Easy Rider: What Ever Happened to Countercultural Cinema

The seminal 1969 “Easy Rider” has been restored and is playing now at Film Forum, New York.


During the 1988 presidential campaign, candidate George Bush once used the film “Easy Rider” as an analogy for a passing era of laxness. He 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.


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. And it was a critical statement about America. It remains one of the most significant films of the decade in that it was such a new kind of American film. Easy Rider, the film equivalent of Jack Kerouac’s rambunctious On the Road novel, legitimized new subject matter, including casual drugs and sex, and the questioning of the American system. At the time, Dennis Hopper’s film received a far-reaching reaction from fans and critics alike. Vincent Canby 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 discarded American attitude, however, raises the important question of the film’s long term effect: in the years since 1969, what has Easy Rider become Is it still what it may have seemed to be in 1969, a politically correct cry of the counter-culture Most people would argue that the film’s effect has dramatically reversed, that Easy Rider is now antiquated and if anything, only painfully reveals the foolishness of the 1960’s counter-culture movement. It is certainly true that we see the characters of Easy Rider in a different way now than we did then, because we now see the youth movement of that time in a different way.

Albert Brooks’ film “Lost in America,” which is a parody of Easy Rider, shows us how much Easy Rider lends itself to ridicule in light of the passing years. In Lost in America, a yuppie couple sells everything they own to buy a humongous mobile home. In their house on wheels, they then hit the road to find America. The husband turns out to be a big Easy Rider fan, and is trying to live out his Easy Rider fantasies. In one scene the couple is pulled over for speeding by an officer who also turns out to be an Easy Rider fanatic. Lost in America’s humor comes from the dichotomy between the virtual fantasy that Easy Rider presented to American youth, and the ensuing reality they faced in growing up. This humor comes from the same satirical frame of mind that gave us Garry Trudeau’s Zonker, who is himself a sort of eternal version of Easy Rider’s Billy.

The film itself is actually not as uninformed as accusations like “dated miserably” would lead one to believe. The movie goes to great lengths to celebrate the romantic individualism of the youth movement, but within this celebration there is actually a thoughtful and clever warning. Easy Rider, be it dated, does present the question of whether excessive, irresponsible individualism might have detrimental effects. The scene at the commune, for instance, is a good example. Here, 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 (as in Our Daily Bread). The sequence is even romanticized more through the use of soft focus camera. But 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 offers an unglamorous view. “You know, this could be the right place,” says a commune member, inviting Billy and Wyatt to stay, urging them that “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.” But where are Billy and Wyatt going and what are their goals

Easy Rider raises as many questions as it does reinforce undefined hippiedom. The film undeniably affected our image of straight America in a biased way, playing up straight America’s inherent contradictions. Easy Rider’s heroes, Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda), are contrasted with the “straight” world; in this case the one-dimensional rednecks that can’t tolerate Billy and Wyatt. The looks (long hair), ideals (spontaneity, freedom) and culture (rock music) of the 60’s are overwhelmingly preferred here over the simple inhuman bigotry of straight America. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Billy and civil liberties lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) have a serious talk about freedom. Billy asks George, “What the hell’s wrong with freedom, man That’s what it’s all about.” George replies, “Oh, yeah. That’s right, that’s what it’s all about, all right. But talking about it and doing it are two different things. I mean it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Course don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re get real busy killin’ and mamin’ 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.”

Beyond notions of straight America, Easy Rider contains significant notions about the nature of America as a country, thus creating a 1960’s version of America. In many ways, Easy Rider contrasts the evils of straight America with the founding principles of America the nation. There is a scene in which Billy and Wyatt stop 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 motorcycles. Surrounded by the rancher’s
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 on his own time. You should be proud.” Is living off the land, doing your own thing on your own time really America Wyatt’s words of praise are not convincing, for clearly this is not a lifestyle for him. In this way, Easy Rider was a travel poster for a new America, encouraging people to hit the road for themselves in search of an ideal lifestyle. A classic road narrative, Easy Rider begins as a hymn to the openness and vastness of the American land, and ends as a tragic vision of the American Dream.

With its new vision of America, Easy Rider found an unimagined new mass market, much as Rebel Without a Cause had done nearly fifteen years earlier. Easy Rider was an independently produced film, the first to herald the independent industry’s growth and potential. As the counter-culture’s biggest movie, box office-wise, Easy Rider grossed $60 million. Easy Rider showed for the first time ever that an independent film could make money. Shot in just seven weeks, with a lowly budget of $375,000, and just $180,000 for all post-production, with an entire year of editing under its belt, Easy Rider was a revolutionary statement to the motion picture industry as a whole.

The film was also innovative in its use of a rock soundtrack in a new way. The rock songs were associative, part of the story, propelling the story along its course and commenting like a Greek chorus on the action occurring. Easy Rider as discovered one of America’s greatest movie stars as well: Jack Nicholson, who is now an American institution.

Easy Rider perhaps inadvertently made a bridge between the schlock 1970s movies and the mainstream 1970s cinema. While it was the grandfather of the 1970s country movies, Easy Rider also had a hand in spawning the cycle of Walking Tall, Dirty Harry, and etc. films. Despite being new in many ways, a “real hippie movie,” Easy Rider is interesting because it plays off of old myths. Were Billy and Wyatt really new screen protagonists They were hippies on motorcycles in search of “America,” and yet their names resonate with the numerous Westerns made about Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. However, instead of the Easterner going West (“Go West, Young Man!”), Wyatt and Billy ride from West to East. What’s left of the ethos of the Old West are two outlaws, now in the guise of drug dealers, who make enough money from drugs sold in Los Angeles to cover for a fun trip to New Orleans’s Mardi Gras. Perhaps, the West to East movement in Easy Rider smacks of the desire to return to our origins. It’s a logical direction to go, then, if you are trying to find America. Go east young man, and try to find out how this whole crazy America ever got started. Go and find the core of America.

Billy and Wyatt are not young, biologically speaking, but they adhere to the age-old cult of youthfulness, even childishness. It is hedonism without any responsibility, familial or marital. As in the case of Rebel Without a Cause, Easy Rider did much more than simply reflect the youth culture of the time. Easy Rider took big steps to invent or progress that youth culture. For instance, the low-slung choppers that Billy and Wyatt ride inspired an enormous fad in not only motorcycle design, but in the design of bicycles. The fashion world also picked up on the Western duds that Billy and Wyatt wore, in a big way. But the most disturbing effect the film had on youth culture, was the legitimization of drugs. The scary acid trip sequence in a New Orleans cemetery is by leaps and bounds more an advertisement than a warning. Easy Rider was the first film to show drugs as an accepted part of people’s lives. The scene where George Hanson is introduced by Billy and Wyatt to marijuana, is also an introduction of the audience to drug use. As Jeff Greenfield wrote in retrospect, George Hanson “… embodies our relative innocence about drugs even as late as the end of the 1960’s.” Moreover, drug dealing is not regarded as any more deviant or corrupt than that mainstream institution of business in the film. Billy in fact makes the point that “dope peddling” is no worse “than the Wall Street tycoon spending eighty percent of his time cheating the government.”

This perspective seems to be one of the most dated aspects of Easy Rider. Fast-forward to 1988, and here is George Bush explaining that, “Some of the young people in college today probably don’t believe this, but people used to talk like those movies of the 60’s. 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.'”

Near the end of the film, Wyatt tells Billy “We blew it, Billy. We blew it.” At the time, this famous line inspired debate everywhere. What was meant by this ambiguous line Perhaps today the line’s meaning is more clearly delineated by the audience. Today, an audience watching Easy Rider may willingly agree with Wyatt’s summation of Easy Rider’s journey. “Yes, he’s right. They blew it.” Billy and Wyatt have definitely changed over the years, becoming less sympathetic.

Written with Jeff Farr