Captures the Spirit of 1960’s Youth

Easy Rider, starring Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, and Peter Fonda, captured the sense of freedom and experimentation that characterized the youth culture of the 1960’s, as well as the negative image of a brutal “establishment” that appeared to be at the root of social and political evils. Its success spurred a series of films about the generation gap.

Summary of Event

The film Easy Rider, released in the United States on July 14, 1969, expressed the sensibility of the 1960’s, a decade of violence, assassination, protest, and social upheaval. It also played on the nation’s yearning for a better country. Easy Rider (Hopper)
United States;counterculture
[kw]Easy Rider Captures the Spirit of 1960’s Youth (July 14, 1969)
[kw]1960’s Youth, Easy Rider Captures the Spirit of (July 14, 1969)[Nineteen sixties Youth, Easy Rider Captures the Spirit of]
[kw]Youth, Easy Rider Captures the Spirit of 1960’s (July 14, 1969)
Easy Rider (Hopper)
United States;counterculture
[g]North America;July 14, 1969: Easy Rider Captures the Spirit of 1960’s Youth[10330]
[g]United States;July 14, 1969: Easy Rider Captures the Spirit of 1960’s Youth[10330]
[c]Motion pictures and video;July 14, 1969: Easy Rider Captures the Spirit of 1960’s Youth[10330]
Hopper, Dennis
Fonda, Peter
Nicholson, Jack
Dylan, Bob

The plot and the filmmaking of Easy Rider were simple. It was the story of two hippies searching for the real America. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) smuggle drugs out of Mexico, sell them to a pusher in California, and head east on their motorcycles to New Orleans and the Mardi Gras, searching on the way for the spirit of America and the dream of freedom. On their journey east, they encounter a farmer and his family, visit a commune about which they express different attitudes, and go swimming with two girls from the commune. In a small Southern town, they meet George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), an amiable, drunken, liberal lawyer and black-sheep aristocrat who goes along with them, grinning under the football helmet he wears instead of a motorcycle helmet.

In another small Southern town, locals and the police mock them. At night, asleep outdoors, they are attacked, and George is beaten to death. Wyatt and Billy go on to New Orleans and join two prostitutes on an acid trip. Later, on the road to Florida, they come upon two rednecks in a pickup truck. Billy responds to an insult with a disparaging gesture and is shot. After Wyatt stops to tend to his friend, the rednecks return and kill him as well. The film ends with an almost apocalyptic vision of a burning motorcycle. An aerial shot of a river, accompanied by lyrical music, offers peace.

Wyatt and Billy were voices of the 1960’s—hopeful and innocent, though not untainted. Easy Rider had a passion that appealed to some audiences. Although Wyatt and Billy were outsiders, their trek was in the mainstream of the American Dream. Easy Rider followed in the tradition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and Ernest Hemingway’s character Nick Adams. All told stories of characters who sought the dream of freedom by going on the road. Wyatt and Billy, modern outlaws and descendants of Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, were in pursuit of a fading frontier. They were trying to reclaim the frontier and were trying to discover America as a land of spiritual values. The audience, even if it did not always affirm Wyatt and Billy, was encouraged to affirm those values.

There was also a theme of human fallibility in Easy Rider, along with an underlying theme of personal responsibility. Wyatt’s comment of “We blew it” after the two leave New Orleans did not register strongly with most audiences, who were involved in the emotional catharsis of the annihilation of Wyatt and Billy and the indictment of the society that cost them their lives in 1969. Easy Rider was a portrait of the hippie lifestyle, with its communes, drugs, rebellion, and alienation. Although the portrait often suffered from oversimplification, Wyatt’s self-doubt because he and Billy had gone the way of materialism and sold drugs gave the film depth and resonance.

Easy Rider was a box-office phenomenon. Made for $375,000, it brought in more than $16 million. It had been developed independently, from an original idea by Peter Fonda. Terry Southern Southern, Terry wrote the screenplay with Fonda and Hopper. Bert Schneider Schneider, Bert and his BBS Productions BBS Productions financed the film, which was released by Columbia Pictures.

Even though they were uneasy about the film’s broadness and obviousness, most critics were affected by its sincerity and emotion. Even critics with usually strict, demanding standards, such as John Simon and Stanley Kauffmann, were moved by Easy Rider. Critics agreed that the film was flawed, but almost all affirmed the film’s spirit.

Hollywood was not so willing to applaud the film’s independence. Although it was released by a Hollywood studio, and even though it made a lot of money—a Hollywood criterion for approval—Easy Rider received no Academy Awards and only two nominations, for Best Original Screenplay and for Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson). The latter award went to Gig Young for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). The Academy Award for Best Picture of 1969 went to Midnight Cowboy. Outside Hollywood, Easy Rider was more successful. Hopper won the Cannes Film Festival award for best film by a newcomer, and Nicholson won the best supporting actor award from the National Society of Film Critics.

Originally, the film was to be shot by Barry Feinstein, but in a struggle for control, Hopper had a fistfight with his cameraman. Hopper turned to cinematographer László Kovács Kovács, László and editor Donn Cambern Cambern, Donn , two skillful professionals, and his vision survived. The film’s small budget sometimes showed, especially in the footage shot at the Mardi Gras with a hand-held camera. Fonda had gotten the dates of the Mardi Gras wrong, which complicated matters. Overall, some of the amateurish effects added to the film’s sense of authenticity. Easy Rider was as frenetic, impassioned, and erratic as Dennis Hopper.

The music in Easy Rider was a statement of a generation’s values. The film’s sound track Cinema;sound tracks featured the Byrds, Steppenwolf, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Roger McGuinn singing compositions written by Bob Dylan, though the lyrics of “The Ballad of Easy Rider” are not credited to Dylan in the film. Dylan convinced Hopper that Easy Rider should end with hope instead of nihilism, and he wrote lyrics that bring spiritual peace to the ending.

Easy Rider went outside the Hollywood system to find its voice, much as the young people of the time were trying to go beyond the system to find theirs. Easy Rider amplified the political and spiritual call of a generation, a cry for a better society and a freer world but a recognition of lost opportunities and human failure. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper offered the images and voices of an embattled time in American culture. With Easy Rider, they made a document that captured both the fervent idealism and the shattered hopes of a generation.


Easy Rider was a phenomenon in 1969. Coming at the end of a tumultuous and violent decade, it captured a significant time in American cultural history. Many of its reverberations were dissipated as protest in America was replaced by corporate America in the 1980’s, but though its political impact was short-lived, Easy Rider was influential in several ways and remained an artistic landmark.

After the success of Easy Rider, Hollywood and the United States seemed primed for a revolution in filmmaking. Political films seemed to be the wave of the future in 1969. Along with Easy Rider, Haskell Wexler’s Wexler, Haskell
Medium Cool
Medium Cool (Wexler) was very popular. Using cinema vérité techniques, Wexler employed the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a background for his film. He shot footage of the bloody conflicts when protesters clashed with the police in the streets of the city. The French import Z (1969), a political thriller, won the year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

If Hollywood seemed on the brink of embracing politics, the promise never was fulfilled. Instead, Hollywood turned to a youth audience, with youth becoming the arbiter of taste. Protest and generation gap films abounded in the 1970’s. Many of the films that followed Easy Rider, such as The Strawberry Statement (1970), about riots at Columbia University, and Getting Straight (1970), with Elliott Gould as a graduate student exploring his values, seem exploitative, a stigma that Easy Rider had transcended. A few were interesting, such as Zabriskie Point (1970) and Alice’s Restaurant (1969), but most simply were inept. Hollywood had tried to tap a resource, but it quickly had gone dry.

Another illusion that Easy Rider had helped promote was that there would be a boon for independent filmmakers. Easy Rider’s tremendous success at the box office gave hope to independent filmmakers, since Hopper and Fonda had gone outside the Hollywood system to create their film. That hope proved fleeting. Hollywood has always viewed the independents suspiciously, and though Easy Rider was successful, it was viewed somewhat as an aberration and did not change Hollywood’s attitude toward independents.

The next film by Hopper was The Last Movie
Last Movie, The (Hopper) (1971), which he made in Peru. Easy Rider was an experiment that rewarded Hopper with bankability, but he quickly exhausted it. The Last Movie was a fiasco that was quickly withdrawn and shelved. It took Hopper almost twenty years to direct again in Hollywood, helming the controversial Colors (1988). That film, ironically, was photographed by Haskell Wexler.

Easy Rider introduced Jack Nicholson to a mass audience. Previously he had been in low-budget Roger Corman films, but his performance in Easy Rider received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, and his career as a bankable star began. He won audiences with his trademark grin and his mixture of charm and neurosis. He became the prototypical alienated man in films of the 1970’s. If anyone benefited from getting an identity and a persona from Easy Rider, it was Nicholson, who became one of Hollywood’s finest and best-known actors.

Easy Rider was also important in its use of a rock music score that commented on the action. The music was written and performed by some of the major rock figures of the time. Films about rock concerts themselves, as counterculture events, became both popular and artistic. Donn Alan Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1969), Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), and David and Albert Maysles’s Gimme Shelter (1970) saw rock music as a metaphor and captured memorable performances. American Graffiti (1973) and The Big Chill (1983) were classic films that used music to capture eras much as Easy Rider had done.

Easy Rider was one of the films that embodied the new cinematic violence, which was both unpredictable and stunning. Sam Peckinpah released The Wild Bunch
Wild Bunch, The (Peckinpah) (1969) to great controversy. Two years earlier, Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde (Penn) (1967) had expressed the new visceral style of violence. In all three films, the violence was sudden and shocking, but there was a lyricism to it. It was painful but eloquent. Violence was no longer sanitized and conventional. Easy Rider and The Wild Bunch were two cinematic poems that ended in carnage. After 1969, violence was never to be the same in films.

Despite the controversy concerning it, Easy Rider was one of the seminal works that helped promote the personal film. Directors such as Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, and Martin Scorsese, like Hopper, espoused personal films that expressed opposition to materialism and social institutions. Easy Rider captured the antiestablishment feeling of the time. In 1967, The Graduate had also struck a chord with that theme. What is ironic about both films is that years later viewers were much more critical of both Ben Braddock in The Graduate and Wyatt and Billy in Easy Rider.

The Reagan era of the 1980’s rejected the antiestablishment attitude that had been so much a part of the 1960’s. Many of the young were no longer antiestablishment and were likely to desire a Mercedes instead of a motorcycle. Corporate America had reclaimed the American Dream. For many viewers, however, Easy Rider remains a visual poem and an unforgettable memory of the struggle that once was. Easy Rider (Hopper)
United States;counterculture

Further Reading

  • Bapis, Elaine M. “Easy Rider (1969): Landscaping the Modern Western.” In The Landscape of Hollywood Westerns: Ecocriticism in an American Film Genre, edited by Deborah A. Carmichael. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2006. Examines the representation of the environment and the role of the landscape in Easy Rider. Treats the film as an example of a Western in terms of its use of the land. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Fulwood, Neil. One Hundred Violent Films That Changed Cinema. London: Batsford, 2003. Discusses the role of Easy Rider in the history of screen representations of violence. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Hunter, Jack, ed. Dennis Hopper: Movie Top Ten. London: Creation Books, 1999. Analysis of Easy Rider, as well as nine of Hopper’s other films, each by a different film scholar. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Kauffmann, Stanley. Figures of Light. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. In his review, Kauffmann places Easy Rider in social and artistic perspective, saying that its portrayal of hippie life is the most believable he has seen in a fiction film. He applauds Hopper’s multifaceted contribution, predicting that he could be an important talent in the future.
  • Morganstern, Joseph, and Stefan Kanfer, eds. Film 69/70. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970. An anthology of the National Society of Film Critics, with reviews of Easy Rider and other significant films of 1969 that show the cultural sensibility of the time.
  • Schickel, Richard. “Easy Rider.” In Second Sight: Notes on Some Movies, 1965-1970. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972. A reprint of critic Schickel’s initial Life magazine review of the film, supplemented by his later reaction to his own comments. Interesting, though brief and somewhat dated.
  • Springer, John. The Fondas. New York: Citadel Press, 1970. A pictorial history emphasizing the career of Henry Fonda, also including the career of Jane and Peter. It is interesting to compare Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) with his son almost thirty years later in Easy Rider, since both films were effective American odysseys and offered significant social criticism.

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