Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson
Director: Dennis Hopper
Writer(s): Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern
Runtime: 95 minutes
Official Score: 5 Stars
One of my favorite mini-genres of movies is the latter day western. In these types of movies, set normally in the early 20th century, you see the last of the true cowboys fighting the expansion/encroachment on their way of life that was surely coming with the rapidly advancing technology and population boom of that time. There’s indeed something quite romantic about being the last of a particular breed, at the closing epoch of a famous era. Easy Rider is that kind of movie, but for the 1960s counter-culture generation instead of the 1890s cattle culture generation. And it has the added bonus of being filmed right within the last gasp of that aforementioned era for added credibility.
This movie did for motorcycle sales in the 1970s what The Wild One with Marlon Brando had done for it in the 1950s. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on their custom choppers ripping down the southwestern highway are one of the most iconic and indelible images of 20th Century cinema. Fonda of course rides the long motorcycle with the tear drop gas tank with the American flag decal. Hopper tags along like the Tonto to Fonda’s Lone Ranger on his not quite as cool (but still pretty damn awesome) 1950s Harley painted red with shooting yellow flames. The idea to make this movie came after Fonda was looking at a still image of himself and Bruce Dern in the 1967 outlaw biker movie ‘The Wild Angels’ and got an idea in his head to do a kind of western odyssey picture about two counter culture dudes riding across the country on motorcycles. And doing so in a part of the country (that being the south) mostly inhabited by the kind of people who would find their existence and culture the most objectionable. It should also be noted that Fonda makes a much more convincing free wheeling hippie (even with his perfectly combed hair) than he did a menacing Hell’s Angel.
As we begin the movie, Wyatt (an homage to Wyatt Earp) also known as Captain America, and Billy (as in, The Kid) have just made the biggest score of their lives, selling a large quantity of drugs to some big wheeler dealer types in the back of a long sleek automobile. With this newfound loot in hand their next chief objective is to make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras so they can take part in the festivities, after which they plan to do what everyone does when they get enough money to retire, head to Florida and soak up the sun for the rest of their days thouh. Time isn’t on their side though, so they will have to gun their hogs at full throttle, all with the help of a pretty “groovy” soundtrack to power them along, in order to make Mardi Gras before the festivities end. Along the way they run into a hippy commune, where they are made to feel most welcome, a small hick town, where they are made to feel most unwelcome, and various other pit stops along the way, including a memorable run in with a football helmet sporting Jack Nicholson, who nearly steals the entire movie with his short appearance.
Story wise there are not a lot of twists and turns in this plot. It’s all pretty straightforward enough. I don’t know if I’d say this is a character driven movie though as much as it is an idea driven movie. Most of this film was shot adlibbed with only a working fragment of a screenplay, and a lot of the acting is just short bursts halfway mumbled conversation (like in real life)… Fonda and Hopper are both perfect for their respective parts, and as said Nicholson, in his short role as the lawyer who springs them from the clink is a hoot to watch for the short duration he has in the movie. All of that improvisation just finds a way to work here though, as the film’s most memorable and most psycho analayzed line, near the end when Wyatt tells a jubilant Billy “We blew it…” is merely a last minute improvisation itself.
Take the scene in the diner with all of the locals staring on in disgust at these two long haired outsiders. None of the people in the restaurant are trained actors. They were just people in the diner during the filming of the scene. And to increase the discomfort felt by the characters and the audience, those aforementioned extras were told before filming the scene that the characters of Wyatt and Billy had just raped and killed a girl on their way into town. Looking back from this comfortable vantage point of history it may be hard for some to accept that there was this level of tension at the time, but there was, and this movie perfectly captures the culture war going on at the time, or at least the main spiritual gist of it anyway. (Spoiler ahead) For an example, when this film was shown in parts of the south the famous ending featuring the two main characters demise at the hands of a truck full of yokels here was met with loud hoops and cheers.
In that way this movie serves as an excellent time capsule into a time when the “hippy dream” was not yet dead, but it was definitely on its way out. It would just take a fatal stabbing at Altamont, and some bell bottomed disco freaks to finally send it into cardiac arrest. But for a moment in time, said dream is alive and well in this movie.
One of my favorite quotes from Roger Ebert that I try to keep in mind when reviewing a movie is that it’s not so important what a movie is about as how that movie is about it. There have been dozens of movies since Easy Rider that had a similar philosophical bent, freedom loving bikers (and other assorted clichés) as their dope smoking lead protagonists, and all that jazz, many even made around the same time period. The late 60s and early 70s were of course the high water period for exploitation films whether it was blacksploitation, hippiexploitation (as is the case here) or giant breast-exploitation (AKA ‘sexploitation’, such as Barbarella, and the assorted films of Russ Meyer) That Easy Rider is remembered while so many others are now forgotten to all but the most obsessive film buffs of the era, is a testament to the “how” part in how Easy Rider “was about” its main subject matter.
For the chaotic manner in which it was produced Easy Rider has a remarkably well maintained pace, and (pardon the pun) easy going flow to it. In current movies, wall to wall soundtrack music is almost taken for granted, but in the late 60s this was still something fairly new. The music in this movie is, as I’ve said before about other films of this nature, as big a character in the film as Hopper and Fonda themselves. I cannot hear ‘The Weight” by The Band and not think of this movie, ditto to “I Wasn’t Born to Follow” by the Byrds, and of course, most famously “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf. That music, and the images of Fonda and Hopper on their motorcycles tearing down the open road, are as legendary and aesthetically pleasing as any old western hero riding off into the sunset ever was.