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EASY RIDER: Born to be Wild

As one of the defining films of the American New Wave, EASY RIDER (1969) managed to connect with audiences in a way Hollywood was failing to at the time. Without the burden of studio interference, director Dennis Hopper was able to critique the American dream and what it really means to be free in a capitalist society – adding fuel to the counterculture wave that was washing over the United States throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

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The plot, or lack of, is fairly simple – two bikers, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) travel from California to New Orleans on their Harley-Davidsons following a successful drug deal. Along the way they meet many people, some who are agreeable with their lifestyle, and others who hold prejudices against them. Most importantly, they meet George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), an alcoholic lawyer who bridges the divide between hippie and bigot, a man who is somewhere in between, and is along for the ride.

EASY RIDER is a road movie where the plot is secondary to the experience and message, and because of this, it will not be to everyone’s taste. There are long scenes focussing purely on the journey that Wyatt and Billy are taking; they enjoy the open road with the sun in their backs admiring the scenery of the vast desert landscapes in all directions. As a viewer, you are well and truly there too, enjoying the company of our two protagonists from relaxing around the campfire, to sleeping rough in the wilderness. From its unique, and sometimes confusing editing, to its classic rock soundtrack – the film manages to engage you in a way that more plot-centric films might not. EASY RIDER does not feel like you are watching a movie, it’s so much more than that.

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The amazing success of EASY RIDER was not a given. This was a low budget movie filmed by an auteur director in an era where studio rigidity reigned supreme. EASY RIDER challenged Hollywood traditions, it was something new and exciting, made for the generation that looked at things a bit differently from an era gone-by. When all was said and done it was a juggernaut box-office hit that year, making a massive return on investment for Columbia Pictures – perhaps ironic given the message it preaches.

Regardless though, EASY RIDER helped kick off the American New Wave, a new film movement that swept Hollywood where studio control took a step back and the director became the final authority and author of the finished product, leading to some timeless classics that were truly unique in their artistic style. What started with EASY RIDER, BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), and THE GRADUATE (1967), led to films such as TAXI DRIVER (1976), DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), and CHINATOWN (1974) – the true realisations of the director’s vision. It was an exciting time for cinema, especially as the onscreen characters contrasted the Classic Hollywood depiction of the leading man; your Cary Grants and John Waynes’ were faded out and replaced by multi-faceted nuance: the imperfect man who was flawed, who did not conform with the all-American persona – a symbol of the growing counterculture movement.

One of the key issues that EASY RIDER tackles is freedom and what this really means in a capitalist society. ‘Freedom’ is a right that many Americans hold dear and like to show it off to the world as if it’s a badge of honour, so when Dennis Hopper faced the dilemma head-on, for many it was probably a difficult pill to swallow.

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.
Billy: What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about.
George Hanson: Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s what’s it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.

The lead characters are the epitome of freedom; they, and they alone, are in control of their own destiny. They don’t answer to anyone; they can go anywhere and do anything – whereas George sees the ‘reality’ of American freedom as being a contradiction to the literal sense. He questions if you can ever be totally free whilst you are a cog in the wheel of the machine. It’s an interesting discourse that would have raised a lot of questions to the audience at the time, giving them opportunity for some serious self-reflection.

It’s really difficult to gauge the significance of this message in the present day. Modern viewers would likely interpret the film differently to cinema goers in 1969 due to the significant cultural shifts that were taking place at the time. 1960s America had a serious identity crisis – many of the younger generation were rejecting the traditions and social norms that were taught to them by their parents and various institutions. Much of this anti-establishment movement stemmed from differing opinions on the Vietnam War, materialism, and women’s rights.

“We blew it” is the most famous quote that is remembered from EASY RIDER and one that is believed to be a criticism of counterculture as a whole; how a failure to properly organise and mobilise the movement across America resulted in a missed opportunity for real structural and social change. Peter Fonda spoke with Hollywood Reporter recently and was asked about this quote and his response indicates that the analysis of the meaning is largely correct.

“I intended it to be enigmatic and applicable to all kinds of things. When asked today if it’s still relevant, go look out the window and tell me we haven’t blown it.”

EASY RIDER was a film with a singular voice that demanded to be heard by anyone who would listen – the world must do better. Credit must be given to Dennis Hopper for this, he levelled the playing field in mainstream media for counterculture representation. It would have been so easy to paint Wyatt and Billy as villains especially when the movie kicks off with them the beneficiaries of a drug deal, but instead, the film chooses to paint them rather indifferently: two men who don’t really fit into the oversimplified Hollywood black or white characterisation of the time. What we get is a grey area that is open to viewer interpretation.

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And perhaps this goes a long way to explaining the widespread acclaim it received upon its release. Nominations for EASY RIDER were plentiful come award season: Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards; Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival; Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures from the Directors Guild of America. There were even some prestigious award wins to boot: winner at Cannes for Best First Work for director Dennis Hopper, and winner at the Japanese Kinema Junpo Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.

And let’s not forget about Jack Nicholson’s flurry of nominations for best supporting actor at the Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTAs. EASY RIDER was Nicholson’s first big break in Hollywood that helped kick start a monumental career that has since seen him star in some of the greatest films ever made, work with some of the greatest directors of all time, and win 3 times at the Oscars (with a further 9 nominations). In his review for the film, Roger Ebert articulated the important role Nicholson’s character plays in engaging the audience:

“… it’s hard to identify with the Fonda and Hopper characters. So Hopper and his co-writers Fonda and Terry Southern write in a brilliant character, Old George (played magnificently by Jack Nicholson). And when this alcoholic, tragic ACLU lawyer from a small Southern town enters the picture, suddenly that’s us there on the bike with Fonda. And the movie starts to work.”

He made so much from the screen time that was afforded to him that it is impossible to see his larger-than-life portrayal being performed by anyone else, but funnily enough that’s what almost happened. The role was originally cast for Rip Torn who later pulled out following a dispute with Dennis Hopper. There is no way to be sure how Jack Nicholson’s career might have panned out if not for his fortunate break in EASY RIDER, but you would like to believe his extraordinary talent was destined for Hollywood greatness regardless. But you never know, sometimes a bit of luck is what you need.

EASY RIDER has a unique voice that captures a brief slice of life in 1960’s America that successfully manages to highlight the contrasts and prejudices that are simmering below the surface in American society. Its relevancy remains unchanged and its legacy will forever be iconic. Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson really were born to be wild.

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