Original 1969 Reviews of Easy Rider

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Easy Rider’: A Statement on Film
By VINCENT CANBY

Published: July 15, 1969

“EASY RIDER,” which opened yesterday at the Beekman, is a motorcycle drama with decidedly superior airs about it. How else are we to approach a movie that advertises itself: “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere”? Right away you know that something superior is up, that somebody is making a statement, and you can bet your boots (cowboy, black leather) that it’s going to put down the whole rotten scene. What scene? Whose? Why? Man, I can’t tell you if you don’t know. What I mean to say is, if you don’t groove, you don’t groove. You might as well split.

I felt this way during the first half-hour of “Easy Rider,” and then, almost reluctantly, fell into the rhythm of the determinedly inarticu-late piece. Two not-so-young cyclists, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) who affects soft leather breeches and a Capt. America jacket, and Billy (Dennis Hopper), who looks like a perpetually stoned Buffalo Bill, are heading east from California toward New Orleans.

They don’t communicate with us, or each other, but after a while, it doesn’t seem to matter. They simply exist—they are bizarre comic strip characters with occasional balloons over their heads reading: “Like you’re doing your thing,” or some such. We accept them in their moving isolation, against the magnificent Southwestern landscapes of beige and green and pale blue.

They roll down macadam highways that look like black velvet ribbons, under skies of incredible purity, and the soundtrack rocks with oddly counterpointed emotions of Steppenwolf, the Byrds, the Electric Prunes — dark and smoky cries for liberation. Periodically, like a group taking a break, the cyclists stop (and so does the music) for quiet encounters—with a toothless rancher and his huge, happy family or with a commune of thin hippies, whose idyll seems ringed with unacknowledged desperation.

Suddenly, however, a strange thing happens. There comes on the scene a very real character and everything that has been accepted earlier as a sort of lyrical sense impression suddenly looks flat and foolish.

Wyatt and Billy are in a small Southern town—in jail for having disturbed the peace of a local parade—when they meet fellow-in-mate George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), a handsome, alcoholic young lawyer of good family and genially bad habits, a man whose only defense against life is a cheerful but not abject acceptance of it. As played by Nicholson, George Hanson is a marvelously realized character, who talks in a high, squeaky Southern accent and uses a phrase like “Lord have mercy!” the way another man might use a four-letter word.

Hanson gets the cyclists sprung from jail and then promptly joins them. He looks decidedly foolish, sitting on the back of Wyatt’s bike, wearing a seersucker jacket and his old football helmet, but he is completely happy and, ironically, the only person in the movie who seems to have a sense of what liberation and freedom are. There is joy and humor and sweetness when he smokes grass for the first time and expounds an elaborate theory as to how the Venutians have already conquered the world.

Nicholson is so good, in fact, that “Easy Rider” never quite recovers from his loss, even though he has had the rather thankless job of spelling out what I take to be the film’s statement (upper case). This has to do with the threat that people like the nonconforming Wyatt and Billy represent to the ordinary, self-righteous, inhibited folk that are the Real America. Wyatt and Billy, says the lawyer, represent freedom; ergo, says the film, they must be destroyed.

If there is any irony in this supposition, I was unable to detect it in the screenplay written by Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern. Wyatt and Billy don’t seem particularly free, not if the only way they can face the world is through a grass curtain. As written and played, they are lumps of gentle clay, vacuous, romantic symbols, dressed in cycle drag.

“Easy Rider,” the first film to be directed by Dennis Hopper, won a special prize at this year’s Cannes festival as the best picture by a new director (there was only one other picture competing in that category).

With the exception of Nicholson, its good things are familiar things — the rock score, the lovely, sometimes impressionistic photography by Laszlo Kovacs, the faces of small-town America. These things not only are continually compelling but occasionally they dazzle the senses, if not the mind. Hopper, Fonda and their friends went out into America looking for a movie and found instead a small, pious statement (upper case) about our society (upper case), which is sick (upper case). It’s pretty but lower case cinema.

EASY RIDER, written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hooper and Terry Southern; directed by Mr. Hopper; produced by Mr. Fonda; presented by the Pando Company in association with Raybert Productions; released by Columbia Pictures. At the Beckman Theater, 65th Street at Second Avenue. Running time: 94 minutes. (The Motion Picture Association of America’s Production Code and Rating Administration classifies this film: “R—Restricted—persons under 16 not admitted, unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian”)

By Roger Ebert / September 28, 1969

Henry Fonda is said to have come out of “Easy Rider” a confused and puzzled man. He had worked in movies for 35 years and made some great ones, and now his son Peter was going to be a millionaire because of a movie Henry couldn’t even understand.

Where did those two guys come from, he wanted to know. What was their background? How did they set up that drug-smuggling deal? Where were they going? And what, oh what, did the movie mean?

I suspect many members of the Hollywood older generation believe, sincerely and deeply, that “Easy Rider” doesn’t have a story, and doesn’t mean anything, and that the kids are all crazy these days.

But in fact, director Dennis Hopper has done an old and respectable thing. He has told his story in cinematic shorthand, instead of spelling it out in dreary detail. Fifty years ago, Hollywood figured out that if you put the good guys in white hats you could eliminate 10 minutes of explanation from every Western. Hopper has applied this technique to the motorcycle movie. (He also has made a great film, but more of that later.)

Everybody “knows” that “Easy Rider” is tremendously popular with high school and college-age kids. But these kids apparently sprang into existence full-blown, and did not grow up or go to any other movie before they found this one. That’s the way Hollywood sees it. Hollywood believes in magic.

In fact, the same kids who did “Easy Rider” were on dates in the drive-ins a few years ago when “The Wild Angels” and “Hell’s Angels on Wheels” and all the other motorcycle pictures came along. When the Hollywood establishment was dismissing motorcycle movies as an unpleasant low-budget fad, the kids already knew that something was happening here. Because the Hell’s Angel, like the gangster, was a bad guy produced by the society he victimized and tied to it by a love-hate relationship that created some really neat sex and violence scenes.

And someday it was inevitable that a great film would come along, utilizing the motorcycle genre, the same way the great Westerns suddenly made everyone realize they were a legitimate American art form, “Easy Rider” is the picture.

In all the exploitation-type motorcycle movies, the central characters were outlaws from conventional society. They rejected the establishment values (but took them seriously enough to attach importance to putting them down). They used drugs and beat up each other, and cops hated them on sight. There was usually an ounce of worth in the hero, however.

Actors like Peter Fonda and Adam Roarke played gang leaders in the tradition of Brando. But, unlike Brando (in “The Wild One,”) they usually repented when they saw the suffering they’d caused. They didn’t repent all over the place, but they did repent, and if you looked close you could catch them at it in the last scene.

“Easy Rider” takes the gang leader (Fonda) and condenses his gang into one uptight archetype (played by director Hopper.) It takes the aimless rebellion of the bike gangs and channels it into specific rejection of the establishment (by which is meant everything from rednecks to the Pentagon to hippies on communes).

Fonda and Hopper specifically break with the establishment by smuggling cocaine across the Mexican border; that’s a no-no. But during most of the picture they have cash money hidden in their gas tanks, not dope. They sold their dope to the establishment (represented ironically by rock tycoon Phil Spector in a Rolls-Royce).

They sold out, that is. And now they want to go to Florida and retire.
So Fonda and Hopper the dope-smugglers are symbols of every earnest, hard working, law abiding, middle-class wage-slave selling his integrity to the establishment every day. (Whether you believe this is immaterial to the symbolism, which works anyway.)

But it’s hard to identify with the Fonda and Hopper characters. So Hopper and his co-writers Fonda and Terry Southern write in a brilliant character, Old George (played magnificently by Jack Nicholson). And when this alcoholic, tragic ACLU lawyer from a small Southern town enters the picture, suddenly that’s us there on the bike with Fonda. And the movie starts to work.

If you follow the story closely in “Easy Rider,” you find out it isn’t there. The rough-cut of the movie reportedly ran over three hours, and Hopper edited it to a reasonable length by throwing out the story details and keeping the rest. So the heroes are suspended in an invisible story, like falcons on an invisible current of air. You can’t see it, but it holds them up.

All of this divests a motorcycle movie of its weak point (the story) and develops its strong point (the role of the self-proclaimed rebel in a conformist society). It’s not just bike freaks who get in trouble when they challenge the establishment — it’s everybody, even Old George.

And yet, “Easy Rider” suggests, it’s not as simple as that. We almost forget that the Fonda and Hopper characters have also sold out. Victims can sell out just as well as their persecutors. They sold out because what they were trying to be was the mirror image of the rednecks in the truck, and neither life-style is healthy. And so there they were, their gas tanks stuffed full of bribes from the establishment, and you remember hearing somewhere that, in the South, “easy rider” is slang for a prostitute’s lover.

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