Back when I was still teaching in-person (and this has nothing to do with COVID), my favorite class to teach was a course on Film and Twentieth Century America. It was one that I took as a Ph.D. student at Loyola University Chicago. When it was my turn to head such a course, I modeled much of it after my own experience. This included the movies I chose to show my students. One of the films I borrowed from my time as a pupil was Easy Rider (1969). I agonized over this choice. Though I have grown in my Faith since those days (which are an unconscionable number ago), I was still a regular Mass attendee. As such, I was uncomfortable showing it to my college students, adults though they were, since it has a great deal of objectionable material in it. More on that in a moment. What made me go ahead with it anyway is the fact that it so aptly captures a moment in America’s past, specifically the late 1960s and the hippie movement. Bear in mind that this was a history course, and I used films as historical documents. The fact that the movie exists at all and got such widespread attention is a testament to how much of a grip hippie culture had on the nation at that time. Still, there are some other lessons I would like to draw from it, particularly now that I understand my Faith better.
The objectionable material I mentioned a moment ago is right out front as Easy Rider begins. Our two main characters, Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda), also known as “Captain America,” do a drug deal on the outskirts of an airport. Wyatt then hides their stash of cash in the gas tank of his motorcycle, and with Billy on his own chopper, they had east from California. Their intended destination is a bordello in New Orleans, so as you can see, the hits just keep on coming. The majority of the movie relates to little side adventures on their way to the Crescent City. There is the small farmstead they stop at in Arizona to make repairs to their motorcycles. There is the hippie commune they take their ease at, mostly because they meet some girls. There is the time they get arrested in New Mexico when they are confused with a parade, and thrown in jail for attempting to join the festivities without a license. While sitting behind bars, they meet a local drunk, who is also a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), named George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). They strike up a conversation, and a bond is formed between them. George decides to join Billy and Wyatt on their trip to New Orleans because, why not? Unfortunately, during a lunch break in some non-descript Louisiana town, their long-haired, unkempt appearance draws the ire of the intolerant patrons. Later that night, after introducing George to marijuana, the ruffians from the restaurant attack their camp. Billy and Wyatt suffer fairly minor injuries, but George is beaten to death. Billy and Wyatt do some minor remembrances for their fallen comrade before continuing on to New Orleans. They make it to the bordello and settle in with two of the establishment’s ladies of the night. Movie logic dictates that, since they are in New Orleans, it must also be time for Mardi Gras. Hence, the four go out for a night on the town, but with an added twist: they each take lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). This makes for some, er, interesting experiences with the wildness of the festival going on in the city. It takes a seemingly dark turn, though, when they end up in the nearby famous above-ground cemetery and have a mental breakdown. Drugs are bad, kids. Whatever it was that happened, they decide job done and get back on the road. Not long thereafter, while riding down a lonely two-lane Florida road, another group of rednecks accosts them. They decide to frighten the two long-haired, hippie freaks, resulting in the deaths of both Billy and Wyatt. The end.
Easy Rider pretends to be deep, but it is about as shallow as a puddle. Aside from the literal goal of making it to the New Orleans whorehouse, Wyatt also wants to find some kind of “authentic” America. It is evident from where they set off on their journey to the stars and stripes adorning Wyatt’s motorcycle. At the heart of this quest is the desire to be truly free, and along the way it is suggested that the only ones truly living an unencumbered lifestyle are the hippies. So, why did Billy and Wyatt not stay. Well, Billy wanted to keep moving because he is less philosophical than Wyatt. Whatever. What this Catholic reviewer takes issue with is the notion that the hippies are the ones who know true freedom. Our Faith teaches that freedom is not simply about doing whatever you want, whenever you want. Put differently, “free love” is a lie. What especially Billy, but also Wyatt since he is there, are pursuing are their base appetites. By doing so, they become enslaved to the desire to do drugs and have sex with whoever. It may seem counterintuitive, but what they are really after can only be found in God. The 1960s were a time when traditional structures like Faith were questioned (to say the least), and people were forsaking the love of God for the love of each other. Yes, God wants us to love our fellow men and women. Yet, true love is procreative, and the so-called “love” of the entire hippie culture, to be blunt, was selfish hedonism. I will give the film credit for one line, though. After Billy and Wyatt leave New Orleans, Wyatt has a moment of self-reflection while staring into a camp fire. He looks at Billy and says that they “blew it.” I could not agree more.
Needless to say, I do not recommend Easy Rider. Still, if I were to ever teach my beloved Film and Twentieth Century America course again, I would assign it. Unfortunately, there is no other film that I can think of that better captures the essence of the time. Also to my displeasure, I cannot rail against the objectionable aspects of the film in an academic setting as I can on The Legionnaire. As it seems unlikely that I will be giving this class again, I will leave you all with this review.