Easy Rider (1969): Seminal Counter-Culture Film, Starring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda

Easy Rider, the counter-cultural movie, divided critics after winning a major award at the Cannes Film Festival. No matter what your aesthetics and politics are, the movie is a must-see for anyone interested in American film and pop culture.

In 1969, Dennis Hopper’s seminal road movie, “Easy Rider,” proved, among many other distinctions, that critical, anti-establihsment films of mainstream society and dominant culture could achieve artistic cache and even commercial success.

As a road movie, it begins as a hymn to the openness and vastness of the American land, and ends as a tragic vision of the American Dream.   Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), the anti-heroes of “Easy Rider” were new screen protagonists, hippies on motorcycle in search of “America.” Their names resonate with numerous Westerns made about Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. However, instead of the Easterner going West (“Young Man Go West!”), in this picture, Wyatt and Billy ride from West to East.

What’s left of the ethos of the Old West are two outlaws and drug dealers, who make enough money from drugs sold to a capitalist in Los Angeles in order to cover their fun trip to New Orleans’s Mardi Gras. Drug dealing is not regarded as more deviant or corrupt an activity than that mainstream institution, Business. Billy in fact says that “dope peddling” is no worse “than the Wall Street tycoon spending eighty percent of his time cheating the government.” (This was prophetically said in 1969).

Unlike today’s screen heroes, the characters are not young, age-wise, and they are not played by young actors, either. However, as protags, they adhere to cult of youthfulness, even childishness, hedonism without any responsibility, be it familial or marital.


Billy and Wyatt are contrasted with the “straight” world, the rednecks that can’t tolerate their looks (long hair), ideals (spontaneity, freedom) and culture (rock music). The backward bigots exemplify the kind of mob behavior and lynching mentality seen in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

There is a significant scene in which the couple stops to repair a flat tire at a poor rancher’s house. Through crosscutting, the film conveys the two contrasting lifestyles: the rancher and his horse, Billy and Wyatt and their motorcycle. Surrounded by a huge family at dinner time, Wyatt tells the rancher: “It’s not everyman who can live off the land, you know, doing his own thing his own time. You should be proud.” But we are not entirely convinced that he believes in what he says, and clearly, it’s not the right lifestyle for him.


The couple is also juxtaposed with the commune members. They express interest, even mild respect, but they really cannot adopt this collective lifestyle. It’s hard life, for one thing, and the film offers an unglamorous view of this hardship. “You know, this could be the right place,” says a commune member, inviting them to stay while urging that “time’s running out.” But Billy wants to go, and the inarticulate Wyatt says, almost apologetically, “I’m hip about time. But I just gotta go.”

But where are they going and what are their goals? The movie celebrates romantic individualism, but it also presents a warning, excessive (irresponsible) individualism might have detrimental effects.

The scene at the commune is at best ambiguous. At first it depicts a viable alternative, reminiscent of the back to the soil movement during the Depression (in movies like King Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread”). The sequence is romanticized through the use of soft focus camera. But both films suggest the problems of extended families, and of collectivist communes, as alternative lifestyles.


Oscar Nominations

“Easy Rider” was nominated for two Oscars:

Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson)

Original Screenplay (Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern).

Oscar Awards:


Oscar Context

In 1969, the Supporting Actor Oscar went to Gig Young for “The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”‘ and the Original Screenplay Award to William Goldman for the Western comedy “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.