When the American Film Institute came up with their list of the top one hundred films, Easy Rider came in at number 88. While this may not seem impressive, 88 out of 100, you have to consider the thousands of films that did not make this list and the company Easy Rider was in just being on the list. It is truly one of the greatest films of all time. It is a film that spoke to a generation lost in the transition between the sixties and the seventies, a generation trying to find itself. The movie has a simple plot. Two men make a drug deal, make a lot of money, buy Harley motorcycles and set out cross country to try to make Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The tale of their journey is now part of American culture and we are richer for it. The film was written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern (of the naughty book, Candy, fame).
The two main characters are Wyatt (Peter Fonda) also know as Captain America because of his American flag leather jacket and red white and blue gas tank on his Harley. There is also Billy, played by Dennis Hopper. Wyatt is the most introspective of the pair. He is always reflecting on something that is so deep he often doesn’t even share it with the audience. Wyatt, on the other hand, is more carefree. Between the pair the time period is perfectly displayed. There are those that truly care about the causes and those just having a good time. Added to this is the ancillary cast, the most well remember of which is George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), a small town drunk and lawyer. The scene of them sitting around the campfire at night is one of the scenes many of us will remember forever.
Almost used, as another cast member is the soundtrack. This was one of the first films to really integrate a rock soundtrack into the story. The tunes may seem out of date to some of the younger viewers but they do represent the time they came from. Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’ became an anthem of freedom and expression because of this film. I used to listen to these songs on a little portable record player (records, those 12" black vinyl discs we used to use before CDs) in my dorm room in college. Now, thanks to Dolby 5.1 remix, the songs take on a new life in true, full surround sound. Even the younger viewers that never heard many of these songs before will be impressed with what the roots of modern music were and how it flows through the story.
The director, Dennis Hopper made his freshman effort in this movie. Although Mr. Hopper had made many movies as an actor by this time, he had never stepped around to the other side of the camera to sit in the director’s chair. There are some amateurish parts to the direction but rather than detract from the film they simply add to the almost ‘cinema vérité’ feel the film provides. In the commentary Hopper states he wanted to make the first American art film. He goes into the European influences he had and into the why and how he did what he did. This provides an excellent companion for this hallmark film. There was one scene early on that is so subtle and yet so powerful. The bikers have a flat and ask a rancher to use his barn to fix it. He agrees and you have a scene where two ranchers are shoeing a horse in the foreground while two men fix a flat on cycle in the background. This movie abounds with contrasts like this. The movie achieved far more than just igniting an art film movement in the States; it became an iconic film of its decade and the youth of the country. 1969 was the time that the Vietnam War all but took over the media of the country dividing the population sharply along generational lines. This is one reason that the scene of the rancher and bike both lovingly caring for their rides was anachronistic. Mr. Hopper portrayed a hopeful message that the old order and new can get along together. At a time when much of the music, movies and literature being produced by the younger generational was practically all confrontational. This film spoke to the counter-culture in a moderating fashion.
The soundtrack of the film is simply astounding. For those of us that remember watching this movie in the theater the music filled the venue and created a synergistic t when combined with ground breaking visual artistry of one of the most eclectic cinematographers in the business, László Kovács. Joining Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in shaping the screenplay was Terry Southern, a writer who built a reputation for himself as one of the leading satirists of his time. Some of his works have been branded as subversive or obscene. The best known of this category are arguably ‘Candy’ ‘Barbarella’. The incredible acuity of his writings is best demonstrated in a movie that dared to satirize the threat of mutually assured destruction that frightened the world in ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’.
At long last this movie has received the home entertainment release it so richly deserves through its induction into the Criterion Collection. The film has been meticulously restored frame by frame bringing to clarity normally only found in studio master prints. Typically Criterion strives to retain the original technical specifications of the filmmaker. The score represents such a crucial element of telling the story and a significant of the music of that decade, for many the soundtrack of our youth. Out of mutual respect for the filmmaker and the fans an alternate remixed Dolby 5.1 soundtrack has been included. Even after 47 years this film still remains a work of cinematic artistry. Some of the dialogue between Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson may be dated but the chemistry and exuberance created by these talented men will remain timeless. There is no wonder that the movie was added to the Library of Congress National Registry in 1998.