I’ve seen Easy Rider before, but this movie somehow got into my consciousness well before I’d actually seen it. Many years ago, I was involved in a round-robin storytelling thing where some friends and I posted about a second generation Justice League. Assuming the DC heroes had aged in something closer to real time, the setting wasn’t exactly the same as the real DC Universe, which meant that, hey, maybe there were Silver Age heroes that had never been seen in the real world for our setting. And as I wrote the opening salvo, I rattled off a Justice League line-up that included a random name in the middle of the bunch: the Easy Rider.
Where did Easy Rider come from? Well, I’d just watched the season finale for the first season of 24, where actor Dennis Hopper was the main villain. What could the Easy Rider do? At that point, he was just a name, and he’d eventually be revealed as a somewhat overweight, old hippie who rode a motorcycle. He had some vaguely defined supernatural powers, didn’t use drugs as far as I was concerned, and everybody liked the guy.
Then years later I saw the movie I named him after. Ho boy was I off…
I should also point out I didn’t really appreciate Easy Rider for what it was when I first saw it. Why should I have? It’s a somewhat experimental film with little if any plot or character development to speak of. In its short (just over 90 minutes) run-time, the story goes as follows: two long-haired guys named Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt AKA Captain America (Peter Fonda) make a lot of money on a drug deal and then ride across America to spend Mardi Gras in New Orleans. They take a hitchhiking hippie to his free love commune, take a drunk of a lawyer named George (Jack Nicholson) along until he’s beaten to death on the side of the road, get to New Orleans, pick up some prostitutes, try some LSD, have a bad trip, and then ride off only for a pair of good ol’ boys in a pick-up truck to use them for target practice, killing Wyatt and at least badly injuring Billy in an age where there was no way to call for help. The end. Roll credits.
So, maybe a movie like Easy Rider isn’t meant to be watched for its narrative. There really isn’t one. The audience can see Billy is a bit of a hothead with some paranoia while Wyatt is, for the most part, more easy-going and idealistic. Billy, for one, worries about the hitchhiking hippie seeing the cash stash in Wyatt’s gas tank. Wyatt does not. After the bad trip, as the movie draws to a close, Billy thinks they two are financially set for life and everything is good. Wyatt believes something has gone wrong and everything’s been ruined.
So, perhaps what Easy Rider is more than anything else is a snapshot of 60s counterculture as it existed at the time. The cast really was smoking the various drugs used onscreen, the soundtrack is fantastic, and the biggest takeaway is, between stoned musings over the nature of the universe, that “straights” hate the likes of Billy and Wyatt for “being free”. Being free here seems to mean not being tied down to a job or part of regular society. It doesn’t matter that Billy and Wyatt don’t say anything overtly political. They aren’t protesting the Vietnam war. They aren’t selling drugs to schoolkids. They get some free love at the commune, but even the film seems to suggest the commune is a doomed affair as it tries to grow crops where it doesn’t really rain (Billy thinks they’re doomed while idealistic Wyatt thinks they’ll succeed).
So, as much as these two guys probably aren’t out to hurt anybody after their big coke deal to a rich guy played by Phil Spector, and even then there’s no maliciousness involved. They just want to ride the roads and do their own thing.
Why is everything ruined for Wyatt? Was it the bad trip? That’s some imagery there. Running at about four minutes, the segment is a visual and audio grab-bag of sights and sounds showing the foursome not having a very good time.
But since seeing the movie the first time, I read through author Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland. Perlstein’s book is a cultural history about this era and the underlying thesis is this: it was a time when Americans were willing to commit violence against other Americans over political disagreements. This was a time when many people honestly thought the worst thing about the Kent State shooting was the National Guard didn’t kill enough protesters.
That is the thing that keeps cropping up here. Why is George murdered in his sleep? Apparently, a number of the locals didn’t like the way the guys looked and took some blunt objects to them as they slept off using a completely different type of blunt object. The same is true for Wyatt’s death at the end of the movie. Two guys just wanted to, at first, scare the pair. That it turned into at least one homicide is something else. That Wyatt might have envisioned his own death as an earlier scene showed the flaming wreckage of his motorcycle well before it happened is also something else.
Produced on a relative shoestring and making a lot of money in return, Easy Rider was directed by Hopper, produced by Fonda, and co-written by the two with writer Terry Southern–though most of the dialogue was improvised. The real stand-out here is Nicholson. He doesn’t appear until about halfway through the movie, but he quickly fits in with the two guys, going from drunk to pothead in relatively short order while debating the existence of UFOs. Hopper would only direct one more movie, a flop called The Last Movie, and Fonda would never reach the level of recognition his sister and father enjoyed.
Movies like Easy Rider basically remind me that it always helps to know what you’re getting when you go for a movie. Otherwise, you might be in for a bit of confusion. I didn’t get this the first time and didn’t care for it. I am not sure I get it now, but I think I at least appreciate what Easy Rider was trying to do.
NEXT UP: Let’s go back to 1931 for some horror from Universal with the first of the Frankenstein movies.