In 1969, the same year as Woodstock, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and the inimitable Terry Southern gave the world EASY RIDER, a movie immediately embraced by liberals and young people as the perfect cinematic expression of their disgust at the state of America. It has been called the greatest road film of all time and an ode to 60s counterculture, but ultimately this a film about fatalism, naivety and inevitability that offers but a few glimmers of hope in the midst of its gorgeous scenery.
The film opens with Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda) selling a large amount of Mexican cocaine to a contact over the border in Los Angeles. Their ill-gotten gains safely stashed in the gas tank of Wyatt’s bike, they set off for Florida via New Orleans and Mardi Gras, with the intention of enjoying a hedonistic retirement with plenty of sunshine, narcotics and loose women.
Two things are made clear from the outset. First, that these are not typical American heroes out enjoying the open road. The song in the background during the opening drug deal exchanges is The Pusher by Steppenwolf, the lyrics of which in no uncertain terms demonise drug dealers as morally bankrupt individuals who, “don’t care…if you live or if you die”. Billy and Wyatt are a couple of degenerates who will cast aside ethical concerns when there is pleasure to be gained.
Second, that this drug deal for them is a real turning point, a casting off of the shackles of conventional living. This is symbolised in the film by Billy throwing his wristwatch in the dirt after the transaction is complete, discarding not only a luxury item born of capitalist America but also modern society’s obsession with time. Billy and Wyatt have left the world of which they were once a part, and are now pursuing their own version of the American Dream from a questionable starting point.
As the pair journey towards New Orleans they pick up a hitchhiker who needs a lift back to his commune where the bikers find food and company. The residents of the commune accept Billy and Wyatt as fellow free-spirits and members of another type of counterculture, albeit one with values different from their own. The commune is presented in almost tragicomic fashion, with the naive young idealists spreading seed on dry, dusty earth where plants have slim hope of growing.
These young people hate what America has become and are determined to reclaim their individuality in the wake of faceless corporatism. They are attempting to become self-sufficient and to think more philosophically about the world, as shown by the young girl reading from the I Ching. The problem is their ideals are reactionary, naive and impractical. Their aversion to cities has lead them to the desert where nothing can grow, and this lack of food has started to make them reluctant to offer hospitality to strangers which was originally one of their most basic tenets.
After Billy becomes restless and persuades Wyatt to leave the commune, the pair are arrested on the questionable grounds of ‘parading without a license’. It is during their brief time in jail that Billy makes a short speech that neatly summarises one of the film’s key ideas. He complains loudly to the guard that it is ridiculous they are imprisoned when they are famous and paid big bucks to parade all over the country as Billy The Kid and Captain America.
This off-hand remark and the pair’s imprisonment echo the fall from grace of the individual under capitalism. America used to idolize those who pursued their dreams and exercised their freedom, freedom which was guaranteed for them in the Constitution and even earlier in the Declaration Of Independence.
Yet now capitalism dictates that citizens act as cogs in an international economic machine and shun those who truly exercise free will, a point made beautifully in the film by alcoholic lawyer George (Jack Nicholson in one of his seminal early roles); “it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace.”
Indeed, it is George who crystallises the ideas subtly hinted at during the prison scene in his famous, “this used to be a helluva good country” speech. He argues that America has lost its way, and in a moment of tremendous foreshadowing he says that if you were to tell a contemporary American that he wasn’t free, “they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are.”
Released as it was on the eve of the Vietnam ‘police action’, this notion of a violent America espousing ideas of democracy and liberty while “killin’ and maimin'” must have seemed right on the money to many people. Beginning with the brutal murder of George during the night by what is presumed to be a local sheriff and his cronies, the film’s second half begins to explore the darkest consequences of this truth.
Now that traditional American ideals have degenerated to their current state, it is inevitable that all who attempt to challenge the status quo will be struck down. The commune is failing because they cannot grow food; George is murdered because he had the audacity to sit in a local diner with ‘decent folk’; Wyatt and Billy are killed brutally and in an iconic manner for their unkempt appearance. In their own flawed ways each had attempted to buck the trend of society and live as they saw fit, but the society that claimed to enshrine their freedom in each case denied them the opportunity.
Not content to be merely an oblique criticism of contemporary America, EASY RIDER never shies away from also attacking the nature of various countercultures. Communes it portrays as collections of idealistic imbeciles whose utter failure to comprehend farming processes dooms them to failure from the outset. The bikers are from the very first scene characterised as selfish and paradoxically materialistic.
When Wyatt utters arguably the film’s most famous lines, “You know Billy, we blew it”, he is talking about a great many things. He is talking about their doomed journey to Florida and the opportunities they wasted along the road; he’s talking about the once great country of America that has now begun to turn on its own; he’s talking about those who try to live outside capitalism but whose attempts are so crude and ill-considered that they uniformly fail.
When Fonda approached Bob Dylan for permission to use his song It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) in the movie, Dylan refused after reading the script and seeing the ending, saying that, “You have to give them hope. Hope for a future.” Fonda tellingly replied, “They don’t have one.”