Perhaps not as newsworthy was the release of a low-budget “hippie movie” called Easy Rider. The film starred Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and a not-yet-well-known Jack Nicholson. But the real stars were two custom built Harley Davidson motorcycles – a raked out chopper with a stars and stripes gas tank (Wyatt’s bike), and a slightly more pedestrian panhead Harley with orange and yellow flames (Billy’s bike).
Easy Rider became the third highest grossing movie of 1969.
Hollywood had done motorcycle movies before – from the 1953 original outlaw biker film The Wild One (Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin) to cheesy drive-in-movie, bike-sploitation offerings such as The Wild Angels, Angels From Hell and She-Devils on Wheels. But Easy Rider was different – it continued the boundary pushing started by Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. By the summer of ’69, sex and drugs in films were no longer taboo.
As Easy Rider turns 50 on July 14, a lot of attention will once again be paid to this ground breaking film including limited engagements in movie theaters this summer. In his original review of the film, Roger Ebert suspected “many members of the Hollywood older generation believe, sincerely and deeply, that Easy Rider doesn't have a story, and doesn't mean anything, and that the kids are all crazy these days.” Roger was right about the older generation’s opinion. But the fact that we’re still talking about it 50 years later says something about a story and some crazy kids whose lives were changed forever by a movie.
Much has been written about the recurring subject of “freedom” in Easy Rider. Jack Nicholson’s freedom monologue around the campfire is the film’s narrative theme. Jack’s character, George Hanson, tells Billy people are afraid of him not because he has long hair, but because what he represents to them is freedom. And seeing a free individual scares them. In a 1969 Rolling Stone interview, Peter Fonda said: “My movie is about the lack of freedom, not about freedom. My heroes are not right, they’re wrong. The only thing I can end up doing is killing my character. I end up committing suicide, that’s what I’m saying America is doing.”
Much has also been made of Wyatt’s anti-hero statement to Billy at the end of the film: “We blew it . . . “ Wyatt says it twice. Billy protests with: “I mean you go for the big money, man - and then you’re free . . . “ Nope, Billy didn’t get it.
New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby wrote “Easy Rider is a motorcycle drama with decidedly superior airs about it. How else are we to approach a movie that advertises itself - A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere.”
In a recent interview, Peter Fonda mentioned that people often ask him, is the film still relevant today? His response? “Well, look out the window and tell me we haven’t blown it. We keep blowing it worse. So yeah, it’s relevant. 50 years later, I’m still looking . . . ”
RIP Peter Fonda 2/23/40 - 8/16/19
"At the end of Easy Rider, it’s Fonda’s Wyatt who rides back for help when those gun-crazy rednecks blast Billy off his bike. The final image of the film is Wyatt and Captain America going up in flames. Fonda never saw the ending as hopeless. 'It’s a bonfire,' he said. 'Still burning.' That’s the attitude that makes the memory of the personal and public Peter Fonda an everlasting flame." Excerpt by Peter Travers/Rolling Stone magazine
No biker deserves to be bored . . .