Criterion Project #44: EASY RIDER (1969)

Easy Rider

Spine #545

Year: 1969

Director: Dennis Hopper

Here we have a stone-cold biker classic. Perhaps THE biker classic and a true film odyssey.

I kind of got in trouble for this one. My lady had never seen Easy Rider and, being that she’s a former motorcycle owner (she got rid of it for practical reasons), whenever the movie came up in conversation I would tell her that we should watch it. This has been going on for years. But then, lo and behold, 44 weeks after I started this project, the time had finally come for Easy Rider to pop up next on my list. Now, sometimes I watch my movie during the week, but this was a hectic one so we didn’t get to watch it until yesterday. Of course it wound up being a very dreary, rainy Sunday afternoon to set the mood. Be that as it may, we settled in and popped on the movie.

*Spoilers beyond this point*

Let’s cut right to the end of the film. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) whips his motorcycle around and heads back for Billy (Dennis Hopper), who was just blown off his bike by a shotgun blast from an intolerant hillbilly. Wyatt gets down on his knees to tend to his bloodied compadre just before he, himself, is blown away, and my lady turns to me with one eye looking like a sad puppy dog and the other screaming of betrayal – “Why would you ruin my Sunday with this bummer of a movie?!”

Obviously, we’re both aware that was the point. It’s probably a bit melodramatic to have both of your lead characters killed off so hastily just before the credits roll, but I think it’s really supposed to represent a boiling point in American history. This is an unflinching look at an America that is not indicative of any “land of the free”. It’s a bleak landscape. The great divide between classes and political parties at the time was a chasm of epic proportions. Tensions were high. Violence broke out across the country. People were angry. Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?

It’s kind of sad to think that the themes presented in this film, as misguided as they might appear to contemporary eyes, are still easily identified in modern society. Consider the current trend of mass shootings in America. These events spur hot-button debates between parties of people who can’t decide if peace or guns are the answer to the problem. Those same parties also endlessly argue the validity of people who identify as living an alternative lifestyle and what rights should be afforded to them. Same goes for women’s rights. These are all conversations between people who fall on opposite ends of the political spectrum, as has been the case for generations. Think about how this movie ends for just a second. We’ve got the two bikers as the embodiment of an alternative lifestyle facing off against the conservative middle-class American with his southern drawl, shotgun, and pick-up truck, and, while it is a giant bummer, of course the conflict will result in gunfire. Has a major American dispute ever ended any other way?

And this movie came out right in the middle of a major military skirmish, the Vietnam War, when the political climate was fiery. I have to wonder what the average church-going American thought about a film where the motorcycle riding, hippy drug-mules die at the end and it’s played as a tragedy. This isn’t the Ku Klux Klan riding in to save the day to great applause in Birth of a Nation (1915), this is good ol’ southern boys committing cold blooded murder of two innocent men just seconds before you leave the theater and it’s crushing. There’s even a bit where a local-yokel makes fun of Wyatt and derides him for being a Yankee because he has the stars & stripes on his bike and jacket, insinuating he should be sporting a confederate flag instead, I suppose.

When people are compelled to action because of a long haircut and an American flag on your jacket, “American” is spelled with a capital Intolerance.

Part of Wyatt and Billy’s journey involves a stranger they pick up who’s dressed like Sgt. Pepper and leads them to his home, which is more or less a hippie commune. It consists of a group of spiritual people who have settled in a very dusty place in the hills, away from the city. Most of the inhabitants spend their time praying for betterment of their situation or prepping and seeding the land for sustenance. It’s pretty obvious watching them work that this stretch of land is arid and barren of most plant life, but it doesn’t stop this earnest group from trying to make a miracle occur (or from taking some LSD).

It sort of makes you wonder – what would drive someone so far away from society that they are willing to shed blood and tears trying to cultivate a dry, sandy piece of sterile land? Maybe they took a look at society and didn’t like what they saw. And then society looks back at these people like they’re the freaks who wandered away from the “American Dream”?

But the film actually presents an odd version of the American dream, doesn’t it? The hippie commune and, indeed, the existence of Wyatt and Billy all fall under that umbrella. The men and women giving it their all and willing to starve in order to carve out a life for themselves feels closer to the American pioneers than any business man touting investments and real estate opportunities ever could. Engaging in discussions about whether you should trust your government is the right of every American and one of the reasons for the founding of the country in the first place. Yes, I understand I’m talking about the two drug-toting criminals like they’re Ben Franklin and Davey Crocket or something, but if you remove their means of financial gain these are just two guys who want to live their lives outside the norm. By definition, that’s living an alternative lifestyle.

I really enjoyed this film even more this time through, like I had a better understanding of these guys and what these people are looking for. Obviously the cast is iconic. Hopper, dressed like a wild frontiersman, and Jack Nicholson’s scene-stealing alcoholic lawyer are the wings that make this movie fly while Fonda keeps the vibe as cool and breezy as his sporty neck bandanas. That mixture of cool and importance I think is what led to the film’s ascension in status. The movie presented some troubling topics while maintaining a level of cool that must have scared the hell out of conservatives heading into the 1970s.

It’s the story of a new America, but one filled with danger and uncertainty about the new direction. There’s a particularly telling scene when the boys have to stop at a farm to fix a flat on their bike. The farmer seems reluctant to let Wyatt and Billy use their property at first, again demonstrating the middle-American leery attitude towards hippies and alternative lifestyles. He eventually agrees to let them in and then the next scene shows Wyatt fixing the flat on his bike while one of the farm hands re-shoes a horse not far away.

It’s a simple scene yet it’s literally redefining established iconography. The horse and its shoes are practically the symbol for the entire settlement of America, and here Hopper has the vision to put the motorcycle wheel in the same frame as the enduring symbol of traditional American values. It’s a bold statement from a unique cinematic voice and one I enjoy more with each subsequent viewing.

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