“This used to be a helluva country,” says Jack Nicholson’s character George Hanson at a critical moment in the 1969 film Easy Rider (dir. Dennis Hopper). Later, the character Wyatt (Captain America, played by Peter Fonda) announces in response to Bill’s joy over their newly acquired wealth that “We blew it.” The plural pronoun “We” refers to more than simply these two biker dudes, who bought and sold drugs to fund their cross-country ride. “We” also refers to “we” Americans, to the nation and the American Dream.
This film is so much a product of its time that it seems more revelatory today than it did 41 years ago when it was first released. It clearly sets out the polarities into which, from one simplistic way of thinking, the counter culture and the nation as a whole divided ideas, ways of thinking, and people in the 1960s: young vs. old, those in power vs. those without power, the rich vs. the poor, white skinned vs. dark skinned, individuals vs. group think.
The most important scene in the film takes place shortly before George is clubbed to death in his sleeping bag by hostile local citizens of the small Southern town they’ve just passed through. The alcoholic lawyer George is wondering what has happened to the country. Billy, who thinks on a fairly impetuous and superficial level, believes that the reason he and Wyatt have been refused hotel rooms and experienced other forms of discrimination is because of their long hair:
“George: Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.
“Billy: What the hell is wrong with freedom? That's what it's all about.
“George: Oh, yeah, that's right. That's what's 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. Of 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.
“Billy: Well, it don't make 'em runnin' scared.
George: No, it makes 'em dangerous.”
Scenes in this film range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from profound to shallow. But this particular exchange is a key to the underlying themes and symbols in Easy Rider, and one of the most important scenes in American films from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. It’s a statement about profound economic, social, economic, and philosophical divides, an explanation of how in a certain way the American idolatry of the individual is really veneration of conformity. Individuals who do not conform to the requisite social and cultural expectations are cast out and held in contempt.
The American South in Easy Rider epitomizes the failure, from the film’s point of view, of the American experiment and the American Dream.
In a small Louisiana town, the three riders enter a small restaurant. They are ogled with admiration and interest by a booth full of Southern high school girls on the one hand, and eyed with contempt and hatred by another booth full of older Southern white men. “I don’t think they’ll make it to the parish line,” a gaggle-toothed man in a Cat hat leers as they watch Billy, Wyatt, and George. The South from this film’s viewpoint provides a ready vehicle for illustrating and exploring the failure of democracy and the egalitarian spirit.
Certainly one might complain about the one-sided and stereotypical view the film gives of the South. But though there are many other rooms in the Southern mansion, the room the film portrays is undeniably part of the larger structure.
The film makes clear that, no matter how cool and trendy they might appear to be, Wyatt and Billy have been a part of the American marketplace. Though Billy seems impervious to this realization, it hits Wyatt hard in the later scenes of the film, especially after the murder of George.
A number of scenes focus on people on the social and cultural margins. These especially include scenes featuring black people in the American South. Other scenes focus on images of power and affluence: a small-town courthouse, for instance, and white-columned Southern mansions. There are numerous images of waste, refuse, junked cars and machinery, abandoned houses. This is how the film construes America: a nation of waste, loss, disappointment. The film may be simplistic in its view of things, but at least it makes its view clear.