Film Information and Synopsis:

Release Date: 1969
Director: Dennis Hopper
Short Synopsis:
Easy Rider introduces hippie culture to the big screen through the cross-country journey of Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper). Like many young men, Wyatt and Billy are trying to find direction in life, but as representatives of hippie culture, their methods are untraditional. They acquire a financial stake through the sale of cocaine, and then use part of the proceeds to buy motorcycles. They hop on their bikes and ride to New Orleans for Mardis Gras, hoping to find meaning and direction along the way. Rebelling against the conformist suburban culture of post-World War II America, these young men believe in living off the land, rejecting existing social institutions in favor of creating something new.

They pick up a hitchhiker who introduces them to his fledgling hippie commune, somewhere in the American Southwest. Life is hard on this unforgiving land, where a group of pot-smoking hippies explores their anti-establishment ideals, creating art and sowing crops to sustain their minds and bodies. Wyatt is reluctant to leave them behind, but Billy is intent on making Mardis Gras. Their long hair makes them unwelcome in the roadside motels they pass, and they are arrested on the basis of their appearance in a small town along the way. In his breakout role as an ACLU lawyer with a drinking problem, Jack Nicholson arranges their release and reaches for the freedom Billy and Wyatt seem to offer by accompanying them to Mardis Gras. He never makes it; in the next small town, the men are beaten by the unwelcoming townspeople. Nicholson is fatally injured.

They make it to Mardis Gras and ironically seek to make a meaningful human connection with two hookers and four hits of acid. The acid trip turns bad, symbolizing the increasingly dark tone of their road trip and journey through life. Wyatt tells Billy that they “blew it,” presumably meaning that they should’ve stayed and made a stand with the hippie commune seen earlier in the film. The movie explores the tension of civil unrest which exploded in the 1960’s, as young men and women felt targeted for their anti-establishment behaviors by the powers-that-be. The final, climactic scene ends with Billy and Wyatt being shot of their bikes by hippie-hating small towners. Given the socio-political climate of the late 1960’s, this scene was, at the time, felt deeply by many young people, who felt that their parents’ generation would rather see them dead than free.

Images from the Film -- Link to Slideshow:

Film Review

Does Easy Rider still deserve its place in the canon? Perhaps. It was important in that it experimented with camerawork to convey groovy scenes of drug-induced delirium. Some experts (Thompson and Bordwell, 2002) suggest the camera jump cuts, flash forwards, and jump-aheads were borrowed from avant garde films. So many films and even television shows borrowed the film’s groovy techniques that the sequences in “Easy Rider” have come to look clichéd. Nonetheless, Easy Rider, with its half-a-million-dollar budget, is considered the turning point film which made Hollywood realize the new wave of young directors could bring in substantial proceeds. This allowed a focus shift towards artistic and experimental films, now targeted at a youth market by young auteurs. The new emphasis on creativity and art has created a lasting canon of film. The question remains if its content is sufficient to keep it in the canon, or does Easy Rider merely hold its place because it opened the door for better films?

Scholars might at some point choose to reevaluate the canon as a whole. From a feminist perspective, such a reevaluation would be welcome. The characters in Easy Rider, for example, don’t let their love of personal freedom stop them from supporting prostitution, which enslaves women. Presumably, the prostitutes in New Orleans should be glad their services have been purchased by the likes of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Is Peter Fonda’s initial reticence to sleep with his hooker supposed to endear him to the female audience? Why was the choice made to have the male leads hire prostitutes? What do they represent? The film might have been a whole lot more interesting if it developed this theme; certainly Women's Rights were an issue in the 1960s. Perhaps Wyatt and Billy's characters--or who they represent--might have fared better if they were willing to consider how their actions affected others, instead of only worrying about what other people (i.e., "the man") would do to them.

Perhaps the director is intimating there is no line between the free love ideals of the counter-culture and outright prostitution. Certainly this is not the only possibility, but the lack of discussion of the subject, scholarly or artistic, within or without the diegesis, leaves the storyline flat and unmemorable. It also suggests the same mindset which allowed Roman Polanski, with Nicholson’s full support, to drug and rape a thirteen-year-old model during a Hollywood party. Works of art are bound to be flat and incomplete when their auteurs/creators lack understanding of human nature. To fail to acknowledge half of the population, i.e., the female gender, is to lack understanding of human nature. Without a feminist perspective in deciding what merits being included in the canon, the canon will not be as artistically strong as it could be—just as Easy Rider, by failing to more deeply explore its own themes, is not as artistically strong as it could be.

Academic Analysis

Easy Rider is known for being the first Hollywood movie to play for the then-younger generation. Cinematically, it was important because it created, or rather, recreated, the myth of the American West—the American ideal of freedom—for a new generation. The subsequent wave of New American cinema which Easy Rider helped birth has become entrenched in the American film canon. There are many artistically great films, like Taxi Driver which owe their existence to the success of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. However, some of these subsequent films, like Easy Rider, do suffer from over-identification with their time period. This movie, while seminal in its day, fails to hold up over time due to changes in American cultural beliefs.

The very same generation of Baby Boomers this film was intended to support would, today, probably disavow the ideals mythologized in Easy Rider. I interviewed two Baby Boomers for this project. One described how she felt “punched in the gut” by the violent demise of the main characters when she initially saw the film. To her, it spoke of the inter-generational violence simmering below the surface during the 60s, and sometimes erupting, like at Kent State. Yet when she sees the film today, it fails to have the same impact. Another Baby Boomer commented that, today, he identifies with the movie’s motel and coffee shop employees, who are loathe to transact business with these scruffy-looking drifters. As the film was important because it spoke for this particular generation, this generation’s changing ideals perhaps devalues the film. But then again, perhaps not:

“Taking the broader view, you are forced to admit that you underestimate the effect of Easy Rider down through cinematic time and space at your peril: the image of a young and beautiful Captain America, all sandy blond locks, smiles, sunglasses and sideburns, astride his stars-and-stripes-adorned chopper, is a powerful one” (Kinsgley, 2009.)


King, Geoff. New Hollywood Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. This book talks about the American New Wave. It links “Easy Rider,” “The Graduate,” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” and discusses how the success of these movies marks the New Wave Hollywood era. “Easy Rider” is discussed in detail as a turning point into this new cinema.

McAdams, Frank J. The American War Film: History and
Hollywood. Los Angeles: Figueroa Press, 2005. Lists “Easy Rider” as part of the first group of counterculture movies to have an impact on the Vietnam generation. Discusses Vietnam as the source of alienation in these movies, as well as the reasons why this source was not openly addressed in the first wave of movies.

Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw Hill, 2002. This book places “Easy Rider” in context with other American New Wave films. Brief discussion of budget, sound track, and editing techniques.

Academic Journals
Costello, Donald P. "From Counterculture to Anticulture." The Review of Politics 34.4, America in Change: Reflections on
the 60's and 70's (1972): 187-93.
Describes how the youth of the 1960’s appropriated the art of filmmaking, with its
music, visuals, and ability to communicate on a visceral level, to create the guiding myths of their generation.

Lawrence, Joe B. "The Allegory of "Easy Rider"." The English Journal 59.5 (1970): 665-6. Investigates Easy Rider’s
relationship to the literary journey archetype, linking the film’s allegorical roots to the myth of the American West,
and the quintessential American dream of individual freedom.

Toplin, Robert Brent. "Teaching the Sixties with Film." Magazine of History 1.1, Teaching about the 60's (1985): 24-5.

Discusses the value of Easy Rider and other counterculture films in teaching the American socio-political dynamics
of the 1960’s.

Canby, Vincent. “Easy Rider: A Statement on Film.” 15 Jul. 1969. The New York Times. Nov. 2009 This original review highlights the clash depicted in the movie between counterculture youth and the Establishment.

Dirks, Tim. “Easy Rider: Review by Tim Dirks.” n.d. Filmsite. Nov. 2009 This website provides a scene-by-scene synopsis of the movie, along with plot analysis and lyrics to some of the popular soundtrack songs. Filmsite provides thorough information on hundreds of films, and has been well-reviewed by Roger Ebert.

Kingsley, Martin. “The Last Great American Films? Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop, The Excorcist.” 17 Jul. 2009. PleasantFluff bills itself as “better than Wikipedia.” Kingsley’s essay attempts to articulate an academic analysis of the New Hollywood, a.k.a. the American New Wave, discussing “Easy Rider” as the turning point between traditional Hollywood and this New Wave.