Directed by: Dennis Hopper
Produced by: Peter Fonda
Executive Producer: Bert Schneider
Screenplay: Hopper, Fonda, and Terry Southern
Photography: Laszlo Kovacs
Art Direction: Jerry Kay
Editor: Donn Cambern
"Ballad of Easy Rider" by Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn.
Performed by Roger McGuinn.
Other songs by: Hoyt Axton, Mars Bonfire, Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Jaime
Robbie Robertson, Antonia Duren, Elliott Ingber, Larry Wagner, Jimi Hendrix,
Jack Keller, David Axlerod, Mike Bloomfield.
A Pandro/Raybert Production
Released through Columbia Pictures
Filmed between California and Louisiana
It was 1969, the year after the police-student clash at the Democratic
National Convention in Chicago, a decade when the young waged pitched battles
with authorities on campuses all over the country.
It was an era of social protest. Young people rebelled against the values of
their parents, rejecting the traditional path of school, career, and
marriage. Instead, they created their own counterculture -- typified by long
hair, casual clothes, communal living, activism, drugs, and rock music.
In the end, the young people failed to realize their goal of a new society.
But their dream stirred a lot of people, and "Easy Rider" ("a Southern term
for a whore's live-in boyfriend," says Fonda. "He's got his 'easy ride'...
that's what happened to America, man. Liberty's a whore, and we're all taking
an easy ride") was the movie that became the symbol of their ephemeral
The picture focused on two free spirits on the open road. Audiences
identified with them and then were shocked when they saw the hatred Middle
America had for these restless mavericks.
The film had another distinction: its budget. Made for less than $400,000,
the movie grossed more than ten times that amount -- testimony to the fact
that the under-thirty crowd buys 75 percent of the movie tickets. In fact,
because it was such a runaway hit, it forced studios to take another look at
their big-bankroll films.
However, "Easy Rider" was more than a box-office smash. It was a brilliantly
executed picture. It was a lyrical adventure, a picaresque west-to-east
odyssey that melded beauty, comedy, violence, and surreal film technique with
a disarmingly simple plot.
Insiders never expected much of it. They thought it was going to be just
another cheapie motorcycle flick. They were mistaken. It mesmerized critics.
"I couldn't shake what I'd seen even after I left the theater," critic Rex
Reed wrote. Joseph Gelmis of Newsday, the Long Island daily, said he "hadn't
been as emotionally devastated by a movie in years." Gelmis said he became so
engrossed he cried aloud. "Oh, no, no," at the end.
The project began with a phone call. Hopper and Fonda had been working on a
movie called "The Trip" (1967). When director Roger Corman showed no interest
in filming an acid-trip scene, Hopper and Fonda went into the desert and shot
it themselves (Hopper, in fact, had already been a professional
photographer). The two found it to be a rewarding experience and decided to
continue their filmmaking partnership.
Because both had acting commitments, nothing happened for a while. Then
things started moving. Hopper recalled: "Peter called me from Canada and
said: 'I've got a great idea for a movie. It's about two guys who score some
cocaine and then take a trip from the Southwest to the Mardi Gras'. I said
It took a little doing to get backing. They went to American International
Pictures, which was then exploiting motorcycle and drug pictures. Hopper and
Fonda had already done two motorcycle films for American, and both had made
money. But nothing came of the "Easy Rider" deal -- to the everlasting regret
of Sam Arkoff, American's owner.
Hopper wanted to be the director. But he was virtually an unknown then. And
he had a reputation for being difficult to work with on the set. So Arkoff,
understandably, was unwilling to let Hopper do more than act. "I still
thought we'd work it out," Arkoff said. "But before I knew it, Fonda and
Hopper had made a deal elsewhere. The rest is movie history."
Hopper just wouldn't settle for half a loaf. "I wanted to become a director,"
he said (for his efforts, Hopper won the 1969 Cannes Film Festival Award for
the best movie by a new director). "I felt the director-writer was the
creative guy behind the film...So we got the guys who produced The Monkees
and who had made "Head" to put up three hundred and seventy thousand dollars.
Everybody agreed to work for Equity pay scale."
Hopper and Fonda did the screenplay along with Terry Southern, an established
movie writer. However, Southern was really an afterthought to give the
venture an aura of respectability.
"Southern was brought in as one of the writers so people wouldn't think it
was just another Peter Fonda motorcycle flick," said Jack Nicholson. His
funny, rounded performance as an easy-going, alcoholic Southern attorney
earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor and catapulted him
to stardom (it became fashionable to imitate George Hanson's bizarre
"wing-flapping" and chirping at parties, but Nicholson was usually reluctant
to repeat it on request). "I don't think they would've gotten the money just
for a picture directed by Dennis Hopper. I mean, if you know Dennis, you
don't exactly just turn over some money to him and say, 'No problem', you
know what I mean?"
Hopper and Fonda shot the film in less than two months, including a week in
New Orleans to make the Mardi Gras and graveyard sequences. The abbreviated
shooting time was not unfamiliar to Hopper, who had become used to the quick
production schedules of TV.
"Easy Rider" carried the social message that to be a young radical in America
of the 1960s was to invite ridicule, repression, violence, and even death.
Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda), two motorcycle-riding comrades, launch a
cross-country jaunt underwritten by a cocaine sale they have pulled off.
Their newfound wealth does not always guarantee them a hearty welcome. On
their first night, a motel owner slams his door in their face -- turned off
by their weird-looking, high-handled chrome cycles and their outcast
Billy sports a mustache, shoulder-length hair, a bush hat, and a fringed
frontier-style jacket. Wyatt, who Billy calls Captain America, is clad in a
black leather jacket with an American flag on the back. He also wears a
helmet with a stars-and-stripes design.
Later they are hassled by cops who arrest them for parading without a permit
and by townsfolk who bait them in a local cafe. Says one good ole boy: "I
thought at first that bunch over there, their mothers may have been
frightened by a bunch of gorillas. But now I think they were caught."
But they were also befriended by a rancher (Warren Finnerty) who invites them
to dinner with his family. He takes them to a desert commune whose members
plant their own crops.
The highlight of their journey comes when they meet George Hanson
(Nicholson), an affable small-town lawyer who joins them on their trip to New
Orleans. Despite years in Hollywood, Nicholson was having difficulty making
it out of B movies. He had acted mostly in motorcycle, beach bikini, and
Nicholson's part, actually written for Rip Torn (who, it turned out, was
unavailable), was originally conceived as a country-bumpkin type.
("Marijuana, Lord have mercy. Is that what it is?").
Nicholson saw the character from a different viewpoint. "My feeling was that
the guy is an imprisoned cat. He's locked up in all this conditioning... I
wanted to show that he was really a worthwhile person who had instincts in
all directions but was being aberrated by the environment. So by the end of
it, he was really laying it all out -- that freedom was really a very
individual thing and that people are frightened of it."
Introduced to marijuana at a campfire in the woods, Hanson delivers a
tongue-in-cheek monologue about Venusians who have migrated to Earth.
"They've been coming here ever since 1946 -- when the scientists first
started bouncing radar beams off the moon. And they've been livin' and
workin' amongst us in vast quantities ever since. The government knows all
about 'em..... [But they] have decided to repress this information because of
the tremendous shock that it would cause to our antiquated systems.... So
now, the Venusians are meeting with people in all walks of life -- in an
After rednecks taunt them at a greasy-spoon restaurant, Hanson explains why
Billy and Wyatt have triggered such hostile feelings. "What you represent to
them is freedom... It's real hard to be free when you're bought and sold in
the marketplace. Of course, don't ever tell anybody they're not free 'cause
they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they
Hanson's words prove prophetic. That night, a gang of men club and ax him to
death in his sleeping bag.
Billy and Wyatt go on to a New Orleans whorehouse that Hanson had
recommended. There, they celebrate Mardi Gras and go on an LSD trip in a
cemetery with two young prostitutes. Then they are on the open road again,
and Billy laughs triumphantly. "We've done it. We're rich, Wyatt. We did it,
man." To which Wyatt answers cryptically, "We blew it."
Critics have debated this meaning. To me, Wyatt seems to be commenting on the
futility of their nomadic life -- a life that catches up much of the
confused, aimless lives of the dissidents of their generation.
But Hopper said he really had in mind the fact that they have lost their
innocence because their wealth is corrupt. It has come from a dope sale.
"When Peter says, 'We blew it', he's talking about easy money, that we should
have used our energies to make it."
And then there is the final insult. Two hunters in a pickup truck spot Billy
and Wyatt up ahead on their cycles and decide to scare them. One of the
pickup riders points a shotgun at Billy and says, "Why don't you get a
haircut?" In response, Billy gives him the finger.
Seconds later the man fires, blasting Billy off his cycle. Wyatt rushes to
him at a grassy strip next to the road. "Oh my God," Billy says. "I'm gonna
get him [the gunman]." But Billy is dying.
The pickup riders know they can't leave a witness behind, and they turn
around. As Wyatt, seeking help, speeds by the truck, the hunter fires again.
Wyatt, too, is killed, his motorcycle flying into the air, bursting into
The camera pans from the burning wreckage and become an aerial shot. Credits
roll, and we hear "Ballad of Easy Rider." "All I wanted was to be free," the
song says, "And that's the way it turned out to be."
- David Zinman, Fifty Grand Movies of the 1960s and 1970s (New York: Crown
Publishers, Inc., 1986).
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