Revisiting Dennis Hopper’s 1969 counter-culture classic ‘Easy Rider’
“Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.”—Rousseau
Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film Easy Rider is a hippie romp. It is a part of the counter-culture narrative that surrounded the Hippie Movement. A classic tale of subversion and iconoclasm, we are introduced to a world of drugs right from the start. The protagonists, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (played by Hopper himself), indulge in cocaine use within a couple of minutes and it sets the tone for the whole film. Easy Rider chronicles a modern American Odyssey, perpetuated by drugs and the ideals of hippie culture.
Wyatt and Billy are bikers who set out on a long journey to get to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. The gas stations along the way serve as ports but they are shunned and treated as the pirates of folklore. Hopper’s use of symbolism in the film is perhaps its greatest strength. Wyatt’s bike has the American flag painted over its engine, in which he hides his drug money. The bike becomes a metaphor for the country which is fuelled by retroactive violence and drug money. Hopper also shows us recurring images of discarded clocks and neo-ruins of wooden houses, as if the insides of America were in a state of decay.
Easy Rider also points out the uniqueness of the time it is set in, where a lot of conflicting ideas create a contested space for subjectivity. In a scene, Wyatt and Billy can be seen fixing their bikes while a farmer fixes the horseshoe for his steed. Science and tradition are at odds, creating a new American ethos of confusion. This conflict between conservatism and progressive ideals is also observed in the residents of small-town America, full of xenophobic and homophobic hatred for anything they do not understand. A strong air of hostility envelops their small communities.
Hopper repeatedly displays long sequences of the bikers riding through heartland America, refreshingly free of any signs of civilisation. The open skies, rolling plains and distant hills foster a sense of absolute liberty. These scenes have always resonated with viewers because of their beautiful imagery and that unparalleled freedom. The bike rides are further elevated by the claustrophobic imprisonment that the bikers suffer when they make it to civilized society, arrested for “parading without a permit”. Wyatt rests his head on the American flag on his jacket in jail, signalling the death of all the values that the flag represents. George Hanson (played by a young Jack Nicholson) remarks, somewhat hypocritically, “We are all in the same cage here” but then gets a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card because of his wealth.
These class conflicts are also emphasised by Hopper when he surveys the prosperous neighbourhoods of middle-class Americans and then immediately follows those shots with documentations of the poor and marginalized communities and their living conditions. These juxtapositions and cruel ironies become the pivotal point of Easy Rider when Hanson becomes a victim of unprovoked violence and succumbs to his injuries. Wyatt and Billy steal his credit card off of his corpse and proceed to go to New Orleans to buy alcohol, prostitutes and drugs. Their Hippie ideals and their revolt against capitalism are easily neutralized by the accumulation of capital. Just prior to his death, Hanson had told the bikers, “They are scared of what you represent to them: Freedom”. However, the bikers betray their own principles as a testament to the new Age of Hypocrisy.
The concluding scenes of the film are haunting. An iconoclastic montage of drugs, booze, sex, anxieties and impulses, the bikers find themselves in a graveyard, drinking and partaking in drugs with a couple of prostitutes. Biblical stories are narrated in the background while the characters on screen indulge in public nudity, defiling the graves of strangers and celebrating the absence of spirituality and morality. Whispered fears are thrown at the fear. Someone exclaims, “I’m dead! Do you understand?” and we are presented with two layers of death in the graveyard. The dead lie peacefully while the living roll in the graves of their societal constructs, desperately searching for a pulse.
The American Dream morphs into a sick and twisted nightmare of violence and nauseating hedonism in Easy Rider. Towards the end, Billy tells Wyatt that they are finally rich but Wyatt laments their actions and quietly says, “We blew it.” On their final bike ride, they are shot by rednecks who do not take kindly to their Hippie appearances. Wyatt’s bike, with the American flag painted on it, blows up and we can see the flames and the smoke as the credits start rolling. Intolerance murders America and leaves its corpse by the highway.