The late actor disagreed that his film was about a lack of freedom in 1960s America. Quite the opposite.
Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, wearing a stars-and-stripes helmet and matching leather jacket, in a publicity still issued for the film, ‘Easy Rider’, USA, 1969. The film, directed by Dennis Hopper, starred Fonda as ‘Wyatt’, and Nicholson as ‘George Hanson’. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
As a boy I tacked to my wall a seven-foot-long rectangular Easy Rider movie poster bearing the tagline “A man went looking for America….and couldn’t find it anywhere.” I hadn’t looked much beyond the borders of Genesee County, but I was pretty sure it was out there—or in here—somewhere.
Unfashionable as that shaggy landmark film of 1969 eventually became, my affection for it only grew, as I came to think of it as an audaciously wistful attempt to fix the back-to-the-land counterculture of the 1960s within the American agrarian tradition.
When in the spring of 2012 Peter Fonda, star and co-screenwriter of Easy Rider, dropped in to film a small yet crucial role in Ron Maxwell’s film Copperhead, I had lunch with the America-seeker of the poster. I tried out on Fonda my theory that Easy Rider was a paean to the pioneer virtues. He responded just as I would have scripted it: “Far out, Bill.”
A benediction from Captain America!
Fonda also told me that he considered himself a “radical capitalist,” contrary to rote obits upon his recent death which depicted him as a ’60s stereotype on wheels. His roots stretched to Omaha, Nebraska; director/co-star Dennis Hopper’s were in Dodge City, Kansas. They were a pair of gun-loving libertarian nonconformists whose anomic Easy Rider characters—Fonda’s, at least—ache for community, a place to belong.
The most sympathetic figures in the film are not Wyatt/Captain America (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), the misguided bikers who score a big drug deal and then drive aimlessly to their deaths. Rather, they are the rancher and his wife with whom Billy and Wyatt break bread after stopping to fix a flat. The farmsteaders have a passel of children—“My wife’s Catholic,” the rancher explains with a smile. A starving Billy digs in and is gently reproved by his host, “Would you mind taking off your hat?”
Chastened, Billy does, and the rancher says the traditional “We thank thee, O Lord, for these Thy gifts” grace.
The communicants share a convivial meal, and Wyatt says admiringly, “You’ve got a nice place. It’s not every man that can live off the land, you know. You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud.”
Then the boys speed away to subsequent encounters, first with hippie communards who are putting in a crop. (They also say a grace.) Wyatt’s vatic observation that “They’re gonna make it” is often mocked—how does he know, and do hashish and Brook Farm really mix?—but hey, what’s so fatuous about hope, man?
Next they meet George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), a drunken ACLU lawyer sobering up in a small-town jail as the boys cool their heels after being arrested for parading without a permit. George joins their caravan, and over a campfire he explains to Billy and Wyatt that while “this used to be a helluva good country,” times have changed:
“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.”
Finally, Wyatt and Billy run afoul of some bad old boys who blow them away on a country road, seemingly without cause.
This ending—the whole film, really—was consistently misunderstood, to Fonda’s annoyance. One reviewer at the time praised it as an evisceration of “our trigger-happy, hate-ridden nation in which increasing numbers of morons bear increasing numbers of arms.”
Frustrated with such tendentious readings, Fonda did what any intelligent man would do, and what directors and screenwriters are always lectured not to do: he explained himself.
“My movie is about the lack of freedom, not about freedom. My heroes are not right, they’re wrong. The only thing I can end up doing is killing my character. I end up committing suicide; that’s what I’m saying America is doing. People do go in and they think ‘Look at those terrible rednecks, they killed those two free souls who needed to love, blah blah blah.’ That’s something we have to put up with.”
As for the title, Fonda explained, “‘Easy Rider’ is a Southern term for a whore’s old man: not a pimp, but the dude who lives with a chick. Because he’s got the easy ride. Well, that’s what’s happened to America. Liberty’s become a whore, and we’re all taking an easy ride.”
If Peter Fonda never again equalled the accomplishment of Easy Rider and his acid-Western masterpiece The Hired Hand (1971), at least he came closer to finding America than almost any other filmmaker of his day.
Bill Kauffman is the author of 11 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.