Easy Rider

Released 1969
Directed by: Dennis Hopper
Produced by: Peter Fonda
Written by: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern
Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson

By Mitchell Hillman, Jr.

Easy Rider is a cinematic roadshow born from the cultural and political strife of middle America in the late 1960s and a direct descendent of earlier rebellious journeys like Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Like that Beat Generation novel, although the language and styles are dated, the theme and meaning behind the film is timeless. To quote the movie Freedom, "That’s what it’s all about." But it is also about the conflicts that occur when seeking true freedom and enlightenment. As a young Jack Nicholson says "Yeah, freedom. That’s what it’s all about, but it’s difficult to be free when you’re bought and sold in the marketplace."

Made on a shoestring budget and featuring a cast of relative unknowns, Easy Rider chronicles the motorcycle journey of Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) from Los Angeles to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Along the way, the characters meet a hippie heading home to his commune, spend time in prison and befriend George (Jack Nicholson), a drunk lawyer who joins the journey. They meet ridicule and potential violence in a small diner in Louisiana, enjoy the otherworldliness of Mardi Gras, and encounter a final violent episode on a quiet country road just as their journey is really beginning.

The amusing thing about watching Easy Rider is that you get to peek into a time capsule and snicker at the fashion, language, and filming techniques of the time. The scary thing about watching Easy Rider today is, unfortunately, many issues of hate and distrust of individuals discussed in the film are still alive and well nearly 30 years later.

Although the language sounds dated, both Fonda and Hopper create characters that are relevant today. Fonda plays the role of the philosophical conscience of the group—slow to speak and always insightful, while Hopper portrays the ugly American—loud, arrogant, aggressive—a stoned loner who wants things his way and no other. When the duo encounter Nicholson, who is recovering in jail after another heavy night of drinking, Fonda and Hopper are introduced to a tiny segment of the establishment, and they realize that they may actually have something in common with the people they thought they hated.

After a scene in a small diner in Northern Louisiana, where the three travelers are ignored by the servers and verbally harassed by the local sheriff and a bunch of backwoods locals, it is Nicholson who puts the incident into perspective. "They’re not scared of you," says Nicholson. "They’re scared of what you represent—freedom."

The movie climaxes with the Captain and Billy’s arrival in New Orleans. They experience Mardi Gras in the streets, eat their "Last Supper" and then have a hallucinogenic experience with two prostitutes in a New Orleans cemetery—a final prediction of their violent and untimely demise.

Easy Rider stands up pretty well for what it is—a travelogue of the American highway at an extremely turbulent time in our country’s history. The movie’s soundtrack, which features the likes of the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix and Steppenwolf, further enhances the story by entwining relevant music with the film footage. From Steppenwolf’s "The Pusher" behind the opening drug deal scene with Phil Spectre, to "Born to Be Wild" starting as they hit the road and opening credits roll, to Roger McGuinn’s version of Dylan’s "That’s Alright Ma’ (I’m Only Dying)" playing before the film's violent end, the music is used to help tell the story as much as the dialogue and cinematography do.

The most important part of the movie hinges on the careful character development of primarily Fonda and Hopper’s, but also Nicholson’s lawyer. While Captain America and Billy are both representations of hippies they are polar opposites in their manners and behavior. Captain America is the hippie ideal, coolly looking toward enlightenment and its freedom; Billy is the hippie worst case scenario, searching only for a good time of drugs, booze and women. Of course, you could substitute "American" for "hippie" in that statement and it wouldn’t change a thing. Nicholson is the pivotal point between the two offering them a perspective between theirs, one that understands their desires and dreams, but knows the hard facts of the real world.

This film could be examined on many levels. Whether the characters symbolize three different faces of America, the three parts of the subconscious (id, ego and super-ego) or if this is a religious analogy filled with martyrs and Christian analogies; it is clear that they are all tragic heroes. All three are shattered men, when together they are complete, but once that balance is lost, so too is the journey.

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