Easy Rider
directed by Dennis Hopper
(Columbia Tristar. 1969; DVD, 2004)

Championed by many as the most influential film ever funded by a Hollywood studio, Easy Rider is indeed a landmark movie and is often cited as the statement of a generation. The story is deceptively simple and thus can be enjoyed on different levels; the action focuses on two stunt bikers, Billy and Wyatt (a.k.a. Captain America), who buy cocaine in Mexico in order to sell it on for profit to a big dealer in Los Angeles. Hiding the money they make from this exchange in Wyatt's gas tank, the two riders embark on an epic journey across the states to their "place in the sun" in Key West. Throughout their travels they encounter people from all walks of life, who demonstrate attitudes of anything from Christian hospitality to the murderous antagonism of a lynch mob.

Easy Rider is by no means a perfect film. Speech is often minimalised in the mistaken view that long silences will add to the realism of any given scene, and one cannot help but feel that the endless shots of country landscape could be reduced in favour of some more enlightening dialogue. Nonetheless, the existing dialogue is refreshingly satirical and deep. After being jailed for a trivial misdemeanour in small-town Texas, for example, the alcoholic lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) wryly comments that he can secure the bikers' release so long as they "haven't killed anybody ... at least anybody white." Hanson is the son of a wealthy and important family, with enough local esteem and friendly connections in the police for him to enable Billy and Wyatt's release; however, he is also a compassionate civil rights lawyer. Hence, as the only character who shows traits of both conservatism and the liberal idealism of the "counter-culture," his character lies at the heart of Easy Rider.

The film's cinematography is simply awesome and the picturesque traveling shots of American landcape are accompanied by a superb rock soundtrack, featuring the likes of Hendrix and Steppenwolf. From the moment "Born to Be Wild" kicks off in the classic title sequence, it is obvious that Easy Rider is a musical as well as a visual experience. This reflects the growing importance of contemporary music in cinema and helped to set the film apart as a rare phenomenon in Hollywood: a box office hit with a cult following. Moreover, the film is now viewed as the archetypal road movie and has established this genre as a firm favourite with cinema-goers.

It is perhaps ironic that Easy Rider is often viewed as a demonstration of 1960s idealism. After all, the tag line on posters for the film at the time of its release declared: "A man went looking for America but couldn't find it anywhere." Billy and Wyatt encounter many lifestyles alternative to their own but embrace none of them as they continue their quest to achieve "the big score." Their crude pursuit of wealth and the superficial glamour it provides is a corrupted form of the American Dream; "Captain America" rolling the drug money into the stars and stripes-embellished gas tank of his stunt bike at the film's onset is suggestive of this theme. It is only as the movie reaches its tragic closure that they realise the materialism of their motives. "We blew it" is the enigmatic reflection Wyatt makes on their actions in the final campfire scene.

Easy Rider is a must-see movie. It has the feel of a documentary that hits a little too close to home and one of the all-time most disturbing finales. Jack Nicholson steals the show with his charismatic portrayal of the lawyer George Hanson, a role that earned him his first Oscar nomination. Although he appears in no more than one third of the film, the humour and warmth Nicholson brings to the character is unforgettable. However, both Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper also give endearing performances, and the various subtleties they give to their roles are truly understated. This makes the terrible discrimination they receive at the hands of rednecks even harder to watch. Every time I watch the film I hope events will somehow unfold differently for its anti-heroes, but the end of the road is always the same for them.

- Rambles
written by Ben Latimer
published 9 April 2005

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