Easy Rider is a 1969 film directed and co-written by Dennis Hopper. It starred Hopper, co-writer and producer Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson in his first Academy Award-nominated role. Since its release, it's been identified as THE Sixties counterculture film. It was also co-produced by the same guys responsible for The Monkees and Head.
It follows the tale of two dope-dealing bikers, Wyatt aka "Captain America" (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), who decide to take their bikes across the country. They have no aim other than going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and pure freedom, which is not appreciated by the locals they encounter. Only one man, liberal lawyer George Hanson (Nicholson), shares their sense of freedom. As they ride along, they wonder what ever happened to America.
This work features examples of:
- All Bikers are Hells Angels: Averted. The two main characters are chopper-riding hippies who travel into the Deep South and run tragically afoul of violent Good Ol Boys.
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Hippy bikers count as bad boys in The Deep South. Billy, Wyatt and George go into a diner. The local men sitting around one table are openly hostile, but the teenage girls sitting around another table think them to be rather dreamy.
- Badass Biker: Averted. The bikers are harmless hippies who just want to find the American dream. It's the Good Ol Boys who are the ruffians.
- Blade-of-Grass Cut: Many of the shots during musical sequences.
- The Cameo: Captain America and Billy sell their cocaine to none other than Phil Spector.
- Central Theme: Time.
- Cool Bike: Possibly the best-known film motorcycle, Wyatt's "Captain America" chopper. Both this and Billy's more conservative chopper started life as Harley Davidson Hydra Glides.
- Conspiracy Theorist: George Hanson is fairly certain that aliens already live amongst us, and that they are not revealed by our government because of the general panic that would ensue.
- Cult Soundtrack: One of the first rock-based soundtracks, including songs by Steppenwolf ("Born to Be Wild", "The Pusher), The Band ("The Weight"), The Byrds ("Wasn't Born to Follow"), Jimi Hendrix ("If 6 Was 9"), and Roger McGuinn ("Ballad of Easy Rider").
- Deep South: Portrayed as xenophobic and violent.
- Diabolus ex Machina: Our heroes are about to embark to Florida to start their life of luxury, and then, some rednecks shoot them.
- Downer Ending: The film ends with a textbook example of Diabolus ex Machina when Wyatt and Billy are killed by a group of rednecks just when they decide to leave the drug business behind and live a life of luxury.
- Environmental Symbolism: The film starts in the open landscape of the south west USA. Our hippy biker heroes get hassled by the cops, but they also meet friendly and cooperative people. Then the action moves to the Deep South, the horizon gets a lot closer, and the threat level gets a lot higher.
- Establishing Character Music: Our heroes are introduced during a drug deal set to Steppenwolf's "The Pusher". Then they head out on their bikes to "Born to be Wild".
- Flipping the Bird: A redneck hassles Billy from a truck. Billy flips him off. The redneck shoots him and then Wyatt dead.
- Around a campfire at night, George explains that people are scared by the heroes' sense of freedom, and that it makes them dangerous. He will die from it, that same night.George: [...] they see a free individual, it's gonna scare them.
Billy: Well, it don't make them running scared.
George: No, it makes them dangerous.
- While in the brothel in New Orleans, Wyatt leans against a fireplace with "The paths of glory lead only to the grave" written on it, notices a painted scroll saying that a man's death sets his reputation, and then we see something burning at the side of the road for a few seconds. That Downer Ending doesn't come entirely out of nowhere.
- Around a campfire at night, George explains that people are scared by the heroes' sense of freedom, and that it makes them dangerous. He will die from it, that same night.
- Genre Deconstruction: The film deconstructs the biker genre. At best the bikers are just harmless drifters but the people of the towns they visit regard them as menaces. They are both killed in the end by a trucker, seemingly for kicks.
- Going to See the Elephant: Wyatt and Billy go on a quest to discover America, with New Orleans as the ultimate elephant.
- Good Ol' Boy: The southern locals don't take kindly to long-haired city boys riding through their communities.
- Hard-Drinking Party Girl: George is a male example.
- The Hero Dies: Billy is shot by a redneck trucker. As Wyatt goes to get help, his bike gets shot and blown up.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Wyatt and Billy. Reputedly an Odd Couple due to Real Life Writes the Plot, with Fonda as the Straight Man and Hopper as the Cloud Cuckoo Lander best friend.
- Hot Springs Episode: In the Southwest, Wyatt and Billy play around in one with some of the local female commune members.
- It's Always Mardi Gras in New Orleans: See Road Trip Plot.Billy: We gotta get to Mardi Gras, man. We're going to Mardi Gras.
Hippie: Your little heart is set on that, uh ?
- Jerkass: Billy. Then again, he was played by Dennis Hopper.
- Knight, Knave, and Squire: Wyatt is the collected, stoic knight; Billy is the hot-tempered knave; and George is the naive, yet occasionally insightful squire. Given that this film drew a substantial amount of inspiration from classic Westerns (where variations of this trope frequently cropped up), this is not terribly surprising.
- Mood Whiplash: One moment the party are riding through the open landscape of the desert South West, and light-hearted country rock is playing. The next, they are crossing a bridge that looks like a cage, and an aggressive song by Jimi Hendrix is playing. Welcome to The Deep South!
- Mushroom Samba: After taking acid in the New Orleans graveyard.
- Named After Somebody Famous: Since Hopper and Fonda considered the film to be a modern day western, the protagonists are Wyatt (Earp) and Billy (the Kid).
- New-Age Retro Hippie: Wyatt and Billy run into a commune of kids and teenagers out in the desert, with Wyatt gaining respect for them for trying to survive in such a harsh environment.
- Novelization: There was an "Original Screenplay" book that was published after the film came out. It is not only not the original screenplay, but it is not even a script at all. It is a "novelization" of the final film as it plays out on screen and formatted to look like a script. It was a cheap, exploitation publication designed to capitalize on the film's success and attributed to the original screenwriters on the cover.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Billy is a hothead; Wyatt is contemplative and spiritual.
- Road Trip Plot: A quintessential example. The characters are on their way from Los Angeles to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
- Scenery Porn: they're riding through the American Southwest, what do you expect?
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The film ends when Billy and Wyatt are blown off their bikes by two rednecks in a pickup, for fun. George Hanson meets a similarly pointless end in a redneck attack about halfway through the film. It was during a scenery / music / driving montage, no less.
- Shout-Out: The very name of Captain America.
- Small-Town Tyrant:
- After George gets Billy and Wyatt out of the small-town jail, he thanks the police, and something passes from his hands to theirs.
- Billy, Wyatt and George go into a diner in the Deep South. The group of men openly talking about beating up the Yankee hippies include local law enforcement.
- Standard Movie Song: The iconic opening credit sequence is the very reason that "Born to Be Wild" has become one of these.
- Stock Desert Interstate: A film about a road trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans, so it features many red-tinted, wide shots of the road in the desert. As the film was made in 1968, the 50's feel of the setting is understandable.
- Stoner Flick: The Sixties version, back when pot was counterculture.
- Theme Naming: Given Peter Fonda thought the bikers were modern cowboys, their names are Wyatt (Earp) and Billy (the Kid).
- Tuckerisation: Some graffiti on the wall of the jail cell reads "H.D. Stanton", a reference to Harry Dean Stanton, a good friend of Jack Nicholson. Another set of graffiti reads Foster K. Denker, the electrician on the film crew. Denker's name is presented in a similar "graffiti" fashion on a storm drain pipe in Beware! The Blob, a film he also worked on.
- Unbuilt Trope: While the film wasn't the Ur-Example of the Badass Biker, it became the Trope Codifier, and an inspiration for biker culture since that year. While the main characters get rich from drug trafficking, and occasionally provoke and scare people along the road, they are mostly good-natured, in contrast to the intolerant, violent locals. While the bikers have their moments of joy on the journey, it does not turn out nearly as glamorous as they had hoped for, with a seemingly pointlessly bleak ending where they're all killed for no reason.
- Walking the Earth: Or riding it on custom bikes, in this case.
- Wearing a Flag on Your Head: Captain America carries multiple versions of the Star Spangled Banner around with him at all times (on his helmet, on his shirt and on his bike), and is one of the most iconic examples of this trope in recent popular culture.