Easy Rider is a 1969 film produced by Peter Fonda, directed by Dennis Hopper, starring both of them, and written by them and Terry Southern. The film co-stars Jack Nicholson (in a role that made him a star), Karen Black, Toni Basil (later of “Mickey” fame), and Luke Askew.
A landmark counterculture film, Easy Rider not only explored the rise of the hippie movement, drug use, and communal lifestyle, but it also helped spark the New Hollywood era of filmmaking in the early 1970s. Real drugs were used in the film.
Critics praised the performances, directing, writing, soundtrack, and visuals. Easy Rider was nominated for two Oscars, for Best Original Screenplay and for Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson).
Here is a link to quotes from the film.
Though the film is understood to be a film for ‘rebels,’ one needs to look deeper. Wyatt, or “Captain America [!]” (Fonda), and Billy (Hopper) have names inspired by Wyatt Earp and outlaw Billy the Kid, reinforcing their image as anti-establishment rebels by associating them with the rough and violent types of the Old West. Instead of horses, they’re on bikes. What immediately should strike one with suspicion, though, is Wyatt’s display of the Stars and Stripes on his black leather jacket, helmet, and the chopper he buys after he and Billy profit off of a sale of cocaine. Wearing such colours indicates the duo’s acceptance of the values of American capitalism, not a rebellion against them.
Indeed, the film begins with Wyatt and Billy in Mexico, riding on dirt bikes to a bar where they’ll buy cocaine so they can smuggle it into the US to sell for a much higher price. Their clothes are as humble as their bikes at this time. They sell the cocaine to their “connection” (played by none other than Phil Spector, of “Wall of Sound” fame) outside at an airport, where airplanes are flying noisily overhead, as if representing the heavenly host watching over Wyatt and Billy, and judging them for their sins.
And what is their sin? I’m not so much interested in moralizing about their drug trafficking as I am in discussing what Marx wrote about in Capital, vol. 3, about “Commercial Capital” (chapter 16, pages 379-383). A merchant buys a commodity from a producer, then sells it again for a higher price to obtain a profit. Wyatt and Billy sell the cocaine they bought in Mexico to their American connection for a much, much higher price. Some might call this white Wyatt’s and Billy’s exploitation of the poor Mexicans they bought from.
Small wonder we hear, right at the end of the deal with the American connection, “The Pusher,” in which originally Hoyt Axton sang “Goddamn the pusher man” because he “is a monster,” selling you hard drugs like heroin or cocaine, and not caring “if you live or if you die.” (In the film, though, we hear Steppenwolf‘s cover of the song.) We hear these lyrics as Wyatt is stuffing their dollar bills down a plastic tube hidden inside his US-flag designed chopper. Hence, his bike is symbolic of American capitalism…Wyatt and Billy are just as much the establishment as are all the hicks who later antagonize them.
So when we see these two cool dudes riding their new choppers on the road, and we hear “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf as the credits flash across the screen, we have to be clear about what the contradiction is that is examined in Easy Rider. It isn’t between the right and the left: both sides here are capitalists through and through. It’s between conservatives and liberals. This distinction is important to make because there are many politically illiterate people out there who confuse the left with bourgeois liberalism (e.g., hippies, the Democratic Party, etc.). It’s significant that we hear Steppenwolf perform both the Hoyt Axton song and “Born to be Wild,” one immediately after the other, at this point in the film; this juxtaposition of songs emphasizes the dual nature of Wyatt and Billy, being both establishment (commercial capitalists) and anti-establishment (biker rebels) at the same time.
Now, conservative capitalists–owners of such private property as motels–won’t accommodate these two liberal capitalists. This lack of shelter for Wyatt and Billy puts them in a paradoxical situation: that of being, on the one hand, a pair of privileged white men with that secret stash of cash in Wyatt’s bike, their profit from the drug deal; and on the other hand, two men reduced to the status of the homeless.
Bourgeois lumpenproletariat: who’d a thunk it? In a sense, one might even think of what happens to King Lear.
One is reminded, in contemplating how the conservative capitalists are bullying these two liberal capitalists, of something Marx said in Capital, vol. 1: “One capitalist always strikes down many others,”(Marx, page 929)…or in this case, some capitalists often strike down these two others.
…and some far-right dummies out there equate the likes of Wyatt and Billy with communists. Give me strength.
Still, we see these two riding their choppers on roads with beautiful American landscapes and scenery on either side. One thing to remember about this land, though, is who it belonged to originally.
In a movie largely about white male rebels, we might not pay too much attention to those who are marginalized in it…probably because these people are so very marginalized: blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and women. It can be just as instructive to note who or what is not seen in a movie as who is seen in it.
Our two biker rebels stop at the home of a humble farmer to fix a flat tire on Wyatt’s bike. They have dinner with the farmer’s family, who say Grace before eating. This is a humble, conservative Christian family, though the father is liberal and unprejudiced enough to marry a Hispanic Catholic. Still, he expects her to run off and get more coffee.
What should be noted is not so much the contrast between, on the one side, Wyatt, Billy, and the hippies they’ll meet soon enough, and on the other side, the bigoted and outright dangerous conservatives. One should rather see these opposing sides as on a continuum with people like this farmer’s family as somewhere in between. All of these people play a role of some kind in the white settler colonial state that is the US. It is those aforementioned marginalized people (including the Mexican seller of the cocaine and the farmer’s wife) who should be set in opposition to all the others, including Wyatt and Billy, in this film.
Indeed, this dinner with the farmer’s family has a double in the later dinner at the hippie commune, before which they also pray, the camera slowly moving and showing us the faces of everyone about to eat. We’ll see that the hippies, for all their drug use and practice of free love, have a lot more in common with the Christian farmers than meets the eye.
Wyatt and Billy ride on, and soon they pick up a hitchhiking hippie, a Stranger on the Highway (Askew). When at a gas station, the hippie fills up Wyatt’s bike, having taken off the gas cap and leaving the possibility of him seeing the plastic tube with all the money in it, Billy gets nervous and wants to stop him. He’s just as protective of his wealth as any capitalist would be.
At nightfall, the three stop by the side of the road to smoke some grass, then to sleep. When Billy asks the hippie where he’s from, he’s evasive in his answer, feeling that all cities are the same. People who’ve done LSD, something the hippie will give Wyatt and Billy to do at a fitting time later, often sense a unity in everything and everyone, that everywhere is ‘here,’ so to speak. The hippie would also have Wyatt and Billy take heart of how this land they’re sitting on has its original owners, the Native Americans, buried under it.
He says that Wyatt and Billy could be “a trifle polite” in their attitude towards those dead aboriginals whose land the white man has taken from them. Billy chuckles at the hippie’s words; his attitude should be a reminder to us, as much as Wyatt’s Stars and Stripes, that these two bikers are not sticking it to the Man the way they should be.
All the two men want to do is pursue a life of physical pleasure: drugs, drinking, chasing women, and freely riding their choppers along the American landscape…from a land taken from the aboriginals. Wyatt and Billy are going to New Orleans to enjoy the Mardi Gras festival: “Fat Tuesday,” a great indulgence in pleasure before the great abstinence of Lent…in which they, of course, have no interest.
Their rebellion is against repressive, right-wing conservative authority, but it doesn’t go far enough. One cannot just do one’s own thing while coexisting with those reactionary types, for the reactionaries refuse to coexist with society’s long-haired rebels, as we’ll see by the end of the movie. Those reactionaries must be defeated and wiped out, not merely given the finger to, or else they’ll wipe out the rebels. This is the reality as understood in the intensification of class struggle, and why a dictatorship of the proletariat is needed to prevent the return of reactionary capitalism.
Wyatt and Billy take the hippie to his commune, where we see two young women who show an immediate sexual interest in the two bikers, just as they’ve been openly affectionate with the hippie. (One of these women thinks Wyatt is “beautiful,” in his Stars and Stripes outfit, which should tell you something about her and her attitude towards straight America.) Billy briefly plays ‘cowboys and Indians’ with the children of the commune, an indication not only of the spirit of levity felt by these whites towards the genocide of the Native Americans as noted above, but also how these hippies, in not teaching their kids that even playing war might lead to a warlike mentality when they grow up, don’t seem all that committed to the anti-war cause, a reminder that hippies are liberals, not revolutionaries–they’re the phonies that Zappa accused them of being.
Yet there are right-wing morons out there who claim that hippies are communists. Pathetic.
Other examples of traditionalism among these hippies–which give the lie to their ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘counterculture’ posturing–include, apart from the prayer before eating mentioned above, their singing of old-fashioned, traditional songs like “Does Your Hair [originally “Do Your Ears”] Hang Low?” and “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” (as opposed to singing, for example, 60s antiwar/pro-drug songs), and their reluctance to accommodate any more visitors. Such a reluctance isn’t too far removed from when Archie Bunker refused to accommodate two unmarried hippie visitors to his house.
As I said above, all these groups of people in Easy Rider lie on a continuum, ranging from the bigoted hecklers and killers of Wyatt, Billy, and George Hanson (Nicholson) on the far-right side, then a little to the left of the bigots, there are the Christian farmer and his Catholic, Hispanic wife, then a little further left from them are the people in this hippie commune, then further left are Hanson, then Wyatt and Billy, and finally the hippie hitchhiker, who acknowledges the genocide of the aboriginals (without helping to do anything about it), on the other side. A real far-left opposition would include people like the Black Panthers and any Native American activists struggling against white settler colonialism, something we’ll never see in this film. To paraphrase Noam Chomsky, the mainstream media ensures a very narrow, but lively, range of debate between the “left” and the right.
Wyatt and Billy–after engaging in skinny-dipping and free love with those two women from the commune, then taking some LSD from the hippie hitchhiker–continue on their way into a town in New Mexico where a parade is going on. They ride their choppers along with the parade, as if to join it, then they get arrested for “parading without a permit.” Actually, the cops just don’t like long-haired men.
Here is where they meet alcoholic Hanson, himself locked up for having overindulged in booze the night before.
Now, George Hanson, as a lawyer who has done work for the ACLU, is rather square, but also liberal and open-minded, as well as knowledgeable about the social issues of the day. He knows that this town they’re in is full of right-wing reactionaries who’d love to shave the heads of Wyatt and Billy, taking away their symbol of rebellion…like taking away Samson‘s strength by cutting his hair.
George can help Wyatt and Billy get out of jail as long as the two bikers haven’t done anything like killing someone…white, which George says with a sardonic grin, indicating his awareness of his society’s double standards against the marginalized black community.
He gets them and himself out of jail, has a bit of the hair of the dog, sees their impressive bikes, and learns of their plan to go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. George is so intrigued that he’d like to tag along; he even tells them about a whorehouse there, calling the girls “US prime.” Once again, we see that these ‘rebels’ can be just as marginalizing of people as the ‘hicks’ they’re rebelling against.
So George rides as a passenger on Wyatt’s bike (something Nicholson would metaphorically be in a later film also dealing with an uncommitted progressive), wearing his nerdy helmet. They stop somewhere off of the road, as usual, that night and smoke some marijuana, which George has for the first time, him at first being reluctant, then opening his mind to it.
As they’re getting high, Billy speaks of a ‘satellite’ he’s just seen in the night sky (which, incidentally, can be vaguely associated with those airplanes flying overhead during the cocaine deal). George tells him and Wyatt about the “Venusian” pilots of the UFOs, about whom the world governments apparently know, but keep a secret for fear of creating a general panic among the world population.
Apparently, these “Venusians” have a far more advanced civilization than ours: egalitarian, pacifist, money-less, and with futuristic technology. George says they’ve been coming here since 1946…which by the way was around the beginning of the Cold War. They’re people just like us, George says, working with us all over the Earth in an advisory capacity.
These “Venusians” sound an awful lots like communists (egalitarian, money-less, and with advanced technology) and Marxists (i.e., leftist professors in Western universities–working ‘in an advisory capacity’) to me. The capitalist governments don’t want us to know about them (as they did so embarrassingly, via McCarthy, during the 1950s) because our antiquated capitalist system, with our leaders, is no match for theirs.
You don’t believe me? That’s because the US government doesn’t want you to know how the Soviet Union went from a backward, agrarian society in the 1920s to a nuclear-armed superpower that won the space race in the late 1950s…technological advances all achieved within a mere three decades, along with progress towards equal rights for women, universal housing, education, employment, and healthcare for all. To this day, Stalin–far from being regarded as a ‘cruel dictator,’ is loved by millions of Russians for his leadership in defeating the Nazis, and majorities of Russians have consistently preferred the Soviet era, for all of its imperfections, to current-day, capitalist Russia. The same can be said of China, from the Maoist era to today.
Now, Billy, like most people brainwashed by bourgeois propaganda, thinks that what George is saying is “a crackpot idea,” because he and Wyatt are, at heart, not all that far from establishment thinking as they might seem to be. The two bikers just want to get stoned, each of the two an easy-going rider of a chopper.
…and the two of them lead me to my next point.
Duality is a major theme in Easy Rider. Apart from the two biker protagonists, there are two cocaine deals: first, the buying of it in Mexico, then the selling of it in the US–M-C-M’, or money to commodity to valorized money, that is, money with a profit, or increased value.
Wyatt and Billy visit and eat at two farms: that of the man and his Catholic wife, and that of the hippie commune, both of which include prayers before eating, and both of which have their own mixture of traditional and liberal values, in itself another duality in the film.
There are airplanes and satellites (or UFOs) flying overhead.
Wyatt and Billy spend time with two male companions, the hippie hitchhiker, and George Hanson, both of whom share valuable insights about the world while smoking dope with them (i.e., insights about the marginalized aboriginals buried in the ground where they are, and the marginalized “Venusians,” or communists, as I interpret them to be).
Wyatt and Billy have sexual encounters with two pairs of women: the two hippies they skinny dip with, and the two prostitutes they do the LSD with in New Orleans.
There are two parades: the one in New Mexico, and the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.
There are two violent assaults with intent to kill: the first in which George is bludgeoned to death at night, and the second at the end of the film, when Billy, then Wyatt, are shot and killed on their bikes.
These pairs of incidents have their parallels and their dialectical contrasts. Billy is more adversarial and self-centered; Wyatt is more laid-back and generous. The first coke deal is the buying of it: the second, a selling of it.
The first farm they visit is more conservative; the second is more liberal. The first flying machines are very real, the second are more imaginary.
The hippie hitchhiker and Hanson, as well as the pairs of women, are, in their respective ways, thoroughly paralleled.
After the first parade, Wyatt and Billy are put in jail. After the second parade, their minds are ‘freed’ with the LSD.
The first violent assault leaves Wyatt and Billy hurt, but still alive. The second assault leaves them dead.
Furthermore, there are two kinds of drugs enjoyed in this film: the narcotic kind (cocaine, marijuana, and LSD), and the religious kind (the “opium of the people“). Both kinds are attempts to escape, rather than solve, the world’s problems.
There are also doublings of performers playing songs on this famous soundtrack: I already mentioned the two Steppenwolf recordings; there are also two songs by Bob Dylan and performed by Roger McGuinn–“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Ballad of Easy Rider.”
There is also a duality of time, the present vs the future, in the form of the film’s “flashforwards” that occur at various points in the story, a quick flashing ahead to the future, then back to the present. The most important of these is when Wyatt and Billy are in the New Orleans whorehouse: Wyatt reads something about death freezing one’s reputation forever, then there’s a premonition of his death, his chopper in flames and flying in pieces by the roadside. Such a fusing of present and future symbolically suggests the feeling of timelessness experienced when using psychedelic drugs.
Now, the ultimate duality–or rather, the ultimate two dualities, as I’ll explain immediately after–is the conservative vs liberal contradiction. Since the liberals here are capitalist white men enjoying the privileges of US settler colonialism not all that much less than the conservatives are, then the conservative/liberal contradiction is really hiding a much more profound contradiction that one can only see if one is paying close attention. This is the white bourgeois vs the marginalized black/aboriginal/proletarian contradiction.
Indeed, as Wyatt and Billy are riding their choppers, or walking the streets of New Orleans, we get brief peeks of rural black families, or blacks playing music during Mardi Gras, or someone dressed as a Native American in the Mardi Gras parade. All marginalized people.
To get back to the story, Wyatt, Billy, and George continue on their way, while we hear “Don’t Bogart That Joint,” by Fraternity of Man, then “If 6 Was 9,” by Jimi Hendrix. Both of these songs reflect our bikers’ attitude to life in general, and to reactionaries in particular: just keep on smoking dope, and who cares what’s going on in the rest of the world? We do our own thing, and who cares if the conservatives don’t like it?
Umm…actually, Wyatt, Billy, and George do need to care.
They stop off in a little diner where the locals make no secret of their surprised reaction to these three strangely dressed visitors. Once again, there’s a duality in these reactions: first, a bevy of cute teenage girls finds the three men handsome and fascinating; second, all the men, being bigoted, narrow-minded conservatives, engage in non-stop heckling of Wyatt, Billy, and George.
It doesn’t take long for our three heroes to face the fact that they’re clearly not welcome, so they leave, in spite of the girls’ coming out to talk to them at their bikes.
That night, Wyatt, Billy, and George camp outside as usual. George laments the direction he sees his country going in. He says, “This used to be a helluva good country.” He’s wrong. A country founded on black slavery and the genocide of its aboriginals was never a good country. What’s more, these old sins laid the foundation for the three men’s current predicament.
Though lip-service is routinely paid to the notion of the US being a country founded on the principles of “freedom and democracy,” a deeper investigation of the intents of the Founding Fathers reveals that these land-owning, upper-class white men were primarily out to protect their class interests. They made a few concessions to working class Americans as a result of indispensable political agitation.
Nonetheless, those class interests have to this day been continually maintained in such divide-and-conquer forms as racism against blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and all non-WASP immigrants; other forms of the divide-and-conquer of the proletariat have included sex roles, keeping women in the home and away from such things as voting, and belief in such nonsense as ‘capitalism is freedom,’ the ‘free market,’ the ‘American Dream,‘ and the ‘land of opportunity.’ These illusory freedoms are what the reactionary nemeses of Wyatt and Billy will fight to the death for (as George explains), while condemning the freedom that our two protagonists practice.
As soon as the illusory form of freedom is exposed as such by the real exponents of freedom, these reactionaries further expose their fascist mentality through violence. This expression of violence is why one cannot coexist with these kinds of people: they must be fought and defeated; if they aren’t defeated, they’ll not only defeat, but also kill us. This harsh reality is what Wyatt and Billy won’t accept, and it’s also what gets them and George killed.
Freedom does not come for free.
One cannot escape the fascist mentality through drugs, though Wyatt and Billy continue to try to after George’s murder.
The two get to New Orleans and decide to find the brothel that George recommended. As they’re dining in a restaurant, getting drunk, and talking about going to the brothel, we hear a song by The Electric Prunes that does a psychedelic rendition of the Mass’s Kyrie. We continue to hear the song as they wander into the brothel and look around at the artwork. These two druggies are pursuing pleasure while we hear more music about the opium of the people.
They get two prostitutes, Karen (Black) and Mary (Basil), and all four of them drop the hippie hitchhiker’s acid after entering a cemetery in New Orleans’s French Quarter. As they’re all tripping out, we hear the voices of other people there reciting the Credo, Ave Maria, and Pater Noster. Again, we have a juxtaposition of drug use with the opium of the people.
Mary gets naked, and she and Wyatt screw. Karen has a bad trip. Wyatt embraces a statue of a goddess, and, weeping, complains of his abusive mother as if the statue were of her. He seems to be having an epiphany that Billy, unfortunately, isn’t having: Wyatt seems to realize that his rebellion against society is based on his rebellion against his parents, which would seem to be the basis of Billy’s own social revolt. This is why the two bikers can’t be revolutionaries: they won’t take on the system because all they want to do is stick it to their parents, their Oedipal, love/hate relationship with their parents being a universal narcissistic trauma.
The two bikers ride out the next day, and that night, camping out as usual, they chat for a while before sleeping. Billy is thrilled to be rich from their cocaine deal, thinking with the materialism of a typical capitalist and equating their material success with freedom. Wyatt, however, knows better, saying they “blew it.” That acid trip must have helped him understand how superficial their “freedom” is.
A common experience during an acid trip is a dissolving of the barrier between self and other. One feels a sense of unity between oneself and all of humanity, like the equating of Atman with Brahman, resulting in stronger empathy. Wyatt could very well have felt such an emotional connection with the marginalized aboriginals, blacks, and female lumpenproletariat (i.e., those two prostitutes, Karen and Mary). This would have made him realize that mainstream American liberalism just isn’t progressive enough.
Accordingly, he wears his “Captain America” leather jacket far more sparingly, that is, only outside at night, when it’s much too cool not to wear it. When Billy is shot by the man in the truck, the hick who doesn’t like his long hair, Wyatt rides back to help Billy and puts his star-spangled jacket on Billy’s wounds.
He’ll die anyway, because the gunman shoots Wyatt next, destroying his star-spangled bike. What does all of this mean, symbolically? It means that the American flag won’t heal your wounds, and that American capitalism will one day destroy itself through the violence of its own bigoted, reactionary, fascist mentality. Interpreted this way, the ending of Easy Rider can be seen as a prophetic warning of what would happen to the US, and to the world it dominates, decades after the film was made.
Please indulge me in a digression through recent political history.
The US of the mid-twentieth century–with its strong unions, high taxes for the rich, and welfare, to say nothing of the birth of the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, and gay liberation–had enormous progressive potential. The American government, however, was also giving safe haven to former Nazis in NASA, NATO, and the West German government, all rationalized as part of the effort to contain communism.
This tolerance of fascism (as seen in an allegorical sense in Easy Rider in the form of these reactionary hicks who are never properly fought off) has led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which, for all of its imperfections, was an effective counterweight against US/NATO imperialism, aiding liberation movements in the Third World and goading the US government to adopt more economically progressive policies to keep the American working class from resorting to socialist revolution.
Without the USSR as that effective counterweight, the US government has since been able to do anything it wants with impunity: hence, the gutting of welfare, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed the mergers and acquisitions of American media until now only six corporations control most of Americans’ access to information. Then, there’s been one imperialist war after another: Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the ongoing threats of war with Iran, Russia, and China.
Hollywood liberals (including one or two Jewish ones) are now cheering on a Ukrainian government and military under the strong influence of Neo-Nazis. Instead of using its revenue to help the poor (a huge section of which are, of course, aboriginal, black, and female), to repair roads and crumbling infrastructure, to end homelessness, to fund education and healthcare, and to create jobs, the US government sends billions and billions of dollars to those Ukrainian Nazis in a proxy war to weaken Russia (as it had in the 1980s in Afghanistan), as part of an ambitious, yet maniacal, plan to go after China in a similar way (through Taiwan). All of these events risk a nuclear WWIII, which would kill everyone on the planet.
This is what happens when we let things slide, like an easy rider on the road that leads to the far right. The violent hicks who kill Wyatt, Billy, and George aren’t literal fascists, of course, but they share the same vicious, intolerant mentality; hence, they can be easily seen as representative of the fascists I mentioned in the previous paragraphs. If one can’t tolerate something as simple as longer hair on a white man, one isn’t going to tolerate much of anything else. These intolerant people, however, have been tolerated by liberals, not just in the film, but in our society for all these decades, leading not only to the film’s ending, but also to our current political predicament, which is why I brought it up.
The hicks fear the freedom of the longhairs because such freedom has the potential to lead to the liberation of the marginalized groups I mentioned above, including, ultimately, the liberation of the global proletariat (not that the liberals, as represented by Wyatt and Billy, are doing anything to pave the way towards such liberation). The hicks have a black-and-white view of the world in which one is either absolutely like their reactionary selves, or absolutely like long-haired ‘commies’…and the only good commie is one that’s dead, remember. This conception of the world is what links the violent end of Easy Rider to the precarious state of the world today.
Once again, the hicks are coming to get us. We’ll have to do a lot more than just give them the finger.