Criterion Files #545: The Redefinition of the American Dream in “Easy Rider”

By  · Published on July 6th, 2011

Criterion Files

As a relatively young person, far too young to speak meaningfully about an important era of American culture, it’s difficult for me to ascribe any sense of value even unto my own words about a picture that encapsulates and represents an alternate ideology of real American freedom than what we consider as being truly “free.” When we think of freedom we think of rights and when we think of American we think of the dream. We have the right to be happy and we have the freedoms to pursue it.

For many, that happiness lies in security; the safety and comfort of a steady job to pay for a nice home in a nice community with nice schools to raise one’s, hopefully, nice children brought up with the mindset of the popularly nice American ideals. For others, it lies in the open availability for one to earn a living however one chooses. To a degree, there are no questions asked; you can earn your living by whatever profession you can afford to pursue regardless of your background.

This is what, I imagine, America represented (and hopefully continues to represent) to the majority of the world for the better part of the early through the mid-20th century. I can honestly only speak though, of what I see in movies. Although, again, for the better part of the early through the mid-20th century it’s hard to find reason that this was not the popular perception of an ideal American upbringing because of those very films. Films represent one of two things: Reality or fantasy. In either case, we either were precisely what we appeared to be in movies or we wished we were.

However, to a particular kind of individual, and one with a growing popularity in the post-war 1960s, those pursuits encompassed the very antithesis of freedom. To them, freedom wasn’t a right so much as the objective. Where most saw homes of typical American values others saw prison bars or shackles. For these individuals those titular films (and television programs) that dominated the national consciousness of the healthy American lifestyle displayed a dream void of expression or adventure. These individuals wanted to be free of as much enforced responsibility as they possibly could; and a movie that tapped in to that couldn’t hurt.

With that growing switch in the pop-culture mindset of living the dream a small group of renegade actors and producers would collaborate on a project that would not only become one of the most profitable pictures in history, but would be one of the most powerful driving forces of a new era of American film culture that was both bold in content and free of the dominant Hollywood studio system.

A Different America Delayed

Leading up to the release of Easy Rider in 1969 American film, even within the studio system, was transitioning to accommodate the new generation of American minds. The pictures of Stanley Kubrick can be looked to as a possible turning point at the outset of the 1960s when referring to a change in what the American public was willing to accept and pay money to see. Though, due to the fact that Kubrick was a one-of-a-kind talent the success of his pictures was most likely matched to him and the unique experience his pictures alone could offer versus a distinguishable marker of where the American public’s head was headed.

In 1967 Warner Bros and MGM would release Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate which are the two films most oft-considered the first prominent contributions to the soon-to-become New Hollywood of American cinema. Not necessarily in that they were the first pictures of the bunch that displayed something particularly daring or different, but that they did so while drawing in massive crowds. However, unlike Easy Rider, which would hit two years later, they had the backing of major studios for production and a considerable budget to boot. Easy Rider would be the first mostly independently financed feature with a renegade pedigree and a budget at a fraction of that of its studio counterparts to go on and garner the kind of box-office returns typically reached only by the films released by the major Hollywood studios.

As the saying often goes (especially recently), America voted with their dollar and the counter-culture id solidified its place in American cinema.

What’s particularly interesting about Easy Rider and its sensibilities considering the brash attitude of its helmer, co-star and co-writer Dennis Hopper, towards the prejudicial attitude of the Southern states against the hippy movement is its occasional display of affection and respect for the traditional American lifestyle when presented with equal respect for the alternative. One of the first encounters of Captain America (Wyatt the character’s actual name, played by Peter Fonda who also co-wrote the script) and Billy (Hopper) on their road trip through the South to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras is that of a rancher who heads a large household with a Mexican wife and numerous children. They are obviously a household with either traditional Catholic or Christian morals and offer Billy and Wyatt a place to fix their flat tire and a spot at the dinner table. It’s one of only a few brief moments in the film where the human elements of each ideology meet peacefully in the middle with both offering slight admiration for the other.

From then on it’s pretty downhill with Billy and Wyatt meeting acceptance only with like minds and an intriguing personality of an alcoholic ACLU lawyer (played famously by Jack Nicholson in his breakout role), and [sometimes] violent adversity from those not accepting of the long-haired, drug induced, free-roaming personae of the protagonists. Whether it be because of what they unintentionally represent, or because of where they place (or don’t place) value.

The New Decade, the Next Era

The next year opened up the new decade and with it came the explosion of independently financed cinema finding its audience outside of the mainstream, but bringing about mainstream success. The music documentary Woodstock would become one of the highest grossing pictures of 1970 (though distributed by Warner Bros) and the beginnings of the blaxploitation pictures would start up over the next year or so. The frameworks of traditional American genres and their archetypes would also begin to change (most noticeably the American Western) with the release of films like The Wild Bunch and Midnight Cowboy the same year as Easy Rider to usher in the new age.

Also, following the overwhelming financial success of Easy Rider the production team of Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider (production company named Raybert) would include a third producing personality in Steve Blauner to include the final initial in the newly formed BBS Productions, which would release their first official picture under that production company name with the 1970 film Five Easy Pieces. That film, and others over the course of the decade is what solidified Jack Nicholson as an inimitable acting force in film.