Easy Rider and The Ideals of Freedom

By  · Published on October 26th, 2016

We can learn a lot today from what Easy Rider had to say 50 years ago.

I recently watched Easy Rider for the first time. Yeah, I get it. That likely seems crazy. Do your worst, internet. Shame me all you like, I don’t care. I finally got around to it and I was able to experience it for the first time on a gorgeous Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection. I am not in the slightest bit shocked at how incredible the movie is, I expected that. In fact, after one viewing Easy Rider quickly ascended up and into the discussion of my top films, firmly placing itself somewhere in the top ten. I’m eager to get to future viewings because those will ultimately decide where the film lands in the long run but something tells me that the more I see it the more it’ll inch it’s way up towards the top of my personal charts. But my point isn’t to tell you I watched Easy Rider or how my personal ranking system works. I want to actually talk about the film.

On the surface Easy Rider is a pretty basic movie. It’s the story of two friends on a road trip across America. In this particular case their destination is New Orleans with hopes of experiencing Mardi Gras. Along the way they meet a variety of interesting characters while taking full advantage of every opportunity to have a good time. And it’s all very relatable. Who hasn’t wanted to take a road trip with their best friend? If Easy Rider was only about these friends on this road trip it would still be a damn good movie. You’d still have the breathtaking cinematography of László Kovács coupled with iconic performances from Hollywood legends. You’d still have that kick ass soundtrack that echoes freedom and encourages you to have the best damn time possible.

Ah, but see that is the beauty of Easy Rider. The surface is just that, the surface. Once you begin to pull the exterior back you find hidden layers. Is this a movie about a couple hippies looking to have a good time? Sure. Is it a movie about discovering oneself? Absolutely. What about discovering America and seeing how the mainstream American Dream clashes with the counterculture movement? You bet. Easy Rider is a movie about everything.

The best films, at least in my humble and not at all expert opinion, mean something different to every individual that watches them. Two people can be passionate about the same film while being moved by it in different ways. Easy Rider is one of those films and for me it really begins to resonate two thirds of the way in. This is the moment in the film when Billy (Dennis Hopper), Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and George (Nicholson) make a pit stop at a little diner located in the middle of small town America. To say the locals don’t take to them would be a major understatement. This five minute scene is one of the most uncomfortable I have ever seen.

“What the hell is this, trouble makers?”

“You name it, I’ll throw rocks at it, sheriff.”

“We might have to bring him to the Hilton before it’s over.”

“I think she’s cute.”

“I think we should put them in a cage and charge admission to see them.”

“Looks like a bunch of refugees from a gorilla love-in.”

“I saw two of them one time. They were just kissin’ away. Two males. Just think of it.”

These are just a few of the comments uttered by the men of this town, one of which happens to be the sheriff and another who appears to be a priest or some sort of religious leader. And these comments aren’t whispered either. There is no attempt by these men to hide their disgust. They speak loudly and clearly. They want our bike riding heroes to know they’re not welcome.

Just look at those comments for a moment. They’re truly awful. They’re homophobic. They even get in some racial digs towards African-Americans despite Billy, Wyatt and George all being white.

At this point Billy, Wyatt and George have done nothing but walk into this diner and have a seat. These harsh criticisms they are forced to endure are the result of a preconceived perception small town folk have of people that are different. The people of this small town see men with long hair, wearing what they would call eccentric clothing traveling the country via motorcycle. When the men of this town look at Billy, Wyatt and George they see something different and thus something wrong. Something less than. Something that should not be allowed

The men aren’t the only ones in the diner, however. There is also a rather large section of what I would say are college-aged girls. These girls too have an immediate reaction to what they see. And just like their male counterparts they can’t help but openly say what they’re thinking.

“I like the red shirt with suspenders.”

“I like something with black pants on.”

“What are they doing here?”

“I like his hair all down his head.”

“I can’t believe they’re here.”

These comments sound much better and appear to have a certain innocence. And to a point they are but if you really watch the scene and see how these girls treat these three men it’s not a whole lot better. They’re still subjecting them to comments that could be seen as unpleasant and unwelcome. They’re still judging them on appearance alone and despite what they say they have no interest in these three as people. Wyatt is referred to as a “something.”

They see something wrong. They see something that their parents, who we can assume are much like he men in the diner, would be disgusted by. They see an opportunity to rebel at the expense of these outsiders who are viewed as different. And that’s what excites them.

Wisely Billy, Wyatt and George decide it’s probably best they leave. Even on their way out they continue to hear comments. Comments like, “I don’t think they’ll make the parish line.” The parish line refers to the Jefferson Parish in southern Louisiana and the implication is they won’t make it their alive.

Later that evening the three set up a campfire to settle down for the night. It’s at this time they begin to discuss the events from earlier at the diner. This discussion gets kickstarted with George commenting that this used to be a great country. This leads to Billy agreeing and recalling the opening of the film in which he and Billy were refused a room at a “second-rate motel” because of how they look. This conversation concludes with what I feel is the most important dialogue in the entire film. It’s an exchange between Billy and George.

“Oh, they’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ‘em.”

“Hey man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody needs a haircut.”

“Oh no. What you represent to them is freedom.”

“What the hell’s wrong with freedom, man? That’s what it’s all about.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right, that’s what it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it – that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. ‘Course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free ‘cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.”

“Mmmm, well, that don’t make ‘em runnin’ scared.”

“No, it makes ‘em dangerous.”

Before even diving into the context of that conversation we have to talk about the performances. For me this is the highlight of the film. Hopper is very good, but Nicholson delivers the stuff of legend. Every word, every pause, every little movement, means something and is delivered with absolute expertise. This is the birth of an icon.

Then there is the context and it’s pretty amazing. Easy Rider is nearly 50 years old. In many ways it is dated and stuck in a specific time period but that’s only on the surface. That’s only when we look at the clothing being worn and the specific words being said. When we get into the context, the actually meaning, we realize Easy Rider is remarkably relevant. And unfortunately it’s a little scary how relevant it is.

That night after Billy, Wyatt and George retire for the evening they’re attacked in their sleep. Brutally so. This violent, unprovoked attack by the men from this small town leaves George dead. And it’s kind of ironic that George is the one to die.

Not two days earlier George was someone these people would have greatly respected. He was a white, small town Texas lawyer. Sure George had a bit of a problem with the bottle, but as we all know alcohol is totally fine. Marijuana, now that’s the devil’s business. George didn’t want that life though. He wanted the freedom they so often talk about and preach. He saw the opportunity to get that freedom and he took it. The result was the loss of his life but sometimes that’s the price of freedom.

The reason behind the attack is exactly as George said – it’s about freedom. These townsmen attack these harmless bikers because they represent freedom. But isn’t small town America all about freedom? Of course but their idea of freedom isn’t the same as Billy, Wyatt and George. They want the type of freedom that allows them to live how they please while dictating how others live. They want the type of freedom that allows them to harass and in some cases violently attack those that don’t fall in line with how they think others should act. They preach freedom but they only want it as long as it aligns with their specific ideals.

Every time you turn on the news or read a newspaper the relevance of Easy Rider in today’s world is easy to see. Unfortunately two opposing sides are still fighting it out over who has the right idea of freedom. And sadly these debates turn disgustingly violent more often than any sane person would like to admit.

Ideally the relevancy associated with this aspect of Easy Rider will eventually fade away. At the moment that outlook is fuzzy at best. Currently there is a man running for the most powerful office in the world and his entire platform is based on the fear of freedom and encouraging people just like the men who killed George to act on their fear and hatred.

Whether or not Easy Rider maintains this specific level of relevance is actually irrelevant in regards to the future of the film. Everything I’ve discussed pertains to one small portion of this film and may very well not impact a single other person in the same way that it has impacted me. This all goes back to the beauty of Easy Rider that I first mentioned up top. The film is incredibly layered and no matter how much or little the world changes, there will always be a place for Easy Rider.

Chris Coffel is a contributor at Film School Rejects. He’s a connoisseur of Christmas horror, a Nic Cage fanatic, and bad at Rocket League. He can be found on Twitter here: @Chris_Coffel. (He/Him)