In 1969 when a surge of protests against discrimination, the Vietnam War (at its most intensive then) and outdated political and social mindsets was taking place, in came a low-budget, counterculture, film that would speak for a generation and give filmmakers new artistic freedom. The film’s success would cause a seismic shift in the Hollywood system and see studios wrest power back from the producers and hand it to the artists themselves, thereby allowing writers and directors a leeway that would help crystallize the seventies as the most prolific decade in film history.
Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Terry Southern co-wrote and Hopper directed the Oscar-nominated “Easy Rider,” about two men on motorcycles riding from Los Angeles to New Orleans in Vietnam-era America.
Hopper fashioned a Western, of sorts, its two leads, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), riding across the open country like two lone cowboys on their chrome and steel horses and cutting a symbolic path through a changing society. Like the characters of John Ford or Howard Hawks westerns, Wyatt and Billy helped articulate a generation’s desire to make its own mark in a changing country. But these two men, social outcasts both, took to the road searching for a freedom they would never attain.
The America of “Easy Rider” is full of menace. From the owner of a highway motel who refuses to let them stay at his establishment because of how they look, to the cops arresting them on mere suspicion to the soulless rednecks who casually brandish a shotgun and smile as they kill the two “cowboys” for no reason other than what they symbolize, 1969 small-town America was scared of people who looked and thought like Wyatt and Billy and it was the counterculture’s willingness to embrace and express a want for freedom that scared the hell out of the older generation so. “Easy Rider” was the mirror that presented a more or less distorted—depending on your ideological stance—reflection of the society of the day.
Jack Nicholson’s George Hanson is the film’s sherpa navigating the social roadmap of the bigoted South. In the film’s most telling exchange, Hanson explains to Wyatt and Billy, “What you represent to them is freedom…. It’s real hard to be free when you’re bought and sold in the marketplace. But don’t ever tell anybody they ain’t free, cause they’re gonna get real busy killin’…to prove they’re free.” When Hanson is later murdered, his death is a ruthless validation of those words, as is the killing of the two heroes.
One of the lasting pleasures of “Easy Rider” is the power of its visuals. The panorama of the desert and beautiful and open stretches of land and sky, cut by lone highways. Lazlo Kovacs’s cinematography is breathtaking.
“Easy Rider” was a paragon of rebellion. Against a country that was turning its back on its youth and people of color as the politicians used young men of all races to go fight and die in a war the U.S. had no business being involved in. As the grip of white politicians grew tighter, hair got longer and the voices of protest grew louder.
The final martyrdom of Wyatt and Billy solidified their place as counterculture heroes for all time. These are men who longed for a free America that included everyone, and who died in their search for it.
What has kept “Easy Rider” relevant to this day is that it’s kept its distance from a violence- and death-obsessed America. In doing so, the film stands as raucous manifesto for a whole generation. America has never changed its ways regarding war both on countries and culture and the words of Wyatt still echo throughout our collective conscience when he tells Billy, “we blew it.”
These words pertain not only the men’s realization that their utopic vision of this country couldn’t be located but also to the seventies, as the decade culminated in the emergence of powerful men who fundamentally rejected the visions and ideas put forth by this film.
Wyatt’s statement is echoed in the greed-is-good eighties and in the nineties, when the repercussions of the eighties’ excesses caused many a financial ruin, and again in the two thousands, when a fabricated war resulted in the deaths of thousands of American troops.
We hear Wyatt loud and clear, today, as America watches its democratic values receding and the dreams of inclusion dying a little more with each passing day, and we witness protests and insurgency movements on levels not seen since the decade “Easy Rider” came out into theaters.
As Roger McGuinn sang in the song “The Ballad of Easy Rider”, “All he wanted was to be free / And that’s the way it turned out to be.” And this right there is the simple nugget of truth that has endeared “Easy Rider” to every passing generation.
And yet, in the final analysis “Easy Rider” is also a dark portent.
Dennis Hopper’s film was a powerful and scathing indictment of a broken America, then, and it is still so today.