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Easy Rider Movie Analysis Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2534 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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“Easy Rider … invokes both affirmative and critical visions of 1960s America, making it more of a measure of its times than either its original or later audiences could imagine” (Klinger, B. 1997, p.199). Through close textual analysis identify and discuss the ways in which the affirmative and critical visions of 1960s America are represented.

‘ Easy Rider was a little road movie that came out of nowhere to change Hollywood forever… Upon release, the film became an essential part of the 60s iconography, embodying the hopes and fears of the time’. (Hill, L, 1996, pg 8)

Easy Rider (Hopper,D, 1969) is an independent American film which was directed by Dennis Hopper and predominantly produced Peter Fonda, the film was only given a budget of approximately ‘$400,000’ (International Movie Database, no date) by Columbia Pictures but due to its success through controversially displaying critical visions of America it produced a gross profit of $60,000,000 (International Movie Database, no date) within the ten years it was released. The themes of, drugs, sex, hippie culture and racism are portrayed within the film through the protagonists representations and reactions, the way in which these themes went against the conventions of American film making by not portraying an idealistic America created controversy but also made great success as audiences could align with the true happenings in society. Easy Rider’s main ideology is freedom, Billy and Wyatt, the main characters, ‘went looking for America, but couldn’t find it anywhere’ (Durks ,T, no date) , they appeared to find a corrupt society instead of the American Dream lifestyle which had always been portrayed previously; This film broke the conventions of American cinema and gave inspiration and freedom to all future film makers. Through close analysis of the characters representations and specific scenes within Easy Rider the critical visions of America which are displayed will become clear. The scenes I will analyse are: Junk yard, Parading without a licence, cafe, Jacks death, Whore house, ‘We blew it’ and the final shootings, these specific scenes clearly portray zeitgeist creating clear ideologies which are critical about the American society.

Billy and Wyatt are represented as Hippies; Hippie culture began to have a serious impact on America’s society in the 1960’s,

‘The Hippie movement started in San Francisco, California and spread across the United States, through Canada, and into parts of Europe. But it had its greatest influence in America. During the 1960’s a radical group called the Hippies shocked America with their alternative lifestyle and radical beliefs.’ (Huber, A, Lemieux, C, Hollis, M, no date.)

The clothing codes and the characters’ appearance instantly makes the audience aware that they both belong within this controversial culture, the conventional jackets, trousers, cowboy hats, sunglasses, biker gloves, neck scarves and long hair displays this. Billy and Wyatt did have the ‘radical beliefs’ associated with the Hippie lifestyle, they had ambitions of becoming ‘free’ and living the American dream; in ‘The south’ the characters would have already been classed as having freedom because of their long hair , long hair is seen as representing freedom; however because Billy and Wyatt cannot find the American lifestyle that they are searching for they think that ‘all they represent … is someone who wants a haircut’. ( Hopper, D, 1969) The protagonists ‘compulsive search for untrammelled freedom’ (Lawrence,JB, 1970, page 665) continues and the road trip begins.

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A huge part of the Hippie culture included drugs, the theme of drugs is very apparent within Easy Rider this therefore displays a ‘critical America’, during the rise of Hippie culture it was estimated that around 800,000 Americans had tried marijuana; Marijuana is the predominant drug that is presented to the audience within the film. During the opening sequence of the film Billy and Wyatt are established as drug dealers, close up shots of the characters sniffing the drugs creates pessimistic thoughts about them, showing them as unlawful citizens, also emphasising the notion of Hippies being outcasts. Throughout the protagonists’ journey drugs play an important part in their actions; this becomes clear to the audience as drugs are presented within every major stage of their journey.

After ironically selling junk at a junk yard, Billy and Wyatt next travel to a commune. The first few seconds of footage makes the audience believe the commune is going to represent a ‘beautiful America’, a mid shot of a tranquil valley portrays this idea. The real lifestyle is then revealed; a colourless pallet of browns makes the commune instantly look mundane as this is juxtaposed in the audiences mind to the valley of vibrant blues and greens. When the characters arrive, diegetic sound codes of laughter and singing makes the community seem very welcoming and living a happy lifestyle, this notion is soon changed when close up shots of feet walking on bare ground reveal their desperation for crops and food. A long camera pan then shows the depressed and desperate faces of each person in the commune, this could also represent the struggle that Hippies are having in the American society. A prayer for ‘simple food’ makes the audience empathise for the characters, the man who says the prayer could be perceived as being a Jesus figure, his appearance of long hair, a beard and a necklace present the audience with this notion. Even though Billy and Wyatt are convinced that the people in the commune ‘will make it’ ( Hopper,D,1969) the ‘prayer for good crops visually foretells the disaster that lies ahead, the commune will fail because its hope and idealism have outstripped reality’. ( International Movie Database, no date) Sexual innuendos are also created between Billy, Wyatt and two females from the commune, flirtatious conversations and having a naked swim together displays this idea, whilst also portraying a sense of freedom.

Billy and Wyatt then move on to their next destination, they end up riding in a parade. Up-beat diegetic music of the band playing, helps the audience to escape into the world of the characters, the music also portrays an idea that America is a country of celebration; soon after the celebration begins the sound of police sirens take over and instantly the audience are aware the characters have been unlawful again. Billy and Wyatt are put into prison for ‘parading without a licence’, Billy cannot believe they have been put in prison because Wyatt is ‘Captain America’ and he is ‘Billy’. Ironically Wyatt has been given the nickname Captain America, Captain America is a comic book super hero, who wears American motifs which is similar to Wyatt who has the flag on his helmet and his jacket; the fact he has been given the name Captain America connotes that he is a powerful character. Billy’s name could also be perceived as relating to ‘Billy the Kid’ who was as an American outlaw in the 19th Century, this is because Billy is also classed as being an outlaw for being a Hippie. In Prison Captain America and Billy meet and American Lawyer called George, George states that he can tell that they have just arrived because they have still long hair in a ‘scissor happy’ society. This displays zeitgeist in America; in Texas in 1968 long hair was not allowed, citizens had to have their hair shaved off which would ‘beautify America’, this could be portrayed as America ‘shaving’ away peoples freedom, again creating a vision of a ‘critical America’. George uses his high status career to get them all out of prison and they decide to continue their journey together. During a break from their journey, Billy and Wyatt convince the American Lawyer to smoke marijuana; this could represent how the Hippie culture is starting to take over the American Society.

The next critical stage in the character’s journey is in a cafe, the cafe conveys messages that America can be a racist and homophobic society. A panning shot establishes that everyone in the cafe is white and instantly displays the idea of a racist society. When Billy, Wyatt and George enter the cafe a sheriff stereotypes them, referring to them as ‘trouble makers’, another man then calls Billy a ‘she’ because of his particularly long hair, these phrases cause the audience to think that these men are intimidated by the Hippies which is why they are reacting to them in this manner. The notion of America being a racist society is reiterated when one of the men says that he should ‘mate’ Billy with ‘one of those black winches out there’ as ‘that’s about as low as they come’. This dialogue confirms the audiences’ original instinct about a racist America. Billy, Wyatt and George are also referred to as having ‘green’ skin not white, this may be perceived as representing that they are alienated from society because of their hippie culture. The ideology of homophobic America is also displayed within this scene when the men call the hippies ‘Yankee queers’ as they leave the cafe. After the cafe scene George is shown as the conscience, he states that ‘ this used to be a hell of a good country’, this displays zeitgeist about how American society is changing and becoming more critical. Because George used to be a ‘true’ American he knows what the main problem Americans have with the Hippie culture and why they react in such a pessimistic way, he informs the characters and the audience that the Americans are simply ‘scared’ of what the Hippie culture represents, ‘freedom’, this explains the attitude of the men in the cafe and almost allows the audience to align with their point of view. This also makes the audience realise that this may be the reason all Americans in Texas had to have their hair shaved off, to avoid the representation of freedom. Later in Easy Rider the conscience is killed by the men in the cafe, this displays how Americans are ‘scared’ of ‘freedom’ and do become ‘dangerous’ to try and stop it, just like George stated earlier in the film.

The next stage in Billy’s and Wyatt’s journey revolves around a whore house, this scene explores the themes of drugs and sex displaying America’s women as not living the conventional American dream, but in fact selling their body to men and being easily lead. The camera follows the characters around the house allowing the audience to see many women are waiting for desperate men to pay for their services, this creates a pessimistic view of American women displaying them as weak and dependent of men. It is in this scene where the audience realise that Billy and Wyatt have made it to Mardi-Gras, instead of flirting with his whore Wyatt asks ‘what’s happening out on the streets…Mardi-Gras’. The loud diegetic sounds of the celebrations combined with the overriding noise of the police sirens reminds the audience of the earlier parade and creates an enigma that something is going to happen. When the hippies and the whores take to the streets of Mardi-Gras everyone in society appears to be staring at them, again creating a sense of being outcast and alienated. The theme of drugs becomes dominant in the characters actions when they all arrive in a cemetery; after taking the drugs quick cross cuts of, religious readings, the sun, the cemetery, the sky turning in circles, Wyatt sitting on a statue, a whore naked and a deathly figure, this puts the audience in the position of the characters creating a sense of disorientation, forcing the audience to see the effects of the drugs clearly, this emphasises the influence that hippies are having on American society and the rise of drug use because of their culture. The figure in black is perceived as representing death, when Wyatt his sitting on the statue saying ‘why did you leave me like that’ he is seen to be holding the figure’s umbrella, this creates an innuendo that the characters may be close to death, the statue in which Wyatt is sitting on may also be seen as representing the statue of Liberty, displaying that he feels America has let him down.

Next, the iconic phrase stated by Wyatt, ‘we blew it’, is presented to the audience when the characters are sitting round a camp fire, this phrase displays how the character could not find the America he was looking for, and did not make any change to the critical American society.

In the final scene, Billy is shot off of his bike by two American men in a truck, who decided to shoot him because he was a hippie; Wyatt drives back and places the jacket with the American motif over Billy before ‘going for help’, whilst going to get help he himself gets shot by the same men, a crane shot of the flame from Wyatt’s bike displays that their journey is over; because Hippie culture made them so alienated in American society they were killed. The final song’s lyrics ‘where ever the river flows is where I want to be’ connotes a final message of freedom. The shootings also display zeitgeist, in the 1960’s 5 political leaders were assassinated, Malcolm X, John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

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In conclusion an affirmative and critical America is represented within Easy Rider, the way in which the themes of, drugs, sex, hippie culture, freedom and racism are portrayed show a critical America. The affirmative characters seek to find the American dream lifestyle but where ever they travel all they can find is a critical America. The film leaves the audience wondering why the American society does not let people have freedom and makes them question as to why the American dream lifestyle is always represented in films when it is so hard to find in reality. Through not displaying the conventional American lifestyle the director and producers of Easy Rider have challenged Hollywood cinema and created freedom for future film makers.

‘ From the lowest-Budget, most formally audacious or politically radical to the quirky, the offbeat, the cultish and the more conventional, the independent sector has thrived in American cinema… producing a body of work that stands out from the dominant Hollywood mainstream…It represents a challenge to Hollywood’. (King, G. 2005, 1)

Word count: 2310


Easy Rider, 1969. Film. Dennis Hopper. America. Columbia Pictures.

Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage, 1999. Video. Charles Kiselyak. America. Columbia TriStar home video.


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