Director: Dennis Hopper
Production: Raybert Productions and Pando Company; Technicolor, 35mm (LSD sequence shot in 16mm); running time: 94 minutes; length: 2561 meters. Released 14 July 1969, New York. Filmed 1968–69 on location between California and New Orleans. Cost: about $375,000.
Producers: Peter Fonda with Bert Schneider and William L. Hayward; screenplay: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern; photography: Laszlo Kovacs; editor: Donn Cambern; sound: Ryder Sound Service; sound mixer: Leroy Robbins; art director: Jerry Kay; music: Steppenwolf, The Byrds, The Band, The Holy Modal Rounders, Fraternity of Man, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Little Eva, The Electric Prunes, The Electric Flag, and Roger McGuinn; special effects: Steve Karkus; stunt gaffer: Tex Hall.
Cast: Peter Fonda (Wyatt); Dennis Hopper (Billy); Antonio Mendoza (Jesus); Phil Spector (Connection); Mac Mashourian (Bodyguard); Warren Finnerty (Rancher); Tita Colorado (Rancher's Wife); Luke Askew (Stranger on Highway); Luana Anders (Lisa); Sabrina Scharf (Sarah); Sandy Wyeth (Joanne); Robert Walker, Jr. (Jack); Robert Ball, Carmen Phillips, Ellie Walker, and Michael Pataki (Mimes); Jack Nicholson (George Hanson); George Fowler, Jr. (Guard); Keith Green (Sheriff); Hayward Robillard (Cat Man); Arnold Hess, Jr. (Deputy); Buddy Causey Jr., Duffy Lamont, Blase M. Dawson, and Paul Guedry (Customers in the Café); Toni Basil (Mary); Karen Black (Karen); Lea Marmer (Madame); Cathi Cozzi (Dancing Girl); Thea Salerno, Anne McClain, Beatriz Monteil, and Marcia Bowman (Hookers); David C Billodeau and Johnny David (Men in pickup truck).
Awards: New York Film Critics' Award, Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson), 1969; Cannes Film Festival, Best First Film, 1969.
Easy Rider: Original Screenplay by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern plus Stills, Interviews, and Articles, edited by Nancy Hardin and Marylin Schlossberg, New York, 1969.
Springer, John, The Fondas: The Film and Careers of Henry, Jane, and Peter Fonda, New York, 1970.
Mast, Gerald, A Short History of the Movies, New York, 1971.
Downing, David, Jack Nicholson: A Biography, London, 1983.
Cagin, Seth, and Philip Dray, Hollywood Films of the Seventies: Sex, Drugs, Violence, Rock'n'Roll, and Politics, New York, 1984.
Rodriguez, Elean, Dennis Hopper: A Madness to His Method, New York, 1988.
Stayton, Richard, Dennis Hopper, New York, 1997.
Tuten, Frederick, in Film Society Review (New York), May 1969.
Sarris, Andrew, in Village Voice (New York), 3 July and 14 August 1969.
Reif, Tony, and Iain Ewing, "Fonda," in Take One (Montreal), no. 3, 1969.
Fonda, Peter, and Leslie Reyner, "Thoughts and Attitudes about Easy Rider," in Film (London), Autumn 1969.
Macklin, F. A., "Easy Rider: The Initiation of Dennis Hopper," in Film Heritage (Dayton, Ohio), Fall 1969.
Milne, Tom, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1969.
Polt, Harriet, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1969.
"What Directors Are Saying," in Action (Los Angeles), September-October 1969.
Farber, Stephen, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1969–70.
Warshow, Paul, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1969–70.
Sullivan, Tom R., "Easy Rider: Comic Epic Poem in Film," in Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Spring 1970.
Sullivan, Mary Rose, "Easy Rider: Critique of the New Hedonism," in Western Humanities Review, no. 24, 1970.
Hampton, Charles, in Film Comment (New York), Fall 1970.
Kael, Pauline, in New Yorker, 3 October 1970.
"Easy Rider Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), September 1971.
Cohen, M. S., "The Corporate Style of BBS," in Take One (Montreal), November 1973.
Herring, H. D., "Out of the Dream and into the Nightmare: Dennis Hopper's Apocalyptic Vision of America," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Winter 1983.
Hugo, Chris, "Easy Rider and Hollywood in the 1970s," in Movie (London), Winter 1986.
McGilligan, Patrick, "The Ballad of Easy Rider (Or, How to Make a Drug Classic)," in Los Angeles Magazine, March 1994.
MacGregor, Jeff, "The Hot Day Terry Southern, Cool and Fatalistic, Strode In. . . ," in New York Times, 12 November 1995.
Hirschman, E.C., "A Cinematic Depiction of Drug Addiction: A Semiotic Account," in Semiotica, no. 104, 1995.
Laderman, D., "What a Trip: The Road Film in American Culture," in Journal of Film and Video (Los Angeles), no. 48, 1996.
Redman, Nick, in DGA Magazine (Los Angeles), July-August 1996.
Hampton, Howard, "Scorpio Descending: In Search of Rock Cinema," in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1997.
Singer, Mark, "Whose Movie is This (How Much of Easy Rider Belongs to Novelist Terry Southern)," in New Yorker, vol. 74, no. 17, 22 June 1998.
* * *
Easy Rider remains a cinematic hallmark primarily for negative reasons; the preeminent film dealing with the subject and style typifying the late 1960s, it remains an interesting cultural and historical document of the industry's response to "youth culture." Unfortunately, the film seemed trite even two years after its initial critical and public triumph. Produced for $375,000, it made over $50,000,000 and spawned a number of less-effective imitators; the film's profits convinced even the most reticent backers in Hollywood that the youth market was ready to be tapped. In fact, it may have been its imitators that made the original date so quickly; many of the films produced after Easy Rider were of such inferior quality that they couldn't be sold to television after their initial release in regular theaters.
The film is not without value. Film historian Gerald Mast sees Easy Rider as a landmark of the "New Hollywood" as well as the culmination of films representing our experience of the American West through the narrative device of the journey, the film being a sort of New Wave cowboy epic. It reflects the sexual and social values of the American counter-culture of the period: the protagonists are social misfits and outlaws. Unlike filmic outlaws of the past—Little Caesar, Scarface—these heros can be charming, good-humored, warm and often compassionate. Their humorless and finally deadly pursuers, predictably, represent the "older generation." In Mast's words, "Given the outlaw protagonists, the new obligatory ending was the unhappy rather than happy one. The protagonists die; law triumphs over lawlessness. However, good did not triumph over evil, for law and good were antithetical."
Easy Rider dealt openly with violence and paranoia, appropriate themes given the ideological divisions of the United States in the late 1960s. As David Cook notes, the film "was praised for its radical social perspective far beyond its value as a film." For him as well it is the western/quest film revisited: two "hippies," their journey made on motorcycles rather than horses, go "in search of America." The film concerns freedom, or the illusion of freedom—for ultimately the bikers "can't find it anywhere," as the promotional copy read.
Easy Rider merges the American past and present, city and country, gangsters and cowboy through the main characters played by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. Civilization is personified by small-town bigots and the county sheriff, and characterized by institutionalized love (a whorehouse), and even institutionalized death (a very large cemetery). The romantic journey seems less than it should be; a commune of hip kids from the city acts with as much hostility towards the easy riders as the "straights" in the towns. Freedom is represented by the road, but as the ending of the film illustrates, even that cannot last.
Andrew Sarris stressed the "assortment of excellences . . . lift Easy Rider above the run and ruck of its genre. The first and foremost is the sterling performance of Jack Nicholson as George Hanson, a refreshingly civilized creature from Southern comfort and interplanetary fantasies." Among the film's other strengths are its traveling shots on the road accompanied by the rock music of Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, Steppenwolf, The Band, Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, and others. But Sarris's main point is that "with all the rousingly rhythmic revelry and splendiferously scenic motorcycling, Easy Rider comes to resemble a perceptual precredit sequence, but reasonably pleasant withal." However, "there is something depressingly deja vu about the moralistic view of America from a motorcycle." And this from a critic who essentially likes the film.
Critical opprobrium of its time not withstanding, Easy Rider's jury still hasn't returned a less than contradictory verdict. For all its apparent triteness, for all of its "Man-cool mumbles," even mainstream critics like Sarris warn, "beware of all generalizations, including this one; the nouvelle vague tricks and Bergman-Fellini-Antonioni mannerisms are no more voguish today than the UFA German Expressionist and Soviet montage tricks were in the late twenties." The film has dated badly, yet its value lies in capturing one of the United States' most divisive times, illustrating where the frontier legacy begun with Stagecoach seems to have led. It's often impossible to tell the heros from the villains in Easy Rider, as now.
—Deborah H. Holdstein