“You have to watch Easy Rider. Man, it’s a classic. It is America!” my father declared to me when I was somewhere in the haze of middle school. I resented that he pushed so hard for me to watch it. I called it an old man movie about long dead ideas and a cry for youth that I never had.
But then I watched it.
And I fell in love.
Easy Rider (while not subtle about it at all) is a deep reflection on the “American Dream” and the quest for individual freedom. Wyatt, the main character, is referred to as “Captain America” (played by Peter Fonda) and is seen in the first few scenes snorting cocaine and acting as a drug mule with his partner in crime Billy (played by Dennis Hopper) in exchange for a stack of cash that he stores in his motorcycle’s gas tank. This gas tank is painted with an American flag design and Wyatt’s helmet and the back of his leather jacket are adorned in a similar American flag design. The prevalence of the American flag sets the stage for the next hour and a half of the two traveling the United States with no goal in mind, other than to get to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and simply explore more about themselves and life. Ultimately, the open highway and the two friends are the main focus of the story. They represent everything that the 1960’s and later 1970’s counterculture stood for: long hair, rebellion, drug use to gain new perspectives, and a firm conviction against “The Man.”
Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson all starred in their fair share of these drug fueled fast paced motorcycle movies such as Wild Angels, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, The Trip, and Hell’s Angels on Wheels. Each of these are all films that are transformative in their own right. Yet, Easy Rider is something special. It has something that lots of other movies simply don’t have: intimacy.
Easy Rider feels like watching old grainy home movies every single time I watch it. Regardless of my ability to quote almost all of the script or describe the nuances and trivia of the movie it still feels like taking a peek into the lives of these two men and their friendship with each other. Easy Rider questions the validity of claims against bikers (and the counterculture as a whole) and wishes to paint a different picture of the men beneath the leather. Ultimately, Easy Rider wants to look above the rumbling engines to hear the voiceless speak as outlaws, hippies, and “agitators.”
However, this movie never makes a conclusion that the lifestyle of the counterculture is correct.
Sure, Easy Rider is the film that pushed for freedom of sleeping under the stars and living in harmony with each other. In 1969 the counterculture movement was dying and this film was used as a crutch to rebrand the VW vans and Woodstock concerts of that yesterday into the choppers and Steppenwolf of the new era of rebellion. Yet, the counterculture in hindsight led to a rampant drug problem, economic downturn, and lots of people who were distraught when the end of the “hippie” movement finally arrived.
I believe that this movie is ambiguous for a reason: it wants to emphasize that freedom should be defended, but that it should also be used in moderation. The characters might be the prototypical look of the rebel, but their looks go much deeper than that into a moral grey area of living life. A modern look at this movie dictates that it was made on the precipice of either the continuation or failure of the counterculture movement and it reflects this chasm in great detail.
Ultimately, this film is a cautionary tale for not buying into extremes and to always make informed decisions without being caught up in the details. The fine line of rebellion and conformity must be walked and that tightrope display is shown well in Easy Rider. Whatever you think of the lifestyle depicted in the movie, one thing must be agreed on: the soundtrack is phenomenal and the cinematography is epic in scale.
Daniel Wartham is a current grad student and spends his free time watching movies and taking walks to Waffle House at 2am. He can be found on Twitter at @DanielWartham.