‘Easy Rider’ as a Reinvention of the Western Genre

Through a reinvention of the Western genre ‘Easy Rider’ examines the central contemporary preoccupations of New Hollywood; such as the failures of American Society with anti-hero protagonists suffering from alienation, disillusionment with the corrupt urban environment and failure to attain freedom through the American Dream


Jonathan Smith


            Widely regarded as a golden age of filmmaking, the Hollywood Renaissance, or New Hollywood, in the late 1960’s was considered “the last time Hollywood produced a body of risky, high-quality work…work that was character, rather than plot driven, that defied traditional narrative…that dared to end unhappily”(Biskind, p17). A breed of young, new directors such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola coupled with the new acting talents of Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro led the charge in innovative filmmaking, creating an era in the film “of which we probably never see again” (Biskind, p16). Films of the Hollywood Renaissance typically centred around protagonists, often an anti-heroes, suffering from alienation and conflict with wider, modern society; ‘Easy Rider” emphatically typified these common themes of the time.

Generally considered one of the most important films of the period, ‘Easy Rider’ (1969) managed to “catch the spirit of the time” (Ebert, 2004) as it reflected a divided nation in the midst of a counterculture movement inspired by domestic turmoil and fuelled by the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movements. As the youth of America rebelled against a conservative, sterile society ‘Easy Rider’ was “a young audience’s vision…that everything was hopeless and rigid” (Ebert, 2004). “Easy Rider’ effectively portrayed its themes through a reinvention of the Western genre which ‘was defined by a clash of two opposing forces, one representing civilisation, the other wilderness. The third element is the hero, although he usually has the powers and freedom associated with the wilderness” (West, P1). Dennis Hopper’s vision for his motorcycle epic successfully coveys the ideals of the Western into a modern setting that encapsulated the feelings in 1960’s America.

            As West outlined the central focus of the Western is the conflict between the rural and urban environments, often containing a desire to escape the latter in search of freedom and a better life. In light of this, ‘Easy Rider’ can certainly be seen as ‘a sort of latter day Western’ in its execution. (Polt, p22). Throughout the film the city and countryside are constantly being contrasted though cinematography, narrative and dialogue with emphasis on each setting’s meanings and values that is evidently juxtaposed throughout. The bold, expansive camerawork of Laszlo Kovac’s “poetic photography” puts focus on the “grandeur of the landscape” (Polt, p23) and is reminiscent of the imagery of the Western frontier of endless deserts and sprawling mountains. The rural frontier that Wyatt and Billy reside in on their breaks is almost always idyllic, notably the hippy commune and farmers ranch are quaint isolated settlements shown in an admirable light. The ‘good’ of the wilderness is emphasised by Wyatt who first praises the farmer for the fact “it’s not every man that can live off the land, you know. You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud” and later expresses his belief that the commune can yield crops in spite of an apparently baron field as well as Billy’s scepticism. Billy and Wyatt’s rejection from motels, that in itself is a condemnation of the civilised world, means they must set up camp in the wild; huddled round a campfire exchanging stories is completely typical of the Western stereotype.

It’s in these scenes round the campfires where the urban sprawl is most explicitly attacked in the dialogue. Firstly the hippy hitchhiker states “I’m from the city… Doesn’t matter what city; all cities are alike” inferring a negativity in his tone before elaborating in his desire to be “a long way from the city, and that’s where I wanna be right now”. Modern civilisation is always depicted in a negative light often as violent and unwelcoming in regards to the films misfit protagonists. All of Wyatt and Billy’s troubles stem from the urban setting; their rejection from motels, their harsh arrest for parading without a permit and harassment in the café. While the rural settlements provide shelter and acceptance and the modern world merely possess bigotry, harassment and rejection for our heroes. Kolker suggests “in American film the country is conventionally a place whose inhabitants are untouched by corruption, a place that offers security and comfort” (Kolker, P42); clearly what we see in ‘Easy Rider’ is an extension of this vision. Much like in ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ the urban city acts as a place of decay and corruption where all debauched and evil behaviour resides. This classical Western disparity in places is hyperbolically accentuated further by the simplistic characterisation as “The good guys are portrayed as sensitive loner types: they’re nice to girls; they wouldn’t hurt anybody. The bad guys are resentful barbarians, who pick on the good guys for no reason and make stupid jokes” (Haycock, 1969). These stereotypes of the good and bad are too simplistic to make them realistic but does effectively help the narrative in creating sympathy for our heroes on top of intensifying the audiences’ negative feelings towards the urban landscape. Kolker points out in ‘Taxi Driver’ that “Scorses’s work is so severe that the world becomes expressionistic, a reflection of a particular state of mind” (Kolker, P210), a viewpoint that can be stretched to ‘Easy Rider’ as the warped disparity between the tranquil wilderness and depraved city is an reflection of Wyatt and Billy’s social division they live in, indicative of the 1960’s counterculture.


            One of the key elements of Westerns was more often than not the anti-hero protagonist, the outlaw, played most famously by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone epics. The homages to the Western hero are evident in Billy and Wyatt, firstly in their names as they reference frontier legends: outlaw Billy the Kid and lawman Wyatt Earp. The characters namesakes perhaps are indicative of their personalities; Billy acts the outlaw-paranoid, temperamental and unpredictable whereas Wyatt is sensible, grounded one “who seems a modern gloss on the strong, silent cowpoke” (Seitz, 2010). Much like Billy the Kid, ‘Easy Rider’s’ leads are “aging heroes have outlived their era. The two protagonists are as painfully inarticulate as any western idol” whose “sluggishness of mind is of course intended to be read as sensitivity and moral integrity” (Haycock, 1969). Even Billy’s appearance is explicitly Western from his cowboy hat and boots to his frilled jacket. It is arguable that Billy and Wyatt are more than just relics from the Western but  “successors to the Wild One and the Rebel Without a Cause…[they] were freaks and heads, semiotic warriors and electric cowboys, True Americans and Losers, Beautiful Losers” (Hoberman, 2010), emblematic of the 1960’s generation feeling.

If Billy and Wyatt are a new generation of cowboys then surely their Chopper motorcycles are the new steeds by which they will travel the open frontiers of America. The notable comparison between the different ages of transport is juxtaposed when Wyatt changes his tire while in the foreground a horse has its horseshoes attached, a metaphorical changing of the guard.
Anti-heroes are positioned as alienated from conventional society; furthermore they are destined to being nihilistic, self-destructive and usually afforded a glorious death. Wyatt and Billy fit acutely into this pre-determined role. They are outsiders of society, unwilling to sustain the hippy life found in the commune yet shunned by conventional society when they reach the edges of civilisation. Moreover the film’s climax is the brutal murders of our heroes following  in a long standing tradition of anti-hero deaths; ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘The Wild Bunch’ and ‘Billy the Kid’ to name a few. The appeal in anti-heroes is their isolation; their desire to break away from normality for something better is an admirable trait as if it ‘was cool to feel that you couldn’t win’ (Ebert, 2004).


            It’s the death of Billy and Wyatt that raises a greater concern of the Western, and therefore ‘Easy Rider’, revolving around the nature of freedom and the ‘American Dream’.

At the start of the US frontier the traditional pilgrimage was one of expanding West in search of a better life and freedom in the uninhabited lands. In ‘Easy Rider’ the opposite is the case as they travel from West to East potentially “because they have nothing left to gain from the old America” and therefore  “casting judgment on American society’s failure to live up to its ideals” (Schneider, 2010). This opposition to the well-trodden myth of the American Dream and actually whether freedom is an attainable goal is what lies at the heart of ‘Easy Rider’. The desire for the old frontier is in one case “an anti-modern nostalgic backlash to help alleviate anxieties accompanying the technological, economic, and social developments of the time” but an interesting way to observe the migration in ‘Easy Rider’ is as a journey to the “wonderful Eastern land, situated as the new land of plenty—home of civilization, progressive technologies” (Ladino, p88). Billy’s desire is to reach Florida to retire, not unlike the elderly currently do in reality, which puts a question mark over whether their journey is actually that revolutionary or freedom provoking at all, but merely an extension of society’s behaviour. The “new wealth [from the drug deal] gives the two men freedom’ (Polt, p22) or so it appears to them. Upon reaching their goal of Mardi Gras, a celebration of indulgence and extravagance, the failure of their journey becomes apparent through Wyatt’s ominous premonitions and their harrowingly bad drug trip in the graveyard. When Wyatt finally admits they “blew it” we assume that the money ironically stuffed in US flag gas tank is not the ticket to freedom at all; Wyatt’s earlier praise for the commune life is potentially the freedom he craves and has passed him by. Just as “becoming rich has been the American Dream for many…money is actually a corrupting force” (Ruiz, p142) which is an explanation for Wyatt’s apparent pessimism, a thought unbeknown to Billy. Earlier in the film George tells Billy “They’re scared of what you represent to ’em…what you represent to them is freedom”, that the hostility towards them is the fact that “talkin’ about it and bein’ it [freedom], that’s two different things” and they are the embodiment of the free spirit in America. This however turns out not to be the case as Wyatt sees they are no freer than any of the men who oppose them so vehemently. The further irony of their deaths is that it occurs in the supposedly safe and tranquil countryside but does it surprise us when so often the wilderness reverts back to its lawless, dangerous roots. An obvious parallel can be draw to the deaths of outlaws Bonnie and Clyde on the peaceful country lane.

The death of Wyatt and Billy can, based on the previous inferences, be seen as a good thing as they “were born to be wild, and they died wild; in its twisted way, it’s a happy ending” (Seitz, 2010). Most anti-heroes eventually succumb to a violent demise but often they are immortalised in death, “the finest expression of the freed spirit” (Kolker, 204).

            Variety described ‘Easy Rider’ as “a search for freedom”, which in some ways is true as the bikers journey is played out in the traditions of the Western, in terms of a search for freedom by journeying to a new Eastern frontier. Wyatt and Billy may never find the illusive freedom they crave, or at least not in the sense they think, but they find redemption and success through their deaths. ‘Easy Rider’ suggests freedom in the ‘American Dream’ is impossible to find but in death on the road the heroes have bowed out on top rather than selling out in retirement of Florida like everyone else does. Maybe their quest was doomed from the start as often “freedom inevitably brings doubt or death” (Kolker, p147). ‘Easy Rider’ triumphs in taking the concerns of a generation and the traditions of the Western to forge a film that a new youth audience could relate to while putting a new spin on the genre trappings of anti-heroes and the search for the ‘American Dream’.




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