CINEMA CLASSICS #3: Easy Rider (1969)

Take a ride with this quintessential counter-culture classic.  

Who made it?: Dennis Hopper (Director/Co-Writer), Peter Fonda (Co-Producer/Co-Writer), Terry Southern (Co-Writer), Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson (Producers), Columbia Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Luke Askew, Toni Basil, Karen Black.

Tag-line: “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere.”

IMDb rating: 7.3/10.

Easy Rider signalled the birth of New Hollywood. It is a picture that encapsulates the 1960s and documents what that decade represented: The style, the clothes, the casual drug use, the music. You could call it the apex of modern cult cinema, as it was the first independent film to be bought and distributed by a major studio. 42 years later, it is still a highly regarded classic. Often imitated, but never really equalled, the shockwaves it left in the industry are still felt today.

1969 was the year of the Independents, when a whole generation of film-makers picked up their cameras and created art from their own resources. Under the tutelage of exploitation legend Roger Corman, directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola were cutting their teeth on B-movie schlock. It was the year of Woodstock and, more importantly, a year of change. Amidst the death throes of the Vietnam War, the world was preparing for the onslaught of the 70s. Soon enough, cinema would be awash with brutality, urban chaos and stark cynicism.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were veterans of this generation. They got their start in prestige pictures (it’s easy to forget that Hopper was in Rebel Without a Cause), but they slowly grew disillusioned with the establishment. They pursued the burgeoning drive-in circuit, appearing in low-grade cheapies like Corman’s The Trip (1967). Anger was raging inside them – a need to say something. Anything. When Fonda saw a photograph of him and Bruce Dern next to motorcycles on the set of The Wild Angels (1966), he had a revelation: They were like modern cowboys and the highway was their frontier. From there, the bare bones of Easy Rider were established. Scripted by Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove), the picture would become a cultural touchstone, its potent message matched by the artistic gut-punch of Hopper’s direction.

The story is episodic in structure and overly simplistic, yet such reality gives the picture a raw power. It doesn’t need to be complicated. This is a story about two lost souls striving to find the American Dream. The fact that they “never find America”, as the tag-line remarks, is all the more wrenching because of it. We first meet Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) during a cocaine deal. Despite these nefarious activities, they need the money to leave monitored society behind. They hit the road with the intention of reaching New Orleans and the Mardis Gras celebrations. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker (Luke Askew) and drunken lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). Together, they see their country in a whole new light…

There isn’t much I can say about Hopper’s film that hasn’t been documented or theorised a million times over, but I’ll persist. As a child of the 80s, I look at Easy Rider with a great deal of fascination. It’s a film to get lost in, with metaphors and overt social commentary exploding across the cinematic canvas. From the first sequence onward the movie is rich in symbolism. It’s pretty blatant today but the message has remained relevant. The lead-in to the opening credits is perhaps the most telling portion of the film. The introduction of the motorcycles is memorable enough; Wyatt’s souped-up chopper emblazoned with the stars and stripes. The cash he places into the gas tank is one of the more notable flourishes, stating that money fuels the American Dream (which will ultimately go up in flames). Just before they began their journey, Wyatt tosses his watch to the ground. For them, time will not exist. And then “Born to be Wild” hits the soundtrack, and these legends were carved in stone.

The true meaning behind Easy Rider is summed up when Nicholson enters the fray. His performance as George Hanson is incredible (resulting in an Oscar-nomination). It must be said that the film doesn’t really get going until he appears, and the character injects some much-needed comic relief. His inebriated rambling, while humorous, is laced with truth. In one of several campfire scenes, he tells the pair about freedom. It is certainly the main crux of the tale; Wyatt and Billy believe they are free, but come across hostility wherever they go. They are treated like outlaws – their long hair and outlandish clothes setting them apart from the rest of the world.

Such hostility is brought to the fore in the coffee shop sequence. Insulted by the locals, they can’t even order a meal in peace. The scene has a quietly disturbing power, and an uncomfortable authenticity – Hopper recruited people from the town, letting them cook up any slurs they wanted. They weren’t reciting lines here, this is the real deal. This vignette signals a change in tone for the film, as the dark underbelly of the hippie lifestyle rears its ugly head, bringing the film to its logical conclusion.

When Wyatt and Billy reach New Orleans, proceedings spiral out of control. Taking LSD, they wander the graveyards aimlessly and have what could very well be the most haunting acid trip in film history. The sequence was shot ahead of principle photography (in order to capture Mardis Gras), and the rough-hewn 16mm footage is all too effective. It’s a horrid collage of nightmarish imagery that consumes the characters. The incident leaves them isolated from their once-tranquil environment. As Wyatt states in the final few minutes, they “blew it”. You feel like Fonda is speaking on behalf of his nation with this sentiment.

Easy Rider is so ingrained with social commentary that some critics fail to mention how impressive the actual film-making is. Shot by the gifted Lazlo Kovacs, the film looks suitably elegant. The budget certainly didn’t hinder the photography, since the backdrops are spectacular. Several of the more famous shots were flukes; the crew shot whatever interested them on the road that day. Hopper’s direction enabled the cast and crew to improvise frequently, giving the material an immediacy. It works. The soundtrack helps too, full of classic rock and country melodies that aid the film’s emotional arcs. They are occasionally out of place (perhaps the only area of the film that has dated), but for the most part they suit the mood. They provide an added punch to the road shots, which have been parodied countless times.

Easy Rider‘s faults are minor. I’ve read many comments on the film and the same points are always raised. The commune sequence, in which Luke Askew’s drifter shows them his way of life, slows down the pace in the first 40-minutes. Hopper’s scene transitions are bizarre too, borrowing from the French New Wave with its choppy style. The ending will also polarise viewers. It is quick, anti-climactic and rather brutal. But I don’t see how the film could have ended any other way – it’s a fitting denouement, that brings the message home.

Shot for a little under $500,000, Easy Rider later went on to make over ten times that, causing the studios to acknowledge the counter-culture as a commodity. Historically important, it hasn’t lost the ability to entertain, and in these times of jaded public opinion it offers some potent food for thought. After the credits roll, it’s impossible not to feel something – it was designed to evoke response, and it still does. Essential viewing. 

Best Scene

There’s no doubt in my mind: Nicholson’s “this used to be a helluva good country” speech is the philosophical highpoint of the film. Eloquent and perfectly delivered.

Useless Trivia

  • The original cut of the film is rumoured to be around three hours long. Hopper was reluctant to delete any material, and the finished edit was largely unsupervised by the director.
  • Whenever you see someone smoking grass in Easy Rider, they are doing just that. Jack Nicholson was stoned during his UFO rant and actually flubbed a line; the out-take was used in the finished scene.
  • Rip Torn was slated to play George Hanson, but left in pre-production after Hopper (allegedly) pulled a knife on him.
  • Crew members, furious at Hopper’s drug-fuelled orders and paranoia, recorded his tirades in secret and sent the tapes to the production company in LA. Many of them quit.
  • Famous record producer (and convicted murderer) Phil Spector plays the cocaine dealer at the start of the film.
  • Easy Rider was one of the first productions to use previously released music rather than an original score.
  • The American Film Institute called Easy Rider the “84th Greatest Movie of All Time” in 2007. It was also inducted into the Library of Congress National Registry.
  • Both of the motorcycles were stolen before filming was completed.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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