The third film is Easy Rider, featuring Peter Fonda as Captain America and Dennis Hopper – who also directs – as Billy the Kid. They’re two hippies who have just made a profitable cocaine deal, the proceeds of which they use to buy two bikes to ride from southern California to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras. Don’t miss the cameo performance from recently deceased record producer Phil Spector as the Bond villain style ‘Mr Big’ in the coke deal scene.
The bikes themselves have become iconic, both of the period and of a certain style and attitude towards motorcycling. Based on pan-head Harley engines sourced from ex-LAPD bikes, with hard tail frames, radically raked front forks and ‘peanut’ fuel tanks holding no more than a couple of US gallons these bikes were absurdly impractical for journey of any distance. The Captain America bike, astoundingly, has no front brake whatsoever and on the Billy bike clutch and brake levers are so steeply angled upwards on the high bars as to make operation difficult. Fonda does have a helmet, painted with the stars and stripes design which is still available today, but it remains firmly attached to his sissy bar for the bulk of the film.
Fonda and Hopper do actually ride their bikes in the film, and deserve some credit for managing such dangerous and uncomfortable beasts. However; they don’t actually ride them very fast. Hopper’s cowboy hat remains firmly on his head despite having no visible means of attachment, so probably doing no more than 25 or 30. At one point Fonda estimates two or three days to get to ‘N’orlins’; probably more like two or three weeks at these speeds.
The riders have a series of encounters and adventures, including with a young Jack Nicholson in his breakthrough role as an alcohol dependent small town lawyer. Their destination, the Mardi Gras, although enlivened by two attractive prostitutes and a dose of LSD proves a disappointing and unsettling climax to their trip. Their onward journey takes them on a rural highway, where a pickup truck with two shotgun toting rednecks draws alongside the irascible Hopper, who is unwise enough to give them the finger. This leads to a shot which may have been meant to intimidate but causes a crash and serious chest wound. Fonda stops to help and then rides off for assistance, but the rednecks, thinking it best to do away with both riders, return to finish him off. Thus ends the film. If Fonda had had a late model stock Harley, or better still one of the British or Italian bikes of the period he could have easily turned and outpaced the pickup, possibly getting help from a sympathetic local farmer or law enforcement officer. Unfortunately the first Japanese ‘superbike’ the Honda 750 Four only came on to the market in the year of this film’s release, so would not have been an available option.
However; this would have undermined the point of the film, which is that while ‘straight’ society might think it’s free, it can’t cope with anyone who’s really free. Everywhere in the film there’s violence and threat underlying the supposedly normal, as we see in the menacing locals in the diner scene. Anyone who doesn’t fit in had better watch out. The bikes are a not so subtle evocation of the Westerner’s horse, hence the lack of comfort or ability to stop in a hurry, representing a time when ‘this was a good country once’. I remember watching this film in the early 70s, only two or three years after release and the predominantly student audience greeted the hippie dialogue ‘you’re just gonna do your own thing in your own time’ etc. with gales of laughter, so quickly had it dated. Now however it doesn’t seem so bad. The cinematography, particularly taking in small town America holds up well, and there are top quality acting performances from the principal and minor characters.
What of the riding? We only see the two travellers going pretty slowly along dead straight roads, so nothing too taxing. Was this caution due to the effects of the marijuana in which the protagonists continually indulge? Possibly. We see them riding side by side outlaw club style and perhaps this is OK on empty desert roads, but not to be attempted anywhere else. We see Hopper kneel on his saddle at one point – soundtrack ‘Do you want to be a bird’- a trifle gingerly I’d have said, but this is the only fancy riding we see.
Although by no means the first biker film this was the first really well-made Hollywood production and contributed mightily to the chopper craze which has since waxed and waned and given rise to both some top quality craftsmanship, technology blending with sculpture, as well as some truly awful butchery. But if you want to be ‘free’ perhaps it’s better to put up with discomfort and danger than to settle for the mass-produced ride. Turn up for your Advanced Test on a chopper at your peril though!
What really makes Easy Rider though is the soundtrack, which reportedly cost twice as much to licence as the film did to make: Steppenwolf, Hendrix, The Byrds, The Electric Prunes even. If you’ve never seen it it’s a must, if you have seen it then see it again. All together no ‘born to be wi-ild…….’
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