Easy Rider at 50: how the road movie shook up the system
It’s a matter of historical record that Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson smoked marijuana while shooting in character on the epochal road picture Easy Rider. More so than anyone else’s, their casual ingesting reflected a devil-may-care attitude that began with their characters – Captain America in biker leather Wyatt (Fonda), fringe-jacketed hippie Billy (Hopper) and their lawyer companion George (Nicholson) – and extended to the men themselves.
Situated at the end of its decade, Easy Rider literally and symbolically marks the turning point at which the idealism of the 60s curdled into the indulgent solipsism of the 70s. The tacit prologue, scripted solely in untranslated Spanish dialogue and the hurricane roar of a jet engine, follows the pair as they score several bags of high-purity cocaine in Mexico and then sell it to a client (hey there, Phil Spector!) back in Los Angeles. Their quest follows no imperative higher than the desire to live well and live freely.
They’re no heroes, and aside from the part they play in the international narcotics trade, they’re hardly villains. Stopping for their first night out, they decide to make camp in the woods instead of using some of their drug money to put themselves up at a motel. The generous montages depicting the guys astride their hogs, tearing down the highway to the strains of the soundtrack’s many classic-rock cuts, suggest this as their natural state.