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On America, Mobility, & Freedom in “Easy Rider”

“A man went looking for America, but he couldn’t find it anywhere.”

Few taglines remain relevant long after a film’s release, but Easy Rider’s ominous warning (“he couldn’t find it anywhere”) maintains its potency nearly 50 years after its debut. In David Laderman’s Driving Visions, he situates the road film genre within an explicitly American context and characterizes Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) as “arguably the quintessential, genre-defining road movie.”[1] Following the cult popularity of low-budget biker exploitation films, Easy Rider seems to have borrowed from the aesthetic and tonal vigor of these works, but extended itself to a broader cultural critique that was relevant for a wider spectrum of Americans falling under the banner of “the counterculture.” While the influence of cinema imported from Europe and Asia facilitated the rise of the American auteur, the explosive socio-political context of late 1960’s could also be credited for cultivating unique works which explored social tensions and questions of identity, and more specifically, what it means to be an American. Easy Rider – in addition to preceding 1960s biker films such as The Wild Angels (Roger Corman, 1966) and Hell’s Angels on Wheels (Richard Rush, 1967) – uses motorcycles, mobility, and Western iconography to illuminate the 1960’s as an age of social discontent and conflicting ideologies, while examining questions of American identity and projecting the limits of freedom. Earning $19 million in 1969 (making it the fourth-highest grossing film of the year) Easy Rider accomplished what few films do, securing its status as a commercially successful cult picture and further illustrating its relevance in an age of social tension and political instability.[2]

Although Easy Rider is unlike many of the 1960s motorcycle flicks that came before it, the film owes much of its success to the image of the outlaw biker on the open road that earlier works cultivated, in addition to the skills that Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson acquired while working within the biker exploitation genre themselves. In Sleazy Riders; Exploitation, “Otherness,” and Transgression in the 1960s Biker Movie from the Journal of Popular Film & Television (2003), cultural historian Bill Osgerby notes that The Wild Angels, which was advertised as “the most terrifying film of our time,” “laid the way for a slew of low- budget, lurid, and gratuitously violent movies based around the exploits of marauding motorcycle gangs.”[3] Starring Peter Fonda as “Blue,” the head of the Hell’s Angels Venice chapter, Nancy Sinatra as his loyal girlfriend Mike, and Bruce Dern as his doomed friend “Loser,” The Wild Angels showcases the exploits and perceived freedoms of the swastika wearing biker gang who are always heading somewhere but also going nowhere. Though there is little plot, nor deep thematic exploration, the image of the outlaw biker crafted by Corman left a lasting impression on the genre, and American culture at large. Osgerby writes:

“Like classic exploitation cinema, films such as The Wild Angels and Angels from Hell privileged exhibition over narrative, spectacle over intellect. In their depiction of snarling, maverick outsiders, biker movies conjured themes of an uncontrolled, macho “Otherness” whose unrestrained lusts and sneering disaffection set it beyond the pale of mainstream culture.”[4]

While The Wild Angels does highlight questions of freedom and identity, the film ultimately luxuriates in the biker’s over-the-top exploits, rather than sustaining any meaningful engagement with social criticism. Although the film “feverishly articulates subversion of conventional American institutions (such as church, work, family, etc.) through the aimless mobility of the Angels’ motorcycle subculture, insisting on the equation of perpetual movement with moral, political, and spiritual freedom,” as Laderman notes, it seems that The Wild Angel’s treatment of race and gender limits the pursuit of freedom to the white, macho male.[5] These limits are most explicitly expressed in the film’s two rape scenes; the first involving a black nurse who is knocked unconscious while the gang is kidnapping Loser from the hospital, and then later when Loser’s widow is drugged and gang raped at his funeral. The treatment of women’s bodies as objects (raped, passed off from one man to another, and relegated to the back of the bike rather than driving) severely limits the independence and autonomy supposedly explored by the characters in The Wild Angels, as well as other biker flicks.

Following Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels, exploitation director Richard Rush’s Hell’s Angels on Wheels arguably presents a more successful examination of freedom and the open road, though not without flaws. The film stars Jack Nicholson as “Poet,” a spontaneously violent, but more often than not sensitive and sympathetic biker who’s been invited to join the Angels on their next trip after gaining their trust. The gang’s volatile, yet charming leader Buddy is played by Adam Roarke, and Sabrina Scharf plays his unpredictable and loyal-to-a-fault girlfriend Shill, who’s also the subject of Poet’s desires. The gang sets off on an impulsive road trip when Buddy decides a wedding is in order for one of the bikers, and the second half of the film documents their on-the-road adventures and details the complexity of their relationships (which are dictated by the gang’s strict hierarchical system). Though women are still relegated to submissive roles – a reflection of the actual gender politics of the Hell’s Angels – Shill’s perplexing unpredictability could be read at times as somewhat empowering, despite her insistence of subjugation. And unlike The Wild Angels, Hell’s Angels on Wheels delights in the iconography of the motorcycle on the open road, and the possibilities mobility permits. Notions of freedom are most clearly articulated on the road, and in particular, when the bikers deviate from it.

Returning from the impromptu wedding, the gang drives by a large hill with a path heading straight upwards at a dangerous incline. Intrigued, they slow down and one biker goes to see if the path is actually traversable. Though it’s drivable, the incline is certainly risky. But this group relishes in moments of vulnerability, so they pull off and start a competition, individually driving up the side of this colossal hill and enticing other bikers who pass by to join them. Back on the road again, the group pulls off where a field of sheep are grazing. Inspired by this moment in which the natural and mechanical meet, Shill hugs a sheep and says to it quietly: “Oh, you beautiful sheep.”

Trailing only a few years later, Easy Rider took Hell’s Angel’s on Wheels’ treatment of the open road as mystical and meaningful, and infused it with potent cultural critique through the lens of hippie wanderers. The film stars Peter Fonda as Wyatt (or “Captain America”) and Dennis Hopper as Billy, two bikers who are heading to Mardis Gras after profiting from a major cocaine deal in Los Angeles. Wyatt is quiet and philosophical, yet self-righteous, while Billy is more restless, anxious, and self-absorbed. Despite their differences, what they both share is a preference for change and the open road instead of stability. The film also features a stellar performance from Jack Nicholson as George Hanson, the playful, endearing, and intelligent lawyer for the ACLU that they meet along their journey.

Identifying with the American counterculture and emerging from the tradition of exploitation biker films, Peter Fonda’s role as co-producer of Easy Rider is unsurprising. According to Lee Hill in BFI’s Easy Rider, Fonda supposedly came up with the broad concept for Easy Rider while promoting The Wild Angels:

“Whether it was just the dope or idle rambling inspired by fatigue, Fonda suddenly had a revelation. He and Dern were modern cowboys! Instead of John Wayne or Gary Cooper, he saw two hip guys traveling across America on bikes experiencing the freedom of the road. As the image came into deep focus in his mind, he saw Hollywood’ version of the grail – the idea for a hit movie.”[6]

But despite Fonda’s predilections for countercultural values and lifestyle, he still emerged from mainstream Hollywood, and his institutional ties were inescapable. Dennis Hopper, on the other hand, had been blacklisted by the studios after refusing to play a scene how director Henry Hathaway wanted him to for From Hell to Texas (1958), and was relegated to television work. Despite these limits, Hopper’s marriage to Brooke Hayward – a descendant of Hollywood royalty – and his mentee-relationship with James Dean allowed him to flourish financially and creatively.[7] As two actors who felt that their careers were stifled by studio expectations (According to Hill, “simply by growing their hair long, they had seriously impaired their careers in the eyes of studio casting agents and producers,”) Fonda and Hopper were seemingly the ideal actors to take on such a film.[8]

Nearly as famous as Easy Rider is the mythology of the film’s production history, which was fraught with disagreements and conflicting egos. Hill writes:

“Behind the making of Easy Rider was an uneasy, but passionate, collective driven by the flow of contradictory ideas and emotions that dominated the 60s. The disparate backgrounds of Fonda and Hopper, screenwriter and novelist Terry Southern, co-producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, Jack Nicholson, Lazslo Kovacs and Henry Jaglom, among others, led to varying degrees of conflict. Yet the communal ethos of the decade kept the creative disagreements and one-upmanship in check until the film was completed and released.”[9]

As Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut, crew members were actively concerned about his egomaniacal tendencies, and there are many stories that have been widely circulated regarding Hopper’s temper and dictatorial approach.

Especially important to Hopper was the film’s soundtrack, which is deeply entrenched in emotions of the era. Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” one of the first songs heard in the film, overtly celebrates the counterculture and the open road, but so does the rest of the soundtrack, including 1960’s classics “Wasn’t Born To Follow” by The Byrds, “The Weight” by The Band, and “If 6 Was 9” by Jimi Hendrix, among others. In addition to music, the film also celebrates mobility visually, through cinematography, editing, props, and costumes. Common to the road film is the use of a tracking shot, which follows the vehicle containing the protagonists down the open road. But on two motorcycles, Wyatt and Billy’s movement is more dynamic than one vehicle’s. The camera cuts from riding ahead of them, to behind, and then each side – giving the spectator a chance to see the characters at every angle, taking on the perspective of a car passing by. The space between the bikers changes as well, creating a visceral energy which emphasizes the movement on the road and the stillness in the distance. Easy Rider’s stylized editing – which is most notable in transitional moments when locations are intercut multiple times as the story moves forward – are interesting in that they visualize movement in the frame, as well as a temporal shift. These cuts are utilized in instances when the time and space the protagonists occupy has changed, and could be read as a visual metaphor for the tensions between stasis/immobility and change/mobility. Like other films which call attention to the medium itself through self-conscious cinematography and editing choices, Easy Rider is as open to interpretation visually as it is thematically.

In terms of theme, Easy Rider poses questions regarding identity, conservatism, and the counterculture – all of which are positioned distinctly within the American socio-political landscape of the time. The 1960s were a decade fraught with tension and tragedy, from the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, (1963) and civil rights leaders Malcolm X (1965) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968), to the U.S.’s increasing involvement in the Vietnam War. The period was also a time of great transformation, with marginalized groups demanding equality and agency. Major movements of the decade included the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, The American Indian Movement, and the Disability Rights Movement, among others. Aligned with anti-war efforts and hippie culture, these groups clashed with conservative Americans whom President Richard Nixon would refer to as “The Silent Majority” in a 1969 speech.[10] In Easy Rider, Wyatt, Billy, and George are all brought to their ends by rednecks coded as members of “The Silent Majority” – who reject the “long hairs” and their brand of freedom.

While the Western genre is often associated with a conservative, nationalistic notion of manifest destiny, Easy Rider appropriates Western themes and iconography to oppose its conservative ideology – for the most part. Unlike traditional Westerns, these bikers head east and their trusty steeds are slick motorcycles instead of horses. They aren’t protecting the town; rather, they represent the danger that comes to it. But Wyatt and Billy travel through the same open landscapes as traditional Western cowboys, and seem free of concerns for borders or boundaries, much like those characters. Coming from the city, both men seem to yearn for a frontier sense of freedom, but to actualize this fantasy would require finding a place to lay down roots, which doesn’t seem to be their style. Ultimately, it appears that their freedom is not only limited by conservative institutions and members of the “silent majority”, but by Wyatt and Billy’s own inability to figure out what they actually want. While David Laderman argues in Driving Visions that the film’s “countercultural attitude toward the landscape and nature is quite distinct from that of the Western,” he notes that the film “also rearticulates the Western’s nostalgia for the frontier, with the more general American pastoralist tradition of fondness for the wilderness.”[11] On the road film and Western iconography, Laderman also maintains:

“(One) aspect of the road movie’s iconography related to these highways is the vast, open landscape bordered by seductive horizons. These expansive spaces obviously recall the Western’s compelling articulation of the frontier, and more generally the shifting nature/culture divide. However, the road movie reinvents the Western’s preindustrial iconography of slow-paced horse treks as motorized motion and speed.”[12]

In addition to Easy Rider’s ambivalent aesthetic and thematic relationship to the Western, the film also deals with the social anxiety of the time in a manner that is sometimes unclear. While Wyatt and Billy objectively defy the normalcies of mainstream American culture simply by growing their hair long and riding motorcycles, there are times in which both characters, but particularly Wyatt, seem to support more “traditional” conceptions of American life. This conservative subtext is most clearly illustrated in the film’s treatment of race and gender, with Hill arguing that the film’s lack of black characters resulted in a “missed opportunity to expand the film’s critique of the American Dream.”[13] Wyatt, whose nickname “Captain America” also illuminates nationalistic predilections, first exposes his conformist, traditional leanings near the beginning of the film when he openly admires the lifestyle of the white rancher (who has many children with his Mexican wife, who is quiet and subservient). Regarding that scene, Laderman writes: “The lifestyle Wyatt admires – and that he himself embodies, to a degree – bears within it cultural and historical baggage full of patriarchal and imperialist oppression.”[14] Easy Rider’s “cultural and historical baggage” often complicates the film’s notions of freedom and non-conformity – notions which are also frequently contradicted by the words and actions of both Wyatt and Billy.

Lee Hill argues that Easy Rider “is a film about the contradictions of the American pioneering spirit and the sheer waste and destruction that lies behind so much of the ambition underpinning the American Dream.”[15] But it seems, instead, that the film’s overt conclusion is that the American Dream does not exist at all. Wyatt and Billy, two men who strongly identify with countercultural values are, themselves, contained by their own conservative ideas of freedom and happiness. Though their bikes traverse freely on the open road through iconic Western landscapes, their mobility and “freedom” is still limited by the effects colonialism and American self-righteousness have had on outside forces, and themselves. And this limitation is so ruthless that it results in their demise. A man went looking for America, but he couldn’t find it anywhere” and maybe he didn’t find it because he didn’t know what he was looking for, or maybe it never existed.

________________________

[1] David Laderman, Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie, (Austin, TX: U of Texas, 2010), 66

[2] Lee Hill, Easy Rider, (London: BFI Publ., 1996), 31

[3] Bill Osgerby, “Sleezy Riders: Exploitation, “Otherness,” and Transgression in the 1960s Biker Movie,” (Journal of Popular Film and Television 31.3, 2003), 98-108

[4] Osgerby, “Sleezy Riders,” 98-108

[5] Laderman, Driving Visions, 47

[6] Hill, Easy Rider,11

[7] Hill, Easy Rider,13-14

[8] Hill, Easy Rider,11

[9] Hill, Easy Rider, 9

[10] Richard Nixon, “Address to the Nation on the War in Vietnam,” (Washington, DC. 3 Nov. 1969)

[11] Laderman, Driving Visions, 79

[12] Laderman, Driving Visions, 14

[13] Hill, Easy Rider, 54

[14] Laderman, Driving Visions, 79

[15] Hill, Easy Rider

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