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Easy Rider Rides Again

Whatever we feel about the 1960s, we have never altogether got over them. North America with the Civil Rights movement and a war in Vietnam was more outwardly shaken. But the UK and anyone in the world who spoke English had their thinking sent scuttling in new directions. France had the May 68 social revolution and Italy a lead-up to the Anni di piombo.


In the USA, Easy Rider, a movie of 1969 drew a conclusion on the decade that was premature and partial but full of interest. It was also entertaining. Sony Pictures and the Cineteca di Bologna have restored the original movie and it merits a second look. In a word—a disillusioned one—Easy Rider concluded that there’s no earthly paradise, artificial or other,  and that utopia was a pipedream for marijuana smokers.


Easy Rider changed the film industry. With it, Pop music entered the movies in a big way. Who didn’t thrill to Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild as the bikes revved up? Those are Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glides custom choppers with a low slug seat, and they would, of course, set a trend. The bikes are main characters and knit the disparate halts on the road together. The stars and stripes are all over them and strike an ironic note just now when we watch armed men waving the same flag attacking the US Capitol.


The cutting and editing of Easy Rider owed much to the French Nouvelle Vague. The movie opened up Hollywood to independent filmmakers using light equipment, with small crews who did road movies by actually taking to the road. It changed things because it made a lot of money—$60 million worldwide—from a small investment of $400.000. 


Easy Rider’s strength was that it got the young to identify with it. They would not go the way of its characters but use them as a proxy and safe rebellion while they themselves treaded inexorably toward the conventional strait and narrow. Dennis Hopper directed. He already had one foot in drug culture, which added another thrill to the movie. He sealed his public persona by taking the role of Billy, the drug-ruffled clown of the three characters on the move. The second is Wyatt, Peter Fonda, who also had a public persona. At odds with his actor father, Henry, patriarch, and Hollywood, still-breathing immortal, Peter, with his actor sister Jane, personified the war between the generations.


Peter plays Wyatt, an in-the-know role model, thoroughly hip but responsible, idealistic, and uncertain of the right path. Jack Nicholson’s, George, is the alcoholic young lawyer they pick up along the way. He’s a mainstream fallout, broad-minded and ripe for conversion. One intention of Easy Rider is to make known the hippy word.


Nicholson, a friend of Hopper’s, also had a public persona. It came from work in Roger Corman’s B pictures. Nicholson had written most of the script of Corman’s “dope picture”, The Trip, In which Fonda played an LSD taker. The Trip was released August 31, 1967, in the midst of The Summer of Love. In the UK, it wasn’t available uncensored until 2004.


We are tempted to attribute the bits of Easy Rider’s dialogue that make us cringe today to co-authors Hopper and Fonda, and the sharper lines in the screenplay to the third author, Terry Southern, a satirist of note who had worked on the script of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.


Drifters Wyatt and Billy want to score big and leave California for early retirement in Florida. They act as intermediaries in a drug deal. Phil Spector does an ominous cameo as a drug taster. He would become one of the most influential figures in Pop music. He went on tasting and developed a strange affection for guns. Eventually, he would die in prison serving a term for murder. It was in 1969 that the killings associated with Charles Manson occurred and are often thought of as marking the end of the first and innocent wave of the counterculture.


The sympathies of the movie are clear from the start. Drugs are a personal matter. The law should ignore them. People with money and big cars are sinister.  Latinos are friendly and smiling though deprived of dentistry. Black people are largely invisible, which surprises since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and the nation had endured two decades of Civil Rights’ agitation. The bikers will travel through southern states with Blacks serving only as part of the landscape. What the script does is subject our three white bikers to the brutality of the “weirdo hicks” familiar from lynch mobs.


Wyatt and Billy have their bankroll and hit the road. Their first stop is a friendly god-fearing farm settlement. Back-to-the-land innocence is another of Easy Rider’s sympathies. But the life is too tame for our restless travelers. They ride on into commune territory where we tarry at the movie’s soft centre. Group living was one of the epoch’s persistent dreams. The whole Edenesque panoply will be on show: spirituality of the empty eye and stuttered prayer, frolicking children of uncertain parentage, own-grown food, do-it-yourself sunshine, and the skinny dipping of our bikers with open-minded maidens. Wyatt is tempted to settle in but is urged back on his bike by the nerve-raddled Billy, as always troubled by ants in his pants


Getting deeper into the South the long-haired bikers face the problem Black travelers would. Hotels close their doors to them and they spend a night in jail. There they meet George, the lawyer, a drink-sodden black-sheep, and rural playboy. Here the movie takes on a sparkle as Jack Nicholson works his scene stealer’s magic. We proceed to his hippy indoctrination. He has to be taught that L.A. stands for Los Angeles, grass for marijuana, and groovy for, well…. He’s shown how drugs can replace alcohol and quickly falls in with hippy paranoia that in his case proves the adage correct: paranoiacs sometimes do have deadly enemies.


The three, now traveling happily together, are perforce sleeping rough. In the middle of the southern night, they are set upon and beaten by hostile locals. Wyatt and Billy escape with bruises but a blow to the head kills George, and Jack Nicholson leaves the movie abruptly with no explanation of what his biker buddies do with his corpse. A cynic might say Nicholson stole one scene too many and had to go.


They arrive in New Orleans in the midst of Mardi Gras and mix in with the street scenes. George had spoken of the city’s fabulous brothel. Billy hasn’t forgotten and insists on a visit. Wyatt needs convincing. Bought-and-paid for love doesn’t suit his seriousness. But he comes along and we can admire the theatricality of the establishment. Wyatt meets Mary, an incumbent who is just as serious as he is. Billy chooses a soul mate and the two couples exit for a wild walk in the city. They end up in a graveyard where Wyatt distributes LSD, the movie continuing its mission of explaining hippy ways.


What follows is a remarkable interval of the visions lysergic acid diethylamide might cause. A more troubling version of what Susan Sarandon thought a good way “to reframe your universe” and Aldous Huxley called “a halfway house between one’s self and something else”. The director and the cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs tries to show what was going on inside four heads. Whether there’s any basis for this graphic display doesn’t really matter, it’s an exciting few minutes of movie-making.


On the road again, deeper into the hostile South, Wyatt reaches his conclusion. Perhaps the night in the cemetery was the tipping point. His and Billy’s goal of a life of luxury in Florida was wrong-headed. The implication being that they should have got off their bikes for good back at the happy farm, or joined the commune’s permanent birthday party. They are on the wrong road, but they keep going. Hopper, in his director’s role, was wise to kill off his two heroes after the already dispatched George. No more congenial ending was plausible than the explosive one he devised.  The decade was over.


Peter Byrne

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