Road movies were never the same after Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt – aka Captain America (Peter Fonda) embarked on a magical mystery tour in a quest for “the real America”.
The movie about two rootless drug-dealing dropouts was the brainchild of Hopper and Fonda.
Billy and Wyatt begin in artificial Los Angeles, selling the cocaine they’ve smuggled across the border to their connection (played by famed record producer Phil Spector). They then decide to celebrate by riding to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras carnival.
On the way they find food and shelter with a farmer whom they envy and admire for ‘doing his own thing in his own time’, and then they stay with a commune in New Mexico where a desperate bunch of dropouts are trying to forget their backgrounds and start again.
In Texas, the pair are jailed on a trumped-up charge and find themselves sharing their cell with George Hanson, an alcoholic Civil Rights lawyer (played by Jack Nicholson) who engineers their release and then rides off with them to fulfil his dusty dream of visiting the classiest brothel in New Orleans.
Nicholson earned the first of numerous Oscar nominations for his portrayal of George – the character who is really the heart of the movie, and at one stage perfectly expresses its theme;
“This used to be a helluva good country,” he says. “They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to them . . . Freedom”.
Two days later the trio are attacked by a vigilante group and George is murdered.
Billy and Wyatt finally reach New Orleans, the House of Blue Lights and Mardi Gras, and end up in a cemetery sharing a bad LSD trip with two girls from the brothel.
Vaguely aware that their dream has turned sour, they ride on towards Florida but are shot dead by a redneck truck driver who dislikes their appearance.
The shocking violence at the end of the film was attacked by some at the time as being unprepared and excessively pessimistic.
Yet it seems the inevitable culmination of the antagonism between youth and age in the movie. Thematically, Easy Rider is an eloquent eulogy for the Sixties.
The film took a little over seven weeks to shoot and its exclusive use of location filming and contemporary music on the soundtrack made it a surprise box-office hit, and altered all the rules in an industry suffering from financial elephantiasis at the time – Easy Rider cost just $400,000 to make (and took about 25 times that amount at the box-office).
Just as they were finishing up, all their motorcycles were stolen from their mechanic’s garage in Simi Valley.
The heroes were so representative of the time, and their motorcycles became emblems of both their rebelliousness and their freedom, independence and mobility. At the time, the film felt fresh and modern and helped popularise the look of a psychedelic experience.
Wyatt (Captain America)
Robert Walker Jr