None of the forced violence, lawlessness, rapist, gratuitous speed aspects of the motorbike clan in this perceptive film. It deals with two dropouts on a long trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, a search for freedom thwarted by that streak of ingrained, bigoted violence in the U.S. and their own hangups.
Peter Fonda is Captain America with the stars and stripes on his back, helmet and bright long-barrelled motorbike. His sidekick, Dennis Hopper, sports pioneer trooper buckskins, long mustache and hair. They pull a dope-selling deal in Mexico to get the stake that is to free them.
The Mardi Gras seems to be a symbol of free and easy meaning to them. Pic chronicles their trip that ends in tragedy. Their bikes whisk them through the good roads surrounded by all the stretches of land that have housed that mythic American creation of the western.
Film does not force parallels but they resemble men looking for some sort of new frontier, giving an ironic cast in a land now populated from seas to shining sea. The bikes, while part of them, are also a means of giving them movement and freedom. No dwelling on reasons, didactics or explanation of why they are what they are but filling it in on their long hegira.
They meet an amiable farmer, married to a Mexican woman, who invites them to lunch. Then they join a parade that gets them arrested for parading without a permit. In jail, they meet Jack Nicholson, scion of a well-to-do family and a confirmed alcoholic, who joins them on their trip.
Fonda and Hopper are inarticulate but seem to know they are looking for something, the freedom which money may give them and even some sort of inexplicable belief, be it religious or humanistic. They pick up the head of one of those communal clans that live off the land. Robert Walker Jr. etches a solid portrait as the group leader.
They enjoy it, but move on. In a small town, their long hair, bikes, and attire bring baleful response from the local sheriff and people when they go into a cafe to eat. As Nicholson explains it, when they bed down by a campfire, some people are afraid of people who seem different. It arouses resentment and hangups they may have in their own lives. The townspeople come out and beat them in their bedrolls, and Nicholson is killed.
They pay a visit to a bordello, festooned with religious imagery, and smoking pot, go to the Mardi Gras with two of the bagnio girls. This seg, shot in 16m, obviously, and blown up, catches the forced gaiety of the affair and ends with them on an LSD trip in a graveyard.
Riding on, but feeling they have not achieved what they wanted, two men in a truck try to scare them by pointing shotguns at them. Hopper’s disdain causes one to shoot and they hit Fonda whose bike seems to explode as the camera wheels up to the sky to show their burning bikes.
It is a wrenching, but fitting ending to the aborted trip. They meet good and bad, touching on that senseless violence that has led to assassination and sometimes heedless violence. Script is literate and incisive and Hopper’s direction is fluid, observant and catches the pictorial poetics with feeling.
Fonda exudes a groping moral force and Hopper is agitated, touching and responsive as the sidekick, hoping for that so-called freedom their stake should give them. Nicholson is excellent as the articulate alcoholic who fills in the smothered needs in a verbal way that the others feel but cannot express.
Fonda himself has given this a fine production dress, with associate Bert Schneider, and the brilliant lensing, excellent music background ballads, especially Bob Dylan’s “Easy Rider,” are fine counterpoints to this poetic trip along Southwest America. It is far above the usual films on this subject with probable appeal to younger and selective audiences and art playoff and regular chances looking bright.
1969: Nominations: Best Supp. Actor (Jack Nicholson), Original Story & Screenplay