I recently watched Easy Rider which I had not seen since it was released in 1969. It was available online free at Hulu. Watching it on a small computer screen is a very different experience from my original viewing which was at a New Jersey drive-in movie that summer.

But the screen size may actually be one of the least significant changes in my re-viewing the film after 41 years.

Easy Rider is a very 1969 and very American road movie that was written by Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern. It was produced by Fonda and directed by Hopper who also play the two lead characters.

The two main characters Wyatt, nicknamed “Captain America” (Fonda), and Billy (Hopper) would have been described as hippies in 1969. Billy was supposedly based on David Crosby of The Byrds and he looks the part, but Wyatt (perhaps based on Roger McGuinn of The Byrds – McGuinn performs the title song on the soundtrack) looks pretty straight by today’s eyes.

The two ride the American West like cowboys of the past – Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. Wyatt dresses in leather with an American flag on his back and flag helmet. Billy wears Native American-style buckskin pants and shirts and a bush/cowboy hat.

Before they mount their chopper steeds, they bring some cocaine from Mexico to Los Angeles and make a big sale.  (That’s record producer Phil Spector in the Rolls-Royce who is the connection.) They use some of the money to buy their bikes and head out to find what their new freedom offers them.

In a good interview with Hopper on Fresh Air, he said that he never saw the film as exploitation or counter-culture. He saw it as an art film and they took it to the Cannes Film Festival where he received the First Film Award (Prix de la première œuvre). Though the film was hardly mainstream, it was a hit and Jack Nicholson was nominated for a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar. The film was nominated for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Material Not Previously Published or Produced.

On their journey, they meet a simple rancher who seems free in an off-the-grid way. They pick up a hippie hitchhiker and take him to a commune. There, the ill-prepared city-hippies are barely surviving, making the same mistakes as those early Pilgrims who came to the new world.  They are good people trying to do something good but hardly free despite their free love and free spirit.

In a small town, they get busted on the bogus charge of “parading without a permit.”  In jail, they meet a local lawyer/ town drunk named George played by a relatively unknown Jack Nicholson. George helps them get out of jail, and he decides to join them as they head for Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

They introduce George to marijuana around the campsite that night. (No motels will accept the hippies.)

At a little Louisiana restaurant, they are harassed by the local males and flirted with by the local girls. They know it’s trouble and leave.

I don’t know if you can have spoilers in a post about a 40 year old movie, but here comes one. That night the local men find them and attack them while they are asleep and George is killed.

At Mardi Gras – Peter Fonda, Toni Basil, Dennis Hopper & Karen Black

They make it to New Orleans and head for a brothel that George wanted to visit. They pick up two prostitutes, but things feel wrong. Their wandering through the Mardi Gras celebration is creepy, and they follow up by taking LSD at a cemetery.

The New Orleans section might have been meant by Hopper as artsy in the style of someone like Bruce Connor, but it reminds me more of the Roger Corman‘s biker and acid-trip films.

The fast editing, sound effects, over-exposed film in that section and the many song and scenery shots were early versions of scenes in films to follow, in commercials and even music videos. I believe the film was the first to build a soundtrack from existing songs (like Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild“) rather than to commission an original soundtrack.

Before the shocking and tragic ending of the film, it has really hit me this time how the film’s message was really negative. I remembered the ending, of course, but I also remembered the film as more upbeat and even funny. George in his football helmet on the chopper and some hippie bliss.

But the film is full of lines like George’s comment after the restaurant scene: “This used to be a hell of a good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.”

Dennis Hopper has said that in 1969 there wasn’t really a counter-culture; the counter WAS the culture.

In their quest for freedom – a true American value – it’s hard to find anyone hippie or straight who has it.
Wyatt says at the end, “We blew it.” Billy doesn’t get it. H feels free and they have financial freedom, but Wyatt wanted something more.

It’s funny that they head for Florida to “retire” – a journey we associated then and still now with some corny senior citizen Fountain of Youth dream.

They don’t make it. I knew in 1969 that they wouldn’t get there. Just like I knew that another pair of 1969 cowboys wouldn’t find freedom in Florida in a film that did win Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay – the brilliant Midnight Cowboy.

Midnight Cowboy may have been the bigger mainstream hit, but the financial and critical success of Easy Rider helped push the New Hollywood filmmaking of the late sixties. Along with slightly earlier films like 1967’s The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, this was probably my favorite period of American film.

Why didn’t I remember the film’s pessimism? I think it’s because in 1069 I believed in their journey and dream and even the ending didn’t dissuade me. And today? I don’t believe in it. The ride wasn’t really easy.

Easy Rider was added to the Library of Congress National Registry in 1998, and it appears at number 88 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Years, 100 Movies. It has become a part of our culture, counter or not, with many popular allusions to it.

I’d still recommend watching it whether you’ve seen it before or not. I’d be curious to know if any older viewers have the same reaction that I did.

And I’d be equally curious about the reaction of younger first-time viewers. I suspect that our 1969 probably seems dated and even a bit corny. Cut us some slack. We meant well. And we were doing a lot of drugs.

Easy Rider (Special Edition)

Easy Rider

Midnight Cowboy

The Graduate

Clip with The Byrds’  “I Wasn’t Born To Follow”

The opening credits with the “heavy meta thunder” of “Born to Be Wild”