50 Years Ago: ‘Easy Rider’ Becomes a Revolution on Wheels
What happens when you let longhairs who want to destroy the movie business make a movie? You get Easy Rider, a rambunctious assault of a film that's as much a prediction of generational doom as it is a proclamation of revolutionary triumph.
The movie, released July 14, 1969, was dreamed up by Peter Fonda, the son of Hollywood royalty who had embraced hippiedom and was making his living starring in biker exploitation flicks. One night in Toronto, after a marathon of booze and drugs that included an attempt to wiggle his bare toes up the skirt of Jacqueline Bisset, Fonda had an Epiphany. Wasn't the biker just another American cowboy? And wasn't, therefore, the best way to make a modern Western to make a biker film?
He called his friend Dennis Hopper back in Los Angeles and hit him with the idea. Absolutely groovy, Hopper agreed. And while we're at it, why don't we also tear down the entire geriatric, square, out-of-touch edifice of Hollywood itself?
A plan was born.
Fonda and Hopper hired Terry Southern, an accomplished novelist and screenwriter who'd penned Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and came up with something approaching a story.
Two guys named Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt, aka Captain America, (Fonda) would make a big score by selling some cocaine, then use the money to traipse across America on their crotch rockets, enjoying the finest fruits of freedom. They would encounter various elements of the counter-culture and the regular culture, stop by New Orleans to check out Mardi Gras, and end up in Florida. The whole thing would be filmed in a new way: no studios, no back lots, just a small (stoned) crew using lightweight, easily portable cameras that had only recently been developed.
Predictably, chaos ensued. Before it was written, Hopper and Fonda headed down to New Orleans to start filming. Without a script, all they knew was that they needed footage of themselves staggering around the Mardi Gras parade with a pair of prostitutes (one played by the extraordinary Karen Black) and doing acid in a graveyard.
But Hopper was continually high, and anxious to the point of paranoid delusion. He assembled the crew in a parking lot as the parade was starting and harangued them for several hours, screaming, according to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, "This is MY fucking movie! And nobody's going to take MY fucking movie away from me!" Then he told all three cameramen they were first camera, and sent them into the fray.
When the execs from the production company in Los Angeles got the New Orleans footage, they – a bunch of insurgent, tear-down-the-system types themselves – flipped their lids. What the hell was this? Was it even a movie? Why was Hopper pointing the camera into the sun and shooting random men in suits wandering around in a graveyard?
But it was too late to put on the brakes. Hopper and Fonda recruited Phil Spector to play a rich guy in a limo who buys their coke in the movie's opening scene. Then they went on the road, filming endless sequences of themselves on motorcycles.
They shot in Arizona and New Mexico and Louisiana. They built a tragic hippie commune in the mountains outside Los Angeles, and filmed in small towns not yet turned on to the idea of men with hair longer than a quarter inch.
They kicked Rip Torn out of the film and gave his part to Jack Nicholson, who claimed he'd smoked dope every day for 15 years to slow down his manic personality; he plays an alcoholic lawyer who joins their trek wearing a gold football helmet and gets beat to death by outraged rednecks in a night sneak attack.
They threw a wrap party – a deeply druggy affair – at which they realized they'd forgotten to film the final campfire sequence, which is the most important in the movie.
Eventually, somehow, perhaps involving a warping of the time-space continuum that the straight mind believes is inalterable, they finished shooting. And then Hopper announced he would edit the first cut and produced a four-hour self-proclaimed masterpiece that he believed should be sent on a road show, replete with VIP seating and intermissions.
It's a fantastical story. And maybe even more fantastical is the fact that it worked.
Hopper's cut was eventually trimmed down to a respectable 96 minutes, and the movie became a massive hit. In addition to becoming an instant cultural milestone, it also did manage to at least temporarily change Hollywood in a way that had been possible beforehand only in Hopper's delusions.
It drew back the curtain on, and promoted, the recreational drug use that was an unstated fact in American life. (Compare Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, made a decade earlier, in which everyone knows that using drugs will absolutely turn you into a raving Mexican hoodlum.)
It ushered in the era of movies dominated by pop music. One of the forgotten tragedies of the film is that Crosby, Stills & Nash was hired by Fonda to score the film, only to be summarily fired by Hopper in tin-pot dictator mode. Despite this, the soundtrack – which reached No. 6 on the Billboard album charts – was ground-breaking, featuring Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, and Roger McGuinn covering Bob Dylan.
It also proved that the youth movement could not only make movies, it would go see them. It cost in the ballpark of half a million dollars, and earned $19 million in theaters. This financial success – always the true lingua franca of Hollywood – would help make possible the careers of a generation of American directors like Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, all of whom in previous decades would have been considered too young and risky to be allowed anything like the control they wanted over their films.
On top of all this, Easy Rider is also an artistic triumph.
Hopper was a barbaric madman who beat his wife (once breaking her nose), wore his megalomania like he wore his mustache and cratered his career as as soon as he got the chance with his second film, the notoriously indulgent The Last Movie. But he was also the possessor of an undeniable artistic talent.
Easy Rider is not, despite what its origin story might suggest, the work of a poser. As per Fonda's initial vision, it places itself in dialogue with the traditional Western (the characters are named after Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp), presenting a new spin on the traditional tale of the cowboy in opposition to the forces of civilization.
To strengthen this theme, the narrative is pared down in a precise, motion-oriented way that Roger Ebert in his 1969 review would term "cinematic shorthand." It's an approach that would influence everything from the highway movies of the '70s like Two Lane Blacktop and Scarecrow to things as seemingly dissimilar as The Hitcher in the '80s and George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road from 2015.
On the technical side, it features surprisingly affecting performances and uses its montage sequences expertly. Hopper's scene-to-scene transitions, which often feature quick flashes forward or backward in time, work not only to reinforce the stoned ambience of the whole, but also to give the proceedings more than a whiff of despair.
It's this final element – the film's understanding that the ethos it represents is ultimately doomed – that is maybe the best indicator of its artistic intelligence. At the close of the movie, sitting around the campfire (in the scene they initially forgot to shoot), Hopper declares that their plan has worked. They've done what all Americans want to do: made enough money to retire to Florida.
Fonda, disagreeing, utters the film's most famous line: "We blew it."
The next day, two locals in a pickup truck blow Billy and Wyatt away with a shotgun, for no reason at all.
Here is Easy Rider's surprisingly clear-sighted prophesy. Politics, after the '60s, would again come be controlled by the businessmen and the squares; industrial Hollywood would again, by the '80s, banish the independent troublemakers from its ranks; and what had once seemed to be an inevitable, liberating revolution would be reduced to a historical oddity, a strange brief moment when the free-thinkers were in charge.