The counterculture was in full swing in the United States in the mid-1960s, but it hadn’t managed to penetrate the film industry, which was going about its business much as it had in the 40s and 50s. Hollywood film executives, who were as focused on trends back then as they are now, realised that the rebellious, rock-loving hippy generation could be a lucrative audience but had no clue how to make films for them.
Easy Rider, a collaboration between Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, changed all that. Produced on the fringes of the system for just US$501,000, and distributed by Columbia Pictures, the story of two freedom-loving bikers took US$19 million at the box office. The 1969 film was so successful that, as one pundit put it, staid studio bosses stopped shaking their heads in incomprehension and started nodding them in incomprehension.
Sensing big profits from a new audience, the Hollywood studios took power away from their producers and gave it to young directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich. For a few years, directors had the creative freedom to make the films they wanted to make without interference from the studios, and the golden age of the 70s was the result.
Easy Rider is an intelligent, intellectual film by any standards – not least because it manages to celebrate the counterculture while simultaneously condemning it as failure. The story came from Peter Fonda, scion of the famed acting family, although its genesis was hotly disputed by Hopper, already notorious as a Hollywood bad boy.
Like some of the US films that followed – Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, for instance – Easy Rider drew heavily on the European art-house tradition rather than Hollywood, referencing films by Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini.
A road movie, Easy Rider starts with Wyatt (Fonda), called Captain America because of his stars-and-stripes bike, and Billy (Hopper), doing a drug deal to fund a motorcycle trip across the US. They’re looking for freedom, they’re looking for “America”, they’re looking for a sustainable lifestyle outside of society. On the way, they meet a philosophical Jack Nicholson, and run foul of rednecks and cops who detest their freewheeling lifestyle. Before tragedy strikes, Wyatt realises the values of the counterculture have not even dented the American psyche.
On the set, Hopper was reportedly a dictator prone to extremely violent outbursts, and everyone was continually fighting. But the film still manages to express a desire for a harmonious world.
Easy Rider will be screened on August 7 at the Hong Kong Film Archive, in Sai Wan Ho, as part of the archive’s Restored Treasures programme.