“A Man Went Looking for America… and Couldn’t Find it Anywhere”


"I think the movie…creates this dangerous atmosphere.  I know when we were making the movie, we could feel this: the whole country seemed to be burning up – Negroes, hippies, students.  The country was on fire.  And I meant to work this feeling into the symbols of the movie…" - Dennis Hopper


Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film Easy Rider is perhaps the most definitive film of the 1960’s American counterculture.  Along with producer Peter Fonda and screenwriter Terry Southern, Hopper had witnessed the rise and pre-fall of the youth movement that had been accelerating over the course of the decade, and wanted to speak to it directly.  Easy Rider’s story traces the journey of two hippies, Wyatt or Captain America, and Billy, played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper respectively.  Wyatt and Billy acquire a large sum of money through an illegal drug deal and then set off on their motorcycles from Los Angeles to the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans.  The characters’ journey paints a landscape of a deeply divided nation, a nation purporting to be a “land of the free” where anyone with long hair is verbally abused and sometimes murdered.  Released in theaters on July 14th 1969, Easy Rider earned over $40 million at the box office, proving its marketability as an independently produced film, paving the way for the artistic triumphs of the New Hollywood of the 1970’s.


“Peter, as Captain America, is the slightly tarnished lawman, is the sensitive, off-in-the-stars, the Great White Liberal who keeps saying, ‘Everything’s going to work out,’ but doesn’t do anything to help work out.  He goes to the commune, hears people have been eating dead horses on the side of the road – does he break any of that fifty-thousand out of his gas tank?  What does he do?  Nothing…Finally he realizes this when he says, ‘We blew it.’  ‘We blew it’ means to me that they could have spent that energy in something other than smuggling cocaine, could have done something other than help the society destroy itself.” - Dennis Hopper


The majority of viewers of Easy Rider will most likely be as shocked as Billy is when Wyatt utters those three words:  “…a certain darkness, a premonition of disaster hovered around the edges of the story.  There was a spirited debate in the press over what Captain America actually meant when he said ‘We blew it.’” [1]  Both Wyatt and Billy have maintained an admirable coolness of character up until this scene, and this sudden switch in sentiment causes the audience to wonder just what exactly has been ruined.  There are multiple interpretations of what Wyatt is alluding to with this line, which comes in response to Billy’s joy at having “made it” and being able to retire in Florida until the end of their days.  It most likely speaks to Wyatt and Billy’s “easy money” move, the fact that they earned their large sum of money through the trafficking of cocaine, a hard drug and theoretically more inclined to harm society.  To go and retire in Florida at such a young age, when there is still so much work to be done in terms of bringing the anti-materialist and pro-peace creeds to the forefront of the national psychology, is irresponsible and defeatist.  The characters that Wyatt and Billy have encountered on their journey who are on (or at least not violently against) their sociopolitical side, such as the farmer who gives them lunch in an early scene, the hitchhiker and his fellow commune members, George Hanson the lawyer even, are all invested in something larger than themselves with some sort of attempt at permanence.  Wyatt and Billy have had chances to achieve this along the way but have decided not to, and so they have failed at truly being free.  When Fonda was asked to define the term “easy rider,” he said that it was “…a Southern term for a whore's live-in boyfriend…he's got his 'easy ride'... that's what happened to America, man. Liberty's a whore, and we're all taking an easy ride." [2]

Easy Rider belongs at once to the genres of road film and Western.  There is an abundance of journey footage that ties the film’s narrative episodes together and tracks the progress that Wyatt and Billy (and for a time George Hanson, played by Jack Nicholson, and the Hitchhiker, at different moments) make.  Much of the scenery we see, Monument Valley included, is familiar from that of classic Western films, and helps to visually construct the geographical character of the nation.  Wyatt and Billy are two outsiders in search of the best way to live their lives, and they are seemingly determined to get back to the land, as we see the hippies in the commune that they visit do.  The scene in which Wyatt and Billy bury George Hanson’s body is strikingly similar to burial scenes from well-known Westerns as well: Peter Fonda as Wyatt gives his “He was a good man…” speech, and in voice and appearance brings to mind his father Henry Fonda’s performance in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath.  All quality road movies seem to have a carefully compiled soundtrack and this film does too.

Easy Rider was one of the first known films, along with Mike Nichols’ 1967 film The Graduate, to use popular music in a non-diegetic way.  The film’s soundtrack reached number six on the nation’s Billboard charts and was certified gold in January 1970.  Most of the tracks were from Hopper’s personal record collection, initially put in as placeholders during the editing process before it was decided that they would remain.  Crosby, Stills & Nash were recruited by Hopper and Fonda to create original songs for the film, but after viewing Easy Rider in its entirety, the group felt that there was nothing more to be musically said – the soundtrack was already perfect without them. [3]  The film’s soundtrack is particularly effective in the road travel scenes of the film, seeming to further articulate the sentiments of the characters at any given moment in the story, as well as provide musically commentary on the state of the nation and its ideology at the end of the 1960s.  Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” is played amidst the drug deal scene at the film’s start, the lyrics of which establish the importance of Wyatt and Billy’s decision to involve themselves with the business side of hard drugs and how the acquisition of their money by this means allows them to eventually “blow it.”  Songs by popular musicians of the era such as Roger McGuinn of The Byrds and The Jimi Hendrix Experience also help to encapsulate a moment of time in history, as well as speak directly to a youthful audience using the music it was listening to and identified with.  Fonda initially went to Bob Dylan in search of a musical anthem for the film, but he ran up against licensing troubles with another intended track “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” and so Roger McGuinn cut his version to use for the soundtrack.  Dylan then gave the first four lines of lyrics of “The Ballad of Easy Rider” to McGuinn to finish out and record, and it is these four lines that seem to sum up the interior emotional desires of Wyatt and Billy, saying “Flow river flow/ flow to the sea/ wherever that river flows/ that’s where I want to be.”  This song is played in Easy Rider’s final shot, an aerial shot of Captain America’s burning bike and the bodies of our two heroes on the side of the highway, where we can see the flowing river adjacent to the winding blacktop: nature’s road, or God’s road, and man’s road.

Easy Rider was a surprise hit of the summer of 1969, still in movie theaters when the generation-defining Woodstock music festival took place in the middle of August.  The film also helped to usher in the New Hollywood Era of the 1970s, an era in which films’ narratives were more non-linear, self-destructive and irresolute, and dealt with more realistic topics that were inclined to leave viewers more unsettled.  Easy Rider was also the first independent feature film to be released by a major studio, proving that movie studios could make a lot of money off of “alternative films.”  The youth had proven it could override the desires of studio executives and single-handedly determine the success of a film, even a film that addressed potentially sensitive issues such as drug use.  Easy Rider managed to capture the cultural divide of an era and the increasing awareness of the youth and hippie movements at having only partially realized their revolutionary goals.