Easy Rider is the legend that almost never was. At the end of the film’s chaotic, weeklong shoot, producer, co-writer and co-star Peter Fonda threatened to fire director, co-writer and co-star (you really don’t have to look far to find the incestuous origins of the chaos) Dennis Hopper and refund all the backers. Hopper didn’t just want to film an on-the-road ‘rock n’ roll’ lifestyle, he wanted to live it: chaos, drugs, alcohol, loaded guns and trashed TV sets and more.
But the film was made and released. Moviegoers went to watch it. Then they went again. The low-budget ‘problem child’ would go on to make more than $40 million at the box office. But it wasn’t just about the money. Through a drug-induced haze, Hopper and Fonda had created something that would come to mean so much more than the sum of its parts, a movie that would still be recognised, referenced and revered in popular culture more than 45 years after its 1969 release.
So what’s the appeal? It’s not the sensitive direction, the endearing characters, or even the storyline. It’s not the costumes, the art direction or the editing. In terms of production, the only thing Easy Rider really has going for it is the rough and ready soundtrack, a musical commentary that was added in for the first studio screening. In truth, the appeal of the movie is intangible – on the surface it’s about romance and authenticity, the ability to reconnect with something lost. But these ideas are coded into open roads and barren landscapes, and they had been since another Fonda (Henry) had left Oklahoma for California (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940). No, Easy Rider wasn’t the first, best – and certainly not the last – movie to examine a counter-culture diametrically opposed to the mainstream.
Bonnie & Clyde, released two years earlier in 1967, had already marked ‘the road’ out as a metaphor for crisis-ridden America. Younger filmgoers accepted (even expected?) that heroes would be fallible – in fact, it was cool to think everything was futile, that nonconformists had their fun and then got what they deserved. Yet in spite of the clichés (admittedly more pronounced for contemporary viewers), Easy Rider‘s cool rapidly cultivated a cult following.
You don’t have to look too hard to work out that this is a film about freedom. Amongst the drugs and prostitutes, Billy (Hopper) and George (Jack Nicholson) talk about it:
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.
Of course, freedom isn’t just about the ability to live as one wishes. Freedom is often a trade off; it’s a bargain in disguise. Yes, Billy, George and Wyatt (Fonda) choose to live outside convention and they pay the ultimate price. But even before their deaths they’re ridiculed for their clothes and their long hair – a transient, as-you-like-it lifestyle was no protection from polite society – incidentally one that’s never polite.
Perhaps it has less to do with freedom and everything to do with escape. Escape from social conditioning, the ‘rat race’, and the machinations of consumer culture. Escape from judgement and the ensnaring promises of the American dream. But escape is hard and, by their own admission, Billy and Wyatt ‘blew it’. But it was probably less about selling out on their dream, but the realisation that truly living to personal values requires an internal conformity and a life of ‘struggle’ that doesn’t exactly sit with the definition of escape.
This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon a Screen. Catch up on day 1 (the Silent era), day 2 (the Golden Age) and day 3 (the Modern era).