Easy Rider: film holds a mirror to mainstream US society in 1969 – and beyond

Stripped of the hype that has grown around it over the years, “Easy Rider” is a well-made if loose low-budget flick about two drug dealers Wyatt and Billy (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper respectively) who, having come into a big sum of money from supplying smuggled cocaine to a man (Phil Spector) in a Rolls Royce, decide to ride from Los Angeles to New Orleans on their chopper bikes to see Mardi Gras, and then on to Florida where they plan to retire and live off the proceeds of the drug sale. Although the movie draws inspiration from the hippie counter-culture of the period and features a music soundtrack of songs from various American pop and rock acts of the time, in a way it’s not really so much an investigation into the alternative culture as it is into mainstream American culture at the time seen through the mirror of the hippie culture, and what it reveals about mainstream culture, or mainstream culture in the US Deep South, is not a pretty sight at all.

Their money stuffed into the petrol tank of Wyatt’s chopper, the two ride through spectacular desert scenery in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, meeting various folks along the way and encountering all manner of reactions to their appearance and apparently free life-style: a hospitable rancher whose down-to-earth way of life is admired by Wyatt; a hitch-hiker who directs the travellers to take him to his commune that practises free love and tries to eke a living by growing crops in the harsh desert conditions; various small-town folks in Louisiana who deeply disapprove of the strangers in their midst and want to run them out of town; a drunken lawyer, George Hansen (Jack Nicholson), who frees the bikers from jail; two prostitutes called Mary and Karen (Toni Basil and Karen Black respectively); and two trigger-happy hillbillies. The narrative is tightly bound: the hitch-hiker gives Wyatt and Billy some LSD which they later share with Mary and Karen, and all of them experiencing a bad hallucination; the hippies and Hansen embody aspects of an alternative way of living and thinking to what most Americans in the late 1960’s believed was “normal” or conventional; and the hippies’ precarious life-style and Hansen’s violent beating and murder presage an ugly end for the bikers themselves.

For me the surprise is that Wyatt and Billy are much less “rebellious” than everybody has believed them to be: Wyatt appears to yearn for a simple, less materialist and more spiritual life and has more confidence in the hippies’ ability to survive in the desert than his more worldly companion; and Billy is really a conventional guy at heart who lives for the moment and connects being rich with living it up and having lots of girls fawning over him for his wealth. The guys are “rebellious” only in the sense that they take the values of freedom and individuality that American culture supposedly prizes at face value and practise them in real life. Perhaps the really rebellious character is Hansen, the spoilt geek son of a big-fish rich lawyer in their small-pond part of Louisiana, who expresses his desire for a more equal and socialistic society when, drawing on a marijuana reefer, he waxes very lyrically about a UFO Billy saw some time ago and says it is part of a fleet of UFOs operated by aliens whose technology and culture are far more advanced and humane than those of humans. Nicholson plays Hansen in a deliberately over-the-top zonked-out performance that endears him to viewers and makes his opinions less extreme than they would be had they come from a more conventional and restrained character; it also makes his death more horrific and affecting, as he is the one character in the movie who genuinely believes in democracy and equality for everyone regardless of their skin colour or early background, and practises what he preaches (he works for the American Civil Liberties Union).

The style of film-making is unusual for a Hollywood movie of its time: there’s not much dialogue in early scenes and the camera often rests its gaze on objects or passes over scenes at unusual angles without anyone saying anything in the background; and in one scene when the bikers visit the hippie commune, the camera pans right around the circle of hippies to capture the feeling of a community. The part where the bikers and the prostitutes experience the bad effects of an LSD trip is a highly experimental sequence of quick camera shots and editing, juxtaposing religious pictures and symbols and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer with scenes of the foursome stumbling about in a cemetery, Karen stuck howling in a narrow passage between walls and Mary stripping for Wyatt. The camera sometimes spins about as if in a panic and sunlight appears to stream down so much it hurts the eyes.

If the film makes a comment on the hippie counter-culture, it is that taking drugs isn’t necessarily a release from dreary, everyday life and can have frightening psychological effects on people, and that idealism has to be tempered with realism. The hippies encountered don’t seem all that happy with their lot, the men listlessly scattering seed over barren ground, and the women labouring in the kitchen and caring for the children; they may have longer hair and more colourful clothes than regular folks did in their time but their sexual politics are just as conservative, unequal and taken for granted. The overall opinion of “Easy Rider” to aspects of the counter-culture is quite conservative and not necessarily the correct one: when Hansen initially hesitates to take the reefer and suggests it might lead him to “harder stuff”, the bikers’ reaction is silence, as if confirming that point of view. The idea that using marijuana serves as a gateway to using other more dangerous drugs is a highly controversial one with a history of medical research that produces contradictory results, depending on how the study or experiment is designed. It may well be that in many countries the illegal status of marijuana itself makes it a gateway drug if it is supplied by the same people who supply harder drugs.

The meaning of freedom is explored in the film somewhat: Billy seeks materialistic freedom, Wyatt is after a more abstract and spiritual freedom and Hansen wishes for the freedom of a fuller, richer life experience that he so far hasn’t had. One irony of “Easy Rider” is that neither Billy, Wyatt nor Hansen finds the freedom he yearns for, or in the case of Wyatt and Hansen, they experience the downside of the freedom they seek, Hansen in particular paying the price for breaking out of his conventional Southern upbringing by being beaten up by small-minded and prejudiced Southern white men. The second irony is that the freedom the bikers enjoy in the film was always going to be short-lived – it would only last as long as their last penny. Even as “rebels”, Wyatt and Billy are still dependent on the capitalist economy to support them and so in that sense they are not really free.

The surprising thing is that the film isn’t more dated than it is, especially in its themes and ideas. Part of the reason is that in the last 30 years, US society has gone back on much of the social progress it made during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Hansen’s remark about the place of freedom in US society – that it’s fine for people to talk about freedom and about being free, but living it is what frightens people (and by implication the authorities) – finds its uncomfortable echo in the US government’s increasingly neo-fascist treatment of its citizens in so many areas of life, society and culture as the country continues to bog down in wars in western Asia with no clear exit strategy in sight.

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