Motorcycle Movies, Part 2: Easy Rider
By the time Easy Rider was released in 1969, three full years had passed since The Wild Angels hit the nation’s drive-in movie screens. In the sixties, three years was a very long time indeed. The Vietnam War was entering a critical phase and division within the country regarding the war was never more clear-cut. Morally, the pendulum seemed to be swinging back towards the viewpoint of the “under 30” generation. It was in this fevered climate that Easy Rider made its stunning debut. In stark contrast to its progenitor film, The Wild Angels, the motorcycle riders were now portrayed as tragic heroes instead of undisciplined thugs. Perhaps the filmmakers had run out of ways to frighten parents and instead sought to identify with the growing youth market. Regardless, Easy Rider stands today as a quintessential film, a snapshot of America at a pivotal moment in its history when the baton was handed from one generation to another.
It’s noteworthy that this new generation was both in front of the cameras and behind them as well. Peter Fonda, reprising his role as the motorcycle-riding man of few words, produced the film. His co-star Dennis Hopper directed. We see the country and the times through their eyes, and very rarely does America look so beautiful as it does in Easy Rider. The highway scenes are incredible – and unforgettable. That goes for the custom Harley Davidson cycles the two main characters ride as well. Peter Fonda’s ride is especially distinctive, with its American flag gas tank and extra-long front fork. The value of the publicity Harley Davidson received from their bikes being featured in Easy Rider is incalculable. Speaking of value, Easy Rider was made on a very thin $400,000 budget, low even for the times.
Easy Rider is a road film, a biker film, a buddy film and a message film, all rolled into one. Others would follow, hoping to cash in on Easy Rider’s style and image, but the great majority of these were pale imitations. Forget about the rest, and go see the best. If watching Easy Rider doesn’t “get your motor running”, then you’d better check your pulse.