Easy Rider: Counterculture and Vietnam

Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), the cool anti-heroes of Easy Rider, the most commercial film of the cycle, represented new screen protagonists: hippies on motorcycles in search of “America.”

Their names resonate with Westerns made about Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. However, instead of Easterners going West (“Young Man Go West!”), Wyatt and Billy ride from West to East. What’s left of the ethos of the Old West are two drug dealers, who make enough money from drugs sold to a capitalist, to pay for a fun trip to New Orleans’s Mardi Gras. Drug dealing is not regarded as more deviant or corrupt than the activities of a mainstream institution like 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.”

The two men adhere to a cult of youthfulness, hedonism without any responsibility, familial or marital. A road movie, Easy Rider begins as a hymn to the openness and vastness of the land, and ends as a tragic vision of the American Dream. Billy and Wyatt are contrasted with the “straight” world, rednecks who can’t tolerate their looks (long hair), ideals (spontaneity and freedom), and culture (rock music). The backward bigots embody elements of crowd mentality and mob behavior.

In one scene, Wyatt and Billy stop to repair a flat tire at a poor rancher’s house. Through cross-cutting, the film conveys the two contrasting lifestyles: the rancher and his horse and the two men with their motorcycle. Surrounded by a huge family at dinner, 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 this statement is not convincing, as clearly it’s not a lifestyle for him.

Later, the two men are juxtaposed with the members of an agricultural commune. They express interest, but they can’t adopt this collective lifestyle. It’s hard life: the film offers an unglamorous view of communal life. “You know, this could be the right place,” says one member, urging that “time’s running out.” At first it appears as an alternative, reminiscent of the back to the soil movement during the Depression. But Billy wants to go, and the inarticulate Wyatt says almost apologetically, “I’m hip about time, but I just gotta go.” But where they are going and what their goals are remain unclear.

The movie celebrates romantic individualism, but it’s also a cautionary tale: excessive (irresponsible) individualism might have detrimental effects. Unlike Alice’s Restaurant, Easy Rider makes no direct allusions to Vietnam (the word is never mentioned). But both films are products of the Vietnam era in experimenting with new lifestyles and new cinematic forms. Alice’s Restaurant and Easy Rider point out the problems of communes as alternative lifestyles to white, middle-class culture and patriarchal nuclear family.