, carefully contrived to be iconic, are harassed and repelled for their long hair and nonconformist ethos, but they are finally as alienated from the actual emissaries of the counterculture they encounter as they are from the thuggish hicks who dog the last legs of their journey. Whilst the communes and love-ins might have fallen by the wayside, the world is still full of people like the protagonists of Easy Rider.
Easy Rider only drops hints about who Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt, aka Captain America (Fonda) are and what they do: Billy declares to some cops who jail them, “We’re headliners, baby – we’ve played every fair in this part of the country!”, suggesting they’re musicians or possibly professional motorcycle stunt riders: it was made clear in Hopper’s early, much longer edit the latter is the case. In the film’s opening moments, however, they’re more exactly portrayed as entrepreneurial drug dealers, buying a wad of cocaine from a Mexican dealer named Jesus (Antonio Mendoza) in a junkyard. The two men merrily sample the goods and take it to Los Angeles, where they sell it on to a bigwig in a Rolls Royce near the airport, played, in a touch of alarming humour, by the record producer and future murderer Phil Spector, glimpsed snorting up white powder and giving the nod to his chauffeur to pay the men with a satchel full of cash: origin myth for the official fuel of the New Hollywood scene. The two sellers this time demur from sharing in the coke with their client, who pays up before sliding on leather gloves, whilst airplanes roar overhead, rendering the exchange a peculiar mime act. Hopper semi-ironically cues up the band Steppenwolf’s song “The Pusher” on the soundtrack, with its cool, clicking opening guitar lick and lyrics damning “the pusher man,” straddling the line between outlaw cool and seediness, espousal and disavowal. The two pals drive into the California desert in their battered, anonymous pick-up truck and, in the privacy of a garage where they keep their two, flashy, customised Harley-Davidson motorcycles, they prepare for their imminent journey.
Hopper’s evident influences quickly nod to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos as he lovingly surveys the choppers, gleaming chrome forms clashing with jaunty painted colours decorating the gas tanks. Wyatt carefully bundles up the cash in a tube he then secrets in his gas tank, which has the American flag painted on it. An ingenious detail that expresses the street-smarts of the heroes in protecting their hard-won fortune, whilst also doubling as a sly symbol, cash the literal fuel of escape and the septic heart of the American dream. Hopper continues to eye the choppers out in the sun, machines of personal deliverance ironically constructed through a zenith of industrial art, a perfect fusion of form and function, ambition and truth. The two men also seem to cast off their other identity, the one that did the drug deal, as Wyatt dresses up in his “Captain America” livery, knight for a new age, with Billy his hairy, buckskin-clad, more primitive companion. The nested points of pop culture reference nod to both the beloved comic book hero Captain America whilst also signalling it’s only the latest incarnation of the classic American hero, as Wyatt and Billy recall the gunslinger heroes of the Wild West and a million Westerns, heading out to backtrack through the westward colonising sprawl and catch up how things are going. As a final gesture of repudiation, Wyatt, after checking his wristwatch after being asked the time by Billy, slips the watch off, gives it one last glare, and drops it by the roadside. Beginning a motif that pervades the film, Hopper splinters time in this moment with cinema tricks – quick edits and a small but disorientating outward zoom. The two men roar off, engines fading as they burrow into the landscape.
The opening credits finally roll, with another Steppenwolf song blaring, this time, with more totemic impact: “Born To Be Wild” accompanies the two riders as they own the road and incarnate a generational fantasy, a unit of sound and vision easily quotable in other movies and TV commercials over the next few decades. The high of pure open road freedom lasts exactly as long as the credits, at the end of which the riders try to get a room at a remote hotel for the night but find the owner ignores them, turning on the No Vacancy sign. The two men camp out, and the nominal goal of their expedition emerges: the two men are heading for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, hoping to indulge hedonistic splendours. Billy’s signature nervous energy contrasts Wyatt’s removed and meditative aspect, which he describes “just gettin’ my thing together,” whilst Billy jokes about “fightin’ cowboys and Indians on every side,” tipping a hat immediately to the underlying thesis informing the character names and also allowing the characters some hip distance from the association. Next morning Wyatt pads around the patch of desolation where they camped, with abandoned houses and shacks and scattered debris, signs of one outpost of the spread of America that didn’t quite take. Such signs fascinated Wyatt, as if a crucial part of getting his thing together is making himself muse on such scenes and feeling out the ghosts of the land. One shot wistfully scans a pioneer shack with a modern electricity tower in the background with a sense of the dizzying progress from one to the other.
This kind of scene quickly became a bit of an Americana cliché in indie films (in Antonioni’s late-to-the-party Zabriskie Point, 1970, for instance, and also still often evoked, for instance in Aaron Morehead and Justin Benson’s films). Still it retains a special, spectral quality here, in large part thanks to Hopper’s odd, stuttering editing, linking scenes with a signature effect that’s neither dissolve not straight cut but instead flashes between shots into staccato fragments, setting the sense of cinematic time in flux and forcing the viewer to share the disorientated viewpoint of the characters. A major aspect of Easy Rider’s impact in its time and now, very apparent in this interlude, was Laszlo Kovacs’ cinematography. Kovacs, born in Hungary, had become friends with fellow cinematography great Vilmos Zsigmond. The two former film students had filmed secret footage of the doomed Hungarian revolt against Soviet hegemony in 1956. They hiked out of the country but couldn’t find any interest in their smuggled footage for years, and after some time working manual labour jobs both eventually started getting work on low-budget films. Both men worked on infamous poverty row auteur Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Incredibly Strange Zombies Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1966), and the surprisingly good look of that film led to Kovacs getting hired by the likes of Richard Rush on Psych-Out and Peter Bogdanovich for his Targets (1968). On those two films he mooted the visual lexicon that became a pillar of the New Hollywood look, at once gritty and grainy but also lustrous, charged with both artistry and immediacy.
Kovacs might well have felt specially plugged into what Easy Rider set out to do as it mirrored his own experience to a certain extent, as an exile drawn to worship the American landscape in images. Long passages of Easy Rider simply and wisely allow Kovacs’ images to speak for themselves. At times they drink in the mountains and plains and roads with the expansive awe and grace of David Lean but constantly alternated with patches of quasi-abstraction as if recreating modernist paintings photographically, and vigorous use of zoom lensing that mimics documentary filmmaking language and using lens flare effects to help create a sun-washed atmosphere. When the bikers camp out in John Ford’s favourite amphitheatre of Monument Valley, Kovacs’ camera swings around in a long, dreamy arc, surveying the bluffs and mesas burned to grainy masses against a simmering twilight. Most of the film was shot with purely natural light, intensifying the rugged poetry. The geometrical struts of steel bridges, the high crags and snow caps of mountain ranges, surveys of pueblos and factories, shipping terminals and tumbledown shacks – the landscape in Easy Rider is given rare contemplation as a more than just pictorial interest but a domain of wonderment.
In the first of the film’s on-the-road vignettes, Billy and Wyatt stop at a ranch in Arizona. They ask the rancher (Warren Finnerty) and his hand, as they’re busy shoeing a horse, if they can repair a flat on Wyatt’s chopper. The rancher generously lets them use a shed and their tools, and extends his hospitality to inviting them to lunch. The two guests eat with the rancher’s wife (Tita Colorado) and their small army of children, whose presence the farmer attributes to his Catholic wife, and Billy upon request bashfully takes off his hat as the family say grace. This interlude presents Billy and Wyatt ironically with something very close to what they’re seeking virtually, or at least something worth finding, as soon as they set out, in a touch plainly inspired by Candide, in which the wandering heroes stumbled upon El Dorado early in their travails and found the demi-paradise where the locals had contempt for the plentiful riches around them, but the heroes were themselves doomed to move on through the world. Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1971) would offer a similar vignette when its seeker-exile hero stumbles into a William Blake-esque vision of an English rural idyll. The kind of perfection is undeniable but also perhaps useless to men like Billy and Wyatt. The rancher’s so out of touch he doesn’t know the acronym L.A., and once it’s explained notes, “What I was a young man I headed out for California…but…well, you know how it is.” Wyatt nonetheless congratulates the farmer, recognising the worth of what he has: “It’s not every man who can live off the land, you know? You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud.”
This is immediately contrasted with a commune full of dropouts urgently trying to reverse-engineer themselves into the same breed of propagating and effectual being. The bikers encounter a hitchhiker, credited as the Stranger on the Road (Luke Askew), who proves to be a member of this commune, and thanks them by extending their own limited hospitality. The Stranger, one of the unofficial leaders of the commune, seems a very interior and spiky personality on the road, speaking in gnomic stoner riddles and chiding the bikers for their obliviousness when they camp for the night in a ruined pueblo near Monument Valley (“You’re right on top of them – the people this place belongs to are buried right under you…You could be a trifle polite.”). The Stranger nonetheless pays for their petrol, filling Wyatt’s gas tank much to Billy’s fretfulness, and once they arrive at the commune the Stranger shows them the brace of lanky, famished young would-be dropouts, all city kids, seeding the earth by hand, a shambolic but necessary step in trying to get the commune self-sufficient.
The commune was based on the New Buffalo commune outside Taos, New Mexico (the filmmakers couldn’t get permission to shoot there, and instead recreated it in Malibu), and the bikers and their charge are glimpsed riding past the famous pueblo structure in Taos on the way there. The commune itself is an ultimate expression of the 1960s counterculture moment but of course also an idea with deep roots in American life, like the Transcendentalist communities of the 1800s, as well as the less self-conscious project of untold numbers of colonial settlers. The scenes in the commune are the most dated in Easy Rider but also encompass such a time and place with anthropological zest, blending yearning sympathy and more than a little scepticism. Hopper notes the incidental sexism ingrained in the set-up as the women work in the kitchen whilst the young men try to work the fields, but also the louche, non-possessive approach to sexuality. Hopper populates the place with a cross-section of scenesters, from men dressed as swamis to a band of improv theatre actors (referring to themselves as “Gorilla Theatre”) in guises like Victorian stage villain and carnival row Cleopatra, and a skinny, blissed-out hippie Jesus named Jack (Robert Walker Jr) who leads them in a group prayer and improvises sinuous, incantatory, yogic dance moves that would be recreated by Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (1979). Wyatt explores the commune building, one part old Celtic roundhouse, one part nativity barn, with plastic-sheeted skylight for Wyatt to resume his sun worship.
Billy becomes increasingly jittery in such surrounds, particularly when the Stranger wards him off from a confab of the communards by implying he might be a narc, and soon Billy wants to split. Wyatt, more at ease, reminds him that they’ve been eating some of the commune’s limited resources, and feels this obliges them to do a favour for comely communards Lisa (Luana Anders) and Sarah (Sabrina Scharf). These two liberated lasses dig the two hot strangers and draw them out not for a chore but for an interlude of lyrical play, skinny dipping with them in the flooded cellar of a riverside building in a scene that comes closest out of the any in the film to offering familiar, what’s-marked-on-the-tin celebration of life on the road. Hopper however makes clever use of The Byrds “Wasn’t Born To Follow” in these scenes, with its alternations between lightly skipping guitar picking and lyrical paeans to romping in nature, and passages dipping into heavily produced, spacy-sounding throbbing, as if the bad trip is trying to break out, so even at the film’s most relaxed and lyrical there’s a sense of strangeness persisting: Wyatt has to be coaxed into full engaging with the play, and even then begins sinking back into his musing state. Hopper including Anders in the film was a nice homage to them working together on Curtis Harrington’s 1961 film Night Tide, a movie that broke Hopper’s film acting exile. The commune inhabitants and their guests gather in a circle to offer a prayer of success for the crop they’ve planted, led by Jack the hirsute freak-saint. Hopper has the camera pivot around their silent and expectant faces as he did with the rancher’s children, finding much the same mixture of naiveté, frustration, and inward-drifting boding, until Jack begins speaking, with his benediction concluding, “Thank you for a place to make a stand.”
The disparity between Wyatt’s contemplative persona, appraising what he sees with a generous and optimistic eye, and Billy’s fidgety, nervous, livewire energy and fixation on fulfilling his appetites, reflect distilled and purposefully exaggerated versions of Fonda and Hopper themselves. Billy’s childlike streak is brought out as he plays with the commune kids. Wyatt praises the farmer, decides of the commune dweller they encounter that “They’ll make it,” and delivers the film’s final, famous epitaph with the measured meaning of a man who finds for all his efforts just cannot escape from his own company. Fonda’s inhabitation of the film anticipates where his own directorial efforts would drift on The Hired Hand (1971) and Idaho Transfer (1973), more overtly concerned with the permeable and insubstantial nature of character and fracturing of time, whilst Hopper would also more ostentatiously fragment linearity on The Last Movie but would also sustain his sardonic edge of social commentary and zeitgeist reflection in that film and his follow-ups Out Of The Blue (1980) and Colors (1988). The sense of preordained failure upon Wyatt and Billy’s excursion is underlined when, near the end of the film, Wyatt has a flash vision of the fate before them. As if seeking out some chance to go deeper and so come back out further, Billy accepts from the Stranger a tab of LSD which the Stranger recommends he wait for the ideal time and place to take.
The two bikers move on, but quickly find themselves thrown in a small town police lock-up after they accidentally ride into the midst of a parade and get in on the act. They find aid in an unlikely place, that is, sharing their cell: George Hanson, a sometime ACLU lawyer and semi-pro drunkard, awakens from one sleeping off one of benders, setting off Billy’s aggression with his bumbling, but easing his way through shows of wry, drawling charisma and conciliation with both his fellow prisoners and the duty cop who brings him a cup of coffee and an aspirin. George warns them about the hair-clipping tendency of the local cops: “They’re tryin’a make everybody look like Yul Brynner.” When Billy asks if he can get them out of the clink, George answers, “I imagine that I can if you haven’t killed anybody – ‘least nobody white.” True to his word, George succeeds, handling their release with practised bonhomie. Taking his first morning swig of the hair of the dog with a toast to “Old D.H. Lawrence!, George performs a ritual like a cold engine turning over with the first shock of liquor in his tongue, punctuated by a random phrase (“Indians!”… “Firefly!”), an act a little reminiscent of “Nick Va-Va-Voom” in Kiss Me Deadly (1955) but apparently inspired by a mechanic working on the film bikes. When told where the bikers are heading, George muses on how he’s often started off for Mardi Gras but never got further than the state line, and brandishes a card given to him by the Governor of Louisiana, advertising a brothel in New Orleans called Madame Tinkertoy’s House of Blue Lights: “Now this is supposed to be the finest whorehouse in the South. These ain’t no pork chops, these are US prime.”
Nicholson’s performance as Hanson immediately paved the way for him becoming a mainstream star, playing a vivid character role that’s also a perfect springboard to show star quality, as a complimentary but also antithetical personality to the two leads. George like them is a substance abuser, moreover a heavy, self-destructive one, but his drug of choice is legal and socially acceptable, and it fuels his sociable and charming streak: George seems like the kind of guy who’s a hell of a lot of fun to be around at least until his liver packs it in. George contains aspects of Wyatt’s thoughtfulness and Billy’s rowdiness and gifted with articulateness all his own, musing on the meaning of the constantly encountered hostility the bikers encounter constantly. It’s easy to assume George is something of a self-portrait from Southern injected into the movie, as a perma-sozzled Texan wag both attracted to but also fatefully alien to the counterculture, translating the more allusive intent of Hopper and Fonda into something the viewer can readily digest. It’s George who spells out the uneasy nature of modern freedom in America, the two bikers embodying it and noting it’s easy to be jealous when “You’re bought and sold on the marketplace.” When George admits he wishes he was going with the bikers, Wyatt asks if he has a helmet, to which George slyly replies he does: cut to the bikers roaring down the highway, now with George riding with Wyatt, wearing his old high school football helmet. The three men have a blast as George enjoys his first motorcycle ride, his childlike gestures inspiring Billy to perform tricks on his bike, and waving to the people they pass.
George is also the star of the film’s one real lengthy dialogue scene and moment of comic bravura. As they camp out for the night, Wyatt offers him a joint, which George has also never done before, assuming at first it’s a normal cigarette. George is uncertain at first, reciting the much-mocked square line that it leads to harder stuff, and when he does take his first few puffs doubts it’s doing anything to him. Nonetheless, after Billy reports seeing an object in the sky like a satellite grazing the atmosphere, George declares it’s probably a UFO, explaining that’s seen them before, and launches into an explanation of how Venusians have been infiltrating human society for years, aiming to help it evolve into a state like theirs, devoid of “antiquated systems.” “How’s your joint, George?” Wyatt asks when he’s finally done. The basic gag of the neophyte dope smoker falling under its influence without realising is good, but more interesting and substantial is the way the scene extends the driving notion that the psyche of the average, ordinary person is a deeply weird place filled with startling assumptions and only needs a little pharmaceutical coaxing to reveal. George’s rant presages the oncoming New Age crazes of the 1970s and on, retreating from open confrontation with the modern world’s hard borders into fantasias of alternate realities and a search for new incarnations of old spiritual urges, of which UFOs would be a singular example. And yet also offers a bizarre yet on-point brand of social satire as George notes that human beings with their social hierarchies and “leaders upon whom we rely for the release of this information” would be completely inimical to the Venusians because “each man is a leader.” In this regard Easy Rider becomes a kind of science fiction film.
Hopper’s initial edit of Easy Rider was very long, and at the request of executive Burt Schneider Henry Jaglom, a young filmmaker and future cult director in his own right, was brought in to reedit the film, much to Hopper’s initial aggravation, and he later commented that others, including Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, also made editing contributions. To Jaglom’s credit, he seems to have understood the movie Hopper wanted to make, excising elements more like other films of the type, including an early scene of Wyatt and Billy outrunning cops when bringing their drug haul over the border from Mexico, and instead lingering on the journey, creating an exemplar of a mode of picaresque storytelling soon dubbed the road movie. Whilst hardly the first road movie made (Francis Ford Coppola had, for instance, released his The Rain People a year earlier), Easy Rider nonetheless created a craze for the subgenre over the next few years, with such movies like the also Fonda-starring Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971), and Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), as well as gentler variants like Paper Moon (1974), and Monte Hellman’s even more reticent and allusive take Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Meanwhile it wielded immediate sway over filmmakers like Rafelson himself and Terrence Malick, and even David Lynch likely took some inspiration from the trip scene for the churning dreamworld industrialism of Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980). Easy Rider’s impact on the independent American film scene can barely be overstated, either, still reverberating in the films of Kelly Reichardt, David Lowery, Chloe Zhao, Debra Granik, Jeremy Saulnier, and Nia DaCosta.
The first of the film’s two wrenching pivots of tragedy is set up when the trio roll into a small Southern town and go into a diner. There they find themselves objects of fervent fascination from some girls, but also of aggressive and contemptuous appraisal by some men, including the local sheriff. To get the desired effect out of the regional men he had hired for the scene, Hopper told them these longhair blow-ins were paedophiles and murderers. The palpable sense of exposure and imminent violence in the scene and indeed the film’s last third helped birth another subgenre over the next few years, particularly with the release of Deliverance (1972), as murderous and depraved rednecks would become a favourite movie monster. Hopper, Fonda, and Southern were channelling the very real rough treatment often turned on hippies in such locales but also reflected the uneasy spectacle and earned infamy of the previous decade a more of racial strife. The irony of it all, as George muses, is that it reflects, in a country so devoted to the idea of freedom, how the actual exercise of it deeply offends and frustrates some. Also inferred here is Hopper’s mediation on the uneasy relationship between the actual America and its mythologies, particularly the cinematic kind, a theme he would become more explicit in expressing in The Last Movie.
One sharp irony for Hopper was that his other acting role of 1969 was in Hathaway’s True Grit (1969), a film that gained John Wayne an Oscar at last and neatly summarised that American mythos in its most classical form, the Western film. In an America weaned on tales of expansion and progress, of enterprise and self-reliance, of gun-wielding heroes bringing order to the wilderness, to encounter any kind of stymie in terms of class, milieu, and education is to be cheated, a loss which cannot be expressed without questioning the holy national mythos, and so must be turned on anyone trying to move on. Easy Rider diagnoses a great American ill, the pain of the loss of the pioneer spirit and its attendant ideals and illusions. Without heroic roles to play, however distantly, when immersed in such a mythos, people starve spiritually; guns meant to take out varmints instead are itchily trained on anything that offends, that gives testimony to one’s actual impotence. The further east they travel, the more Billy and Wyatt contend with the losers of history, the places left behind in the great westward sprawl and the great northern victory, experiencing devolution. “This used to be a helluva good country,” George avows sadly, although of course such nostalgia for the old weird America comes laced with ironies: not so much if you were Black or Native American, but then they were part of the same ecstatic flux too. Billy and Wyatt try to skip the problem through their own variety of alternative capitalism, and their original sin is not so much purveying illegal narcotics than of imagining that in some way could excuse them from dealing with the world.
It’s in engaging with this theme that Easy Rider becomes something near-unique, leading to its disturbing final scenes that see the thesis crystallised in increasingly dark fashion. Camping out for the last time in their journey to New Orleans, George says his piece about the problems of freedom. After the men fall asleep and their fire burns down, a number of men, likely many of the same ones from the diner, sneak up on the camp and begin beating the sleeping men with bats and branches. Billy manages to wrestle out his knife and slash out whilst screaming wildly, sending the attackers scurrying away, but he finds Wyatt dazed and bloodied and George dead, killed seemingly whilst still dead asleep, saved the pain of waking to the cruellest disillusion. Once Wyatt recovers they bundle George up in his blanket and search through his belongings, which prove scant. In the most blunt and bravura of his jump-cuts, Hopper leaps Billy and Wyatt eating in a swank New Orleans restaurant the next day, still wearing the bruises of their beating: as they eat, Billy talks Wyatt into going to Madame Tinkertoy’s as George wanted. The surreal segue from the scene of death to the place of fine dining elides just what the two bikers did about George’s death: did they report it to the cops, and take the chance of having it pinned on them, or did they leave him by the road?
Madame Tinkertoy’s, when Billy and Wyatt arrive there, proves to be a plush but tacky space replete with kitschy religious décor, fake baroque trimmings, and other trappings of an Old World inheritance, including paintings of obscure personages of another age. Many of the “US prime” stable of prostitutes are aging women with too much makeup on, others are plainly bored and zoned out, whilst others ply desperate attempts to be with-it, like one of the hookers shimmying on a table-top. Billy tries to live up to his kid-in-a-candy-store fantasies as he gets boozy and clingy with some of the women. Wyatt turns evermore inward and melancholy, surveying the fake religious trappings and painted philosophical missives on the walls and musing on Voltaire’s maxim, “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.” Billy and Wyatt are stashed in an antechamber to await their selected partners for the night. The Madam (Lea Marmer) ushers in Karen (Karen Black) and Mary (Toni Basil), two attractive young women who nonetheless suggest doppelgangers of Lisa and Sarah, those women’s free-and-easy vivacity exchanged for blowsy working sexiness. “Do you mind if I take the tall one?” Billy asks his pal. Wyatt, at a loss for what to do, eventually suggests they all head outside to experience Mardi Gras. They wander amidst the contrived spectacle and controlled weirdness of the holiday, the foursome desperately trying to alchemise their random association into some semblance of fun and connection and orgiastic flux.
At last they take refuge in the Basin Street Cemetery with its famous above-ground sepulchres, and there Wyatt has an inspiration, breaking out the acid tab the Stranger gave him and sharing between the four of them with the advice, “Just shut up and take it.” But the acid proves bad, and the foursome are stricken with an array of violently alternating states amidst the graves. The graveyard trip is one of my favourite scenes in cinema, as the rhythmic thump of a steam drill operating nearby is transformed into a doom-laden toll and pumping heartbeat of a monster whilst the bad trip is illustrated in a free-fall extravaganza of fisheye and zoom lensing, flash cuts and handheld shots, images ghostly and washed-out alternating with patches of damaged, colour-blotched film. Wyatt and Mary jam themselves between sepulchres, Mary stripping off and sprawling in the rain like a sylph whilst Wyatt arranges himself into a blank pop-art placard, the American flag on his jacket turned as a frightened placard; Karen moans about having a child and Billy excitedly caresses her thighs and bangs her over a tombstone. The technique in this scene owes much to experimental filmmakers, but achieves its own fresh, fascinating power in a new context, communicating the depth of a squall of interior feeling in a system of images that manage to avoid the by-then-already familiar clichés of on-screen trippiness and enter in a state remote, surreal, recessive, punctuated by flashes of intense and inchoate emotion, from Karen wailing to Wyatt clinging to a statue and experiencing a powerful wave of sorrow mingled with anger for his mother – emotions which came from Fonda himself in musing on his own late mother.
Watching this scene now reminds me that perhaps I’ve met more young women these days than young men on voyages like Wyatt and Billy – young men today find it far too easy to slip back into the amniotic illusions of gaming, for instance. Again, Hopper leaves the scene pointedly unresolved in any traditional sense, the maelstrom of emotion and disorientation suddenly left behind like the city, as Wyatt and Billy return to the road, this time more with the look of men fleeing than moving towards something. A great part of Easy Rider’s impact then and now, although I think has sometimes overstated, comes from the mostly pitch-perfect use of pop music on the soundtrack, including the Steppenwolf and Byrds songs mentioned and also pointed use of Jimi Hendrix’s troubled individualist anthem “If 6 Was 9,” The Band’s elegy to pay-it-forward fellowship “The Weight,” and the Electric Prunes’ eerie “Kyrie Elieson” used as an ironically eerie and spiritual counterpoint to the shots in the restaurant just after George’s death. Finally, as Wyatt and Billy flee up along the levees of the Mississippi, Hopper uses Roger McGuinn’s cover of Bob Dylan’s troubled surreal epic “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” with its famous line “He not busy being born is busy dying” imbuing a final hint of new existential quest for the bikers.
During their next campout, whilst Billy tries to maintain his enthusiastic outlook, Wyatt finally verbalises what he’s been thinking for some time as he comments, with great succinctness, “We blew it.” That line has often been taken to be the essential summation of the entire 1960s project. At least in the terms of Billy and Wyatt’s journey, it suggests Wyatt’s final conclusion that they didn’t just chase the wrong dream but leapt off from a bad beginning and then failed to understand everything of value they found on the way. The film’s infamous ending is then almost a mere coup-de-grace, as the two bikers ride along a road by a levee, passed by two rednecks in a pick-up who, like the diner customers, take delight in harassing Billy: one levels a pump action shotgun at him to nominally frighten him, but when Billy ignores him the redneck shoots him, swatting him off his bike and leaving him sprawled and bloody on the verge. Wyatt stops and checks him out: whilst Billy grunts out fragmented words, Wyatt dashes back to bike to get help.
Only to meet the men in the pickup again, turned about to leave no witnesses: the blast of the gun and a near-subliminal flash of red gives way to Wyatt’s bike, front wheel spinning away wildly, flying across the curb-side ditch and crashlanding. The image of the wrecked and burning motorcycle, surveyed in a helicopter shot rushing away into the sky, conflates multiple frames of symbolic resonance, the crashing, riderless bike an image of some dream desperately trying to keep soaring, a bitter lampoon of a failed space shot in the year of the moon landing, and a conflation of the assassinations that had befallen American political life in the previous year with the epic carnage of Vietnam, all crystallising in internalised blowback, sparking madness on the home front. Hopper was likely inspired in part by the imagery of roadway carnage in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967), but the sense of connection with a parable for the war is exacerbated by the way Hopper concludes the film with a visual quote from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) in the long, final helicopter shot that rises high above the madness to survey the wrecked bikes and sprawled bodies and the languorous course of the Mississippi, the flowing river evoked in the theme song written by Dylan and McGuinn that plays over the end credits. The end of Easy Rider retains such force in this disparity of jagged tragedy and elegiac yearning, the grand promise of the world still open to those brave enough to seek it even as the failed seekers lie dead on the green grass.