“Liberty’s become a whore, and we’re all taking an easy ride.”
“So you’re the man who killed the big movies eh?” Fifty-two years later, this statement by Dick Cavett to Peter Fonda on The Dick Cavett Show (March 13, 1970), remains true. When Easy Rider was released, Hollywood didn’t take kindly to indie movies (it still doesn’t) but its unexpected success ushered in a new era: for the movies as well as America. The year 1969 was a time when the counterculture movement was at its peak, just two years after 1967’s Summer of Love. As we have come to expect, Hollywood tried to capitalize on this revolution by releasing movies centred around it. Most of these films were shallow attempts by men in suits to capture the anti-establishment spirit which prevailed among the American youth. Easy Rider was different: the counterculture embraced it for its take on freedom and its cost.
At first glance, Easy Rider may look like a case study in the counterculture movement and the hostility towards it, but it is something far simpler- a story of two friends who just want to live. There are no protagonists or antagonists, everything just is (like it was in 1969). The first few minutes of the movie are completely in Spanish as Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) undertake a drug deal. It’s interesting to see that the Mexican folk present in the scene treat them with more camaraderie than their own kin.
What follows is a Steppenwolf-fueled intro that introduces the audience to one of the most important aspects of the film: our heroes’ motorcycles. I’d be lying if I said that it doesn’t make me wanna traverse the deep south. The feeling of optimism is swiftly quashed as Fonda and Hopper are refused rooms at a motel because of the way they look (and what they represent). The long hair, the loose clothes, and ironically a custom Harley painted with the colours of the American flag is reason enough for them to be refused lodging in the motel. But that is far too simplistic an explanation as from this moment, the movie changes its tone as the duo make their way into some sort of hippie paradise populated by young people from the city, excited to live the lifestyle they so vehemently promote. The residents barely have food to feed themselves and try to grow it on land that is arid.
As they make their way to New Mexico, Billy and Wyatt are taken into custody for partaking in a school band’s parade without “permission”. It’s here that they meet George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), a lawyer who happens to be from an influential family and a drunkard amongst other things. With the help of Hanson, they manage to get out of jail and George also accompanies them for a part of their journey. Nicholson’s character is one of the few who don’t look upon with askance at Wyatt and Billy. His role in the movie is short-lived but highly impactful. There’s a light-hearted scene in which Hanson is introduced to marijuana and how to smoke it. His reaction is much akin to a baby witnessing the world around him for the first time.
For me, the most memorable piece of dialogue in the entire film is uttered by Hanson as the three sit around a campfire at night:
“They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to them.”
“Hey man, all we represent to them is somebody who needs a haircut.”
“Oh no, what you represent to them…is freedom.”
On the same night, Hanson is killed by a bunch of rednecks.
Easy Rider served as a turning point for Jack Nicholson’s career. The unexpected success. The hostility towards it from the big leagues. Easy Rider should never have become the phenomenon it has. Nicholson wasn’t even the first choice for Hanson. In fact, when Bert Schneider suggested that Jack Nicholson do the role, Hopper wasn’t too pleased. He said that it would ruin the film as he already had an alcoholic friend who also happened to play football for the University of Texas in mind for the role.
Towards the end of the film, Billy and Wyatt reach New Orleans just in time for Mardi Gras. As a tribute to the late George Hanson, they visit the “finest whorehouse in the south” and hire two ladies- not for sex but for companionship. The dreamlike sequence right before the turning point of the film is the only time viewers get to see a more emotional side of Wyatt as he rails on about how his mother left him. For a lot of viewers, the conclusion of Easy Rider is what gives the entire movie a plot. The sombre ending in which both protagonists are butchered by a person in a semi-truck leaves little room for hope.
Keeping in mind what happened at the U.S. Capitol just a couple of days ago, Easy Rider is still relevant- now more than ever. “Tell people they aren’t free and they’ll get busy maiming and killing to prove to you that they are.” Things have changed since 1969 but a lot of the problems and prejudices portrayed in Easy Rider still plague America.
What is true freedom? While all of us may have different answers to this question, one thing is certain- discussing freedom and actually being free are two different things indeed.