George Hanson: They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.
Billy: Hey, man, all we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.
George Hanson: Oh no. What you represent to them is freedom.
When you think of Dennis Hopper’s debut feature, Easy Rider, this hushed, almost tender exchange probably isn’t the first moment that comes to mind. You’re more likely to think of the coke-dealing bikers Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) tripping on LSD with prostitutes in a cemetery, or roaring down the road while “Born to Be Wild” blasts on the soundtrack—if only because those signature “big” moments have been quoted, parodied, and ripped off so often since.
But that conversation between Billy and the alcoholic ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), I would argue, distills the film to its essence. Easy Rider is a record of a certain time in American history, and a chronicle of a culture clash that never quite ended. But it’s no mere historical document or cinematic curiosity. It’s a freewheeling take on freedom—what it means and what it costs.
Billy and Wyatt—who goes by the nickname Captain America, and has the star-spangled accessories to earn it—cross the United States in two senses of the word: in traveling from Mexico to Los Angeles, through the Southwest, and on to New Orleans, and in giving offense. They disrupt, oppose, betray. Like so many of the fringe characters the duo meet on their journey, Billy and Wyatt don’t have regular jobs, families, or homes. They live from one drug deal to the next, go where they please, and stick around until they feel like moving on again. This isn’t a philosophical statement on their part; it’s just how they happen to live—and Billy’s initial puzzlement at George’s analysis suggests that he’s never thought of himself as a symbol of anything. But the representatives of America’s dominant culture—the go-along-to-get-along proletariat that then president Richard M. Nixon would describe as the Silent Majority—have been thinking in those terms, and as far as they’re concerned, these moon-child freaks are walking provocations. Billy’s and Wyatt’s appearances challenge prevailing notions of manhood (the bikers are routinely harassed for their long hair and eccentric clothes, and mocked as girls or queers). The born-wild bikers’ nomadic existence proves it’s possible to survive without becoming tranquilized zoo animals.
The word freedom also describes the mind-set that created Easy Rider. The film was shot totally outside of studio channels, for around $350,000, and was cowritten by Hopper, Fonda, and novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove, Candy), all representing facets of the counterculture—a multigenerational catchall term that covered so-called Beats, or beatniks, in the fifties and early sixties and hippies in the late sixties and early seventies. They were united by their embrace of a bohemian lifestyle and their dissatisfaction with postwar America. Fonda came up with the germ of an idea for a modern western keyed to that sensibility and brought in Hopper and Southern as collaborators. Southern, who had been traveling in hipster artist circles since the late 1940s (his friends amounted to a who’s who of midcentury arts and letters—Nelson Algren, Kenneth Tynan, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Henry Green), was the most aesthetically grounded of the trio, and he took the first pass at the script in 1967. (And despite later revisions and on-set improvisations—and Hopper’s attempts to diminish his role—Southern’s influence on the final film can be strongly felt. Visual flights of fancy notwithstanding, Easy Rider is a spare, poetic work, marked by a mix of spiky humor and tenderness that’s characteristic of Southern.)
Hopper originally approached exploitation master Roger Corman to produce Easy Rider, and he was game until Hopper’s profane language and intense personality turned off potential backers during a meeting. Rebuffed, Hopper and Fonda took the project to Raybert, a young company headed by producer Bert Schneider and producer-director Bob Rafelson. Raybert had a well-established affinity for trippy material with a beatnik/hippie sensibility; the company had created the hit NBC television series The Monkees—and the band on which it was based—and at the time was in the process of spinning it off into the feature film Head. Raybert agreed to shepherd the project partly because it seemed commercial (the script fused elements of the biker flick and the hippie cash-in movie, two then profitable low-budget genres). But as Hopper and company shot the film in the tumultuous year of 1968, it became clear to all involved that this was something more than a quick-hit exploitation picture.
For Fonda and Hopper, in particular, the project became an opportunity to slough off oppressive influences. In Fonda’s case, the looming shadow belonged to his father, Henry, an iconic leading man whose name had become synonymous with Roosevelt-style Democratic Party virtues and indestructibly decent screen heroes. Like his sister, Jane, Peter Fonda sympathized with left-wing American politics and disliked conventionally likable leading roles (he referred to his debut film, 1963’s Tammy and the Doctor, as Tammy and the Schmuckface). He had survived a dark childhood with a controlling, sometimes abusive father, the suicide of his mother when he was ten, and an early brush with death after accidentally shooting himself in the stomach at age eleven. All these influences informed his portrayal of Wyatt, who seems a modern gloss on the strong, silent cowpoke but eventually reveals himself to be a wounded soul, an emotional catatonic deflecting any affection that comes his way.
For Hopper, the demons were more systemic. After early success as a supporting player in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956)—productions that introduced him to his friend and artistic Sherpa James Dean—he gained a reputation as a troublemaker, so devoted to Method acting that he argued with directors, slowed down production, and cost the studios money. By the time he started working on Easy Rider, he was a near pariah in Hollywood, supporting his photography and his art-collecting habit by taking whatever acting roles he could get (mostly on television). He treated Easy Rider as a laboratory in which to test his theories of what constituted truly adventurous writing, directing, and acting. And he drove himself and his castmates to give intuitive, risky, confessional performances. (For the New Orleans sequence with Karen Black and Toni Basil, Hopper persuaded Fonda to talk to a statue of a woman in a cemetery as if it were his mother. “Oh God, how l loved you,” Wyatt sobs.)
Hopper’s background as a photographer and art director informed the movie’s loose, inventive visuals. He encouraged his cinematographer, László Kovács—a survivor of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, who adored the American landscape—to shoot most of the film’s exteriors with natural light. (Kovács’s highly expressive on-the-fly photography is a tour de force in the possibilities of the zoom lens, and an incalculable number of subsequent movies have tried to ape Easy Rider’s visuals.) Most daringly, Hopper eschewed straightforward plotting and instead devoted long stretches of the film’s running time to footage of the guys riding their bikes, while cities and towns and mountains and trees roll past them in a continuous geographic slipstream. He told his crew that he wanted the film to be a mind-blowing visceral experience, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out a few weeks before Easy Rider began production. That sounded like a good idea until Hopper proposed a nearly four-hour film with an intricate, time-shifting structure, then spent so many months futzing around in the editing room that Schneider took the film away from him and hired Henry Jaglom to cut a coherent, releasable version. The final cut is lean but not without its poetic flourishes, particularly the rapid flashback/flash-forward transitions between sections, which suggest moments in time being interlaced like strands of wicker.
The rest is legend: Easy Rider was lauded at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. It became one of the most profitable movies ever made. It launched Fonda and Nicholson toward stardom, enshrined Hopper as a hero to wannabe indie directors everywhere, turned the contemporary jukebox soundtrack into a filmmaking cliché, and made Kovács one of Hollywood’s most sought-after cinematographers. And it emboldened Schneider and Rafelson to start a new company, BBS (with the addition of partner Steve Blauner), then to cut a six-picture deal with Columbia to make similarly distinctive low-budget films, which would include Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, The King of Marvin Gardens, and (although ultimately released through Warner Bros.) Hearts and Minds—classics all.
Given Easy Rider’s sledgehammer impact on pop culture, it’s tempting to treat it as a fluke, a curiosity, and a time capsule, a film that became a surprise hit because it showed young viewers a life they knew quite well but that hadn’t yet been accurately captured on film: the language, the sex, the drugs, the clothes, the music. That’s true, but Easy Rider also transcends its cultural moment, because it’s about more than bikers and hippies or the tension between libertines and reactionaries. It’s about the difficulty of escaping social conditioning and economic imperatives and sustaining a truly free life. Hopper, Fonda, and Southern don’t merely validate a mythical image of life outside the mainstream. They show how tough it is to live that way. The members of the commune Billy and Wyatt visit eke out a subsistence living. Our heroes spend so many nights outdoors not because they love looking at the stars but because even low-rent motels won’t take guys who look like them.
In the oft-cited campfire scene near the end, Wyatt tells Billy, “We blew it.” That line has been taken as an indictment of the American counterculture, which, like so many protean revolutionary movements, started self-destructing once it gained enough power and prominence to effect real change. One can read it that way. But the line strikes me also as a more personal sort of confession, an admission that they have ultimately succumbed and bought into their own outlaw version of the capitalist rat race—the idea that a man is not a true success unless he has accumulated enough money to stop working and take it easy. Albert Brooks’s 1985 yuppie satire Lost in America, a movie filled with Easy Rider references about a couple who attempt to jettison their cushy suburban life only to panic over losing their “nest egg,” astutely points out that the coke money hidden in Wyatt’s red, white, and blue gas tank is a nest egg of a different kind. And it’s grimly amusing to hear the hairy, impish Billy crowing about how he and Wyatt are about to retire to Florida—like some old married couple from New Jersey. But it’s also touching, and human. Like the hero of many a gangster or crime picture, they want to make one more score, then retire. But the universe has other plans. The film’s piquant final shot—the camera rising away from Wyatt’s shattered, burning bike—suggests a soul’s ascent to heaven. It could represent the death of a man, or of a dream of revolution. But it may also signify the death of a false dream of comfort. Billy and Wyatt were born to be wild, and they died wild; in its twisted way, it’s a happy ending.
Matt Zoller Seitz is a filmmaker and critic and the founder of the blog The House Next Door. His writing on film and TV has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and the New Republic. He writes and edits video essays about film history for the Museum of the Moving Image’s Moving Image Source.