Easy Rider (1969): Ambiguities or Contradictions?

In the late 1980s, as a professor of film and sociology at Wellesley College, I introduced a number of movies that have never been shown at that school before, such as John Ford’s “The Searchers,” “Easy Rider,” and “Taxi Driver.” It was not an easy task to persuade Wellesley’s president and dean that John Wayne, a right-winger politically, was a good actor (not just a screen star), who made many significant movies we now consider classics. But that’s a story for another article.
In this piece, I would like to contextualize the seminal counter-cultural road film, “Easy Rider,” which was released decades ago and is now out in a wonderfully new DVD. I’d like to point out some of its impact on the Hollywood industryand pop culture.
During the 1988 presidential campaign, candidate George Bush used the film “Easy Rider” as an analogy for a passing era of laxness. Bush, who became president, enthusiastically declared that Americans had exited the easygoing “Easy Rider” era and entered a tougher “Dirty Harry” era.
Bush stated, “We (the Reagan administration) have turned around the permissive philosophy of the 1970s, which made it easy to slip into a life of drug abuse and crime.” In Bush’s view, Clint Eastwood’s “Go ahead, make my day” had replaced sentiments such as Jack Nicholson’s “This used to be a helluva country–I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it,” from “Easy Rider,” as the very heartbeat of America.
In 1988, George Bush explained that, “Some of the young people in college today probably don’t believe this, but people used to talk like those movies of the 1960s. They thought drug use was ‘cool’ and advised you to ‘Do your own thing.’ Well, if someone said that to you today, you’d probably think they got lost in a time-warp during one of the original runs of ‘Star Trek.'”
Jeremy Larmer complained at the time of Bush’s speech that, “Neither film has much to do with what America ever was really like, but they, like the fabricated man who so confidently cites them, are part of the image- mongering culture that makes a reality of its own that is all but inescapable.”
Did “Easy Rider” create a celluloid America of its own, from which there was no escape?
“Easy Rider” was “the statement” of a generation, when it was released in the summer of 1969. It remains one of the most significant films of the decade, offering a new kind of American movie and a new kind of experience. “Easy Rider” may be the film equivalent of Jack Kerouac’s rambunctious “On the Road novel,” in that it legitimatized a new subject matter, including casual drugs and sex, and the questioning of the American system and its dominant ideology.
At the time, Dennis Hopper’s film received a far-reaching reaction from fans and critics alike. Vincent Canby, the N.Y. Times critic, once wrote that “Easy Rider” was “not a great film but an accurate if overstated dramatization of the fears of many people, especially young people, who were shocked to realize that perhaps there were flaws in the system.”
Bush’s use of the film as a symbol of a presumably “discarded” American attitude raised then—and continues to raise now–the important question of the film’s short-term and long-term effects.   I think many critics and viewers would agree that some of the ideas of “Easy Rider” have not aged well, that they are antiquated. Naturally, we see the characters of “Easy Rider” in a different way than viewers did back then, because we now see the youth movement of that time in a different light—both positive and negative.
In recent years, harsh critics have claimed that the movie is “uninformed” and “miserably dated.” Nonetheless, revisiting the film today, it’s interesting to note the thematic ambiguities, the ideological cracks, the contradictions in the narrative, the criticism of the American Dream and its myths of freedom, individualism, and free enterprise.
We Blew It
Near the end of the film, Wyatt tells Billy “We blew it, Billy. We blew it.”  At the time, this famous line inspired a huge debate: What exactly did he mean?
The movie goes to great lengths to celebrate the romantic individualism of the youth movement, but within that celebration, there’s actually a thoughtful and clever warning—perhaps even a waking call.
“Easy Rider” does present the issues involved in excessive, irresponsible individualism. The scene at the commune, for instance, is a good example. Hopper is ambiguous about judging the individualistic lifestyle the scene presents. At first, the commune appears as a viable alternative, reminiscent of the back to the soil movement during the Depression, seen in such movies as King Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread,” in 1934.

Time’s Running Out

The sequence is even more romanticized through the use of soft focus camera. Nonetheless, both “Easy Rider” and “Our Daily Bread” suggest the problems of extended families, and of collectivist communes as alternative lifestyles. Billy and Wyatt express interest, even mild respect in the commune members, but basically cannot adopt this collective lifestyle. It’s hard life, for one thing, and the film doesn’t offer a glamorous view of it. “You know, this could be the right place,” says a commune member, inviting Billy and Wyatt to stay, while urging them, “time’s running out.”

But Billy wants to go, and the inarticulate Wyatt apologizes with a near-quote from On the Road, “I’m hip about time. But I just gotta go.” The question remains, where are Billy and Wyatt going? What are their goals, if any?