A previous cultural force, the movie can only be appreciated for capturing the feelings of a particular segment of a generation.
American Film Institutes Ranking: #88/100
Awards: Nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson)
“Easy Rider” is a hippie anthem: two drug-induced guys traveling the United States looking for their spiritual awakening while living free and sticking it to the man. The movie was a power house in 1969 and pulled in a 60 million return on an Indie budget of 400k. A quick peak at online message boards shows people of the era recalling its impact.
This movie is unique since it was a part of the New Hollywood films of the late 1960s, and Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper wanted to make a film for the counter culture they were a part of, not another mainstream Hollywood film. The time capsule aspect might be the only reason to view this film as it is otherwise a gibberish piece of story telling.
Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) just scored a big drug deal by selling Mexican cocaine to someone in LA. They then decide to go across country, riding their motorcycles to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
Along the way, they end up at a commune where the woman practice free love, pick up an alcoholic ACLU lawyer, get attacked in the middle of the night where one of their friends gets bludgeoned to death, have a bad trip on LSD with some prostitutes, and finally get blown to smithereens by a redneck and his shotgun.
The movie is full of hippie imagery, motifs, and themes. Early in the movie, Wyatt takes off his watch and drives off on his motorcycle, representing how he wasn’t going to be a slave to time. There are moments of free love, plenty of drugs, and sticking it to others who just don’t get it.
The movie is desperate to set up the us vs. them culture war, the hippies vs. the hicks. The hicks are vindictive and rigid in their values. The best character in the film is George Hanson, played by a young Jack Nicholson, and has the only meaningful dialogue in the entire film:
George Hanson: 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 who needs a haircut.
George Hanson: Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.
A movie that was more centered on this, even though it might come across as preachy, is at least intelligible. The film does not like intelligence, and would much rather virtue-signal the appropriate gestures and dress than make any formidable stance on American culture. The supposed climax is when Wyatt tells his friend Billy that “we blew it,” but it has no context. Supposed to encapsulate the failure to achieve the Hippie ideal, it is just as unintelligible as the movie that proceeds it.
The most difficult part of the film to overcome is the death of George Hanson. After being run out of town by hateful rednecks, they create a camp site. They are attacked in the middle of night, and George Hanson is bludgeoned to death. This rather traumatic event is not treated with any fanfare; they go through his stuff, put him in his sleeping bag, and state they will be sure to return his things to his folks. Then they continue their trip to New Orleans.
His death is treated like a war casualty in the heat of battle, leaving no time for remorse or feelings. It’s never brought up again — the impact of the death of a fellow hippie doesn’t register a blip.
This is a shame, because George Henson is the only good character in the entire film — his rants and mannerisms are electric. He made the message of the movie palatable in a way the other characters couldn’t. Wyatt is quiet and dull and Billy a moody, arrogant asshole. George is the only reason the movie registered two stars, and it is a shame that he wasn’t allowed more screen time.
This movie was made for one reason: to glorify the hippie generation. It wanted to speak to the troubles of fellow hippies, how they were judged by society and their plight had not gone unnoticed. I could only imagine if I was a long-haired, counter culture kid seeing this film — it would have reinforced my mission and my lifestyle. Seeing it with fellow like-minded people while sharing drugs and booze was probably spiritual ecstasy.
Without having the hippie virtues, however, this movie doesn’t have anything to resonate on. The plot, characters, and production are hallow, and were made with an eye on a particular audience. If you don’t fit that mold, you will find that the movie has very little to offer.
Other People’s Take:
- Dawn Pisturino’s Blog: “Any analysis of Dennis Hopper’s 1969 movie, Easy Rider, must be made within the context of the 1960s, or the analysis may become distorted.”
- Movie Reviews 101: “Verdict: Wonderful Cultural Event.”