Easy Rider (starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and a very young looking Jack Nicholson) had long been on my list of “older” (pre-1990ish) movies to see.
Anyway, I knew very little about the film other than that it starred two counter-culture buddies who take a road trip across America. Other than that, I didn’t know much about their agenda or the adventures and mishaps they’d find along the way. Also, I didn’t realize that Dennis Hopper not only starred in the movie, but also co-wrote it with his fellow lead actor Peter Fonda and even directed the film. Given the fact that Fonda and Hopper appear in most of the movie’s scenes, that is an impressive directorial effort.
The two hippie bikers do get into a decent amount of trouble on their route from LA to go check out Mardi Gras in New Orleans. They pick up a hitchhiker who doesn’t tell them how far he needs to go, other than reassuring them that it “isn’t too far.” This fellow (only listed as a ‘Stranger on the highway,’ by IMDB) also answers questions in the vaguest way possible. When asked “Where ya from man?” He responds, “Hard to say.” Then he goes on to elaborate, but only in a similarly vague fashion: “I’m from the city…Doesn’t matter what city; all cities are alike.” Billy (Hopper) gets frustrated by this answer (he hasn’t really liked the stranger since Fonda picked him up) and asks why he would even mention it, “Cause I’m FROM the city; a long WAY from the city, and that’s where I wanna be right now.”
Billy is fairly skeptical of most of the people they meet along the way, Including the rest of the folks belonging to the commune where they drop the ‘Stranger’ off and spend a little time. His skepticism stems partly from his fear that everyone just wants to steal the money he and Captain America (Fonda) have just scored in a Coke deal that sets off their travels. The copious amount of weed he smokes throughout the film’s entirety probably also doesn’t help keep his fears at bay, however rational they may or may not be. Billy doesn’t really want to stick around the commune too long, nor did he want to hang around the farm where they stopped to fix a flat tire and were graciously offered a warm cooked meal. However, he doesn’t seem to mind picking up two females while there and bringing them to a local watering hole for some frolicking in the buff.
I think my favorite parts of the movie are after the point (or perhaps just before the point) where Hopper and Fonda team up with Nicholson. They somehow end up in some small podunk town where a parade is taking place and they attempt to join in the festivities on their bikes, only to be arrested for “parading without a permit,” a crime that really rubs Billy the wrong way. It is while locked up in the local jail that they meet George Hanson, played by Nicholson, an alcoholic Attorney, presumably locked up for some drunken antics. The relationship between the three starts off with a fair amount of animosity, as Nicholson wakes Honda up within their shared cell and Hopper comes to his aid, threatening Nicholson. However, the three make up when Nicholson is able to pull some strings with the guards and get Hopper and Fonda some much desired cigarettes. When they are released, the three set off (but only after Nicholson starts his day with his swig of Jim Beam and a good morning salute:
When he puts on an old-school football helmet and his jersey sweater, we’re supposed to believe that the now washed up Nicholson once played football at Michigan (a little difficult to swallow).
Some of my favorite scenes in the movie come during the many nights spent around the campfire (other than the strange multiple quick scene cuts that often come in a row before or after the travelers set up camp). It is in one of Nicholson’s first nights with the crew that they introduce him to what he claims is his first “marijuana cigarette”. He only gets through part of it, partially out of concern for mixing it with his heavy boozing, but also at Fonda’s suggestion that he save the rest for the next day to see things in “a whole new way”. Nicholson doesn’t appear to see much of anything, as he looks mostly comatose after finishing off the joint the next morning.
Another one of my favorite scenes (but unfortunately one that leads to one of the strangest and most tragic scene in the film) *** Spoiler alerts*** comes when the three musketeers wander into a small diner somewhere in Louisiana. All of the locals (other than a group of young girls) are both scared of and put off by the appearances of the three shaggy looking travelers. They make crude and threatening remarks and the waitress refuses to even acknowledge them. The young girls are intrigued by the older and mysterious threesome, but quickly lose interest when the trio won’t give them motorcycle rides.
The following tragic scene, which these events lead up to, came completely out of left field (for me at least). Once again, we find the three vagabonds camping somewhere just outside of town, only to be accosted in the middle of the night by the same men who stared them down earlier in the small town diner. Hopper scares the men off, brandishing a knife; however, not before the real damage is done, which leaves Nicholson fatally wounded.
Sadly and ironically, at that point, I remembered a line between two of the men in the diner when the “Deputy” asked “What’cha think we ought to do with ’em?” And the other replied: “I don’t damn know, but I don’t think they’ll make the parish line.”
From this point forward, the movie continues down the stranger and darker course it started on in Louisiana. Wyatt and Billy vow to return George’s (Nicholson’s) things to his family, they visit a brothel (following through on the suggestion from George), which Billy seems much more enthusiastic about than Wyatt, and then carry on with the two prostitutes for much longer than would be expected. These misadventures include a drug-induced trip in an abandoned and run-down cemetery and finally visiting the much anticipated Mardi Gras celebration.
The final scenes of the film came almost equally as unexpected to me as the scene in the woods in which Nicholson loses his life; however, after that, maybe I should have expected as much.
All in all, I am glad I saw this movie, as Nicholson, Hopper and Fonda were great and I had intended to for some time. However, other than that, I don’t have really positive things to say about it. In some ways, I’m sure it will always be considered a classic and the multiple-effort roles by Hopper and Fonda are indeed impressive; however, there are two many idiosyncrasies in it for me to really rave about this one.
As one final note, I have to mention the stunning resemblance I saw between Peter Fonda and the New England Patriot’s Quarterback Tom Brady:
Fonda’s bike is a little cooler though…(also weird coincidence that Nicholson’s character was supposed to have played football at Michigan as Brady did)