The Story (continued)
Easy Rider (1969)
Around the campfire that night, [the third campfire scene in the film and the first of two campfire scenes with George], George - wearing a 'M' letter sweater (another symbol of his traditional scholastic leanings, along with the football helmet) - takes another drink and again flaps his arms: "Nik, nik, nik, nik - Fire!" They turn George on to marijuana ("grass") and he is soon encouraged to inhale a joint for the first time in his life after sniffing at it and expressing his doubts about lighting it up:
You- you mean marijuana. Lord have mercy, is that what that is? Well, let me see that. Mmmmm-mmm. Mmmm....I-I-I couldn't do that. I mean, I've got enough problems with the - with the booze and all. I mean, uh, I - I can't afford to get hooked...it-it-it leads to harder stuff.
Thinking it has "a real nice, uh, taste to it," George gets high. In a hilarious conversation, his marijuana smoking prompts him to espouse his belief in aliens and UFOs:
That was a UFO, beamin' back at ya. Me and Eric Heisman was down in Mexico two weeks ago - we seen forty of 'em flying in formation. They-they-they've got bases all over the world now, you know. They've been coming here ever since nineteen forty-six - when the scientists first started bouncin' radar beams off of the moon. And they have been livin' and workin' among us in vast quantities ever since. The government knows all about 'em.
George describes more of his "crackpot idea" to Billy about how aliens from the planet Venus (from a "more highly evolved" society without war, money, or political leaders) have already landed on Earth. They don't reveal themselves as living and working people because they are indistinguishable from normal human beings. Their mission is to help "people in all walks of life" to evolve into a higher destiny. In his theory, the US government leaders have repressed information about the extraterrestrials who represent the status quo:
Well, they are people, just like us - from within our own solar system. Except that their society is more highly evolved. I mean, they don't have no wars, they got no monetary system, they don't have any leaders, because, I mean, each man is a leader. I mean, each man - because of their technology, they are able to feed, clothe, house, and transport themselves equally - and with no effort...Why don't they reveal themselves to us is because if they did it would cause a general panic. Now, I mean, we still have leaders upon whom we rely for the release of this information. These leaders have decided to repress this information because of the tremendous shock that it would cause to our antiquated systems. Now, the result of this has been that the Venutians have contacted people in all walks of life - all walks of life. (He laughs) Yes. It-it-it would be a devastatin' blow to our antiquated systems - so now the Venutians are meeting with people in all walks of life - in an advisory capacity. For once man will have a god-like control over his own destiny. He will have a chance to transcend and to evolve with some equality for all.
They decide to save the rest of the joint for the next morning, as Wyatt advises: "It gives you a whole new way of looking at the day."
The next morning, they continue on their trip and wind up entering a rural cafe/diner in a small Southern town, as three songs play on the soundtrack:
- Don't Bogart Me (by the Fraternity of Man)
- If Six Was Nine (by the Jimi Hendrix Experience)
- Let's Turkey Trot (by Little Eva) - the selection on the jukebox in the diner
Local rednecks at one of the cafe's booths look up at the non-conformist intruders, as the Deputy Sheriff (Arnold Hess, Jr.) rhetorically asks: "What the hell is this? Troublemakers?" His construction-site booth mate with a yellow cap, Cat Man (Hayward Robillard) adds: "You name it - I'll throw rocks at it, Sheriff." Teenage girls at the next booth are excited by the strangers in a different way, particularly for George: "Oh, I like the one in the red shirt with the suspenders" and for Wyatt: "Mmmm-mmm, the white shirt for me" and "look at the one with the black pants on." In response to the attention, George and Billy make funny noises with their tongues and say: "Poontang!"
The dialogue between the Sheriff and Cat Man despises and ridicules the bikers' long hair with crude insults:
Cat Man: Check that joker with the long hair.
Deputy: I checked him already. Looks like we might have to bring him up to the Hilton before it's all over with.
Cat Man: Ha! I think she's cute.
Deputy: Isn't she, though. I guess we'd put him in the women's cell, don't you reckon?
Cat Man: Oh, I think we ought to put 'em in a cage and charge a little admission to see 'em.
Overhearing their ill-natured comments, George gracefully sighs at the two good ol' boys: "Those are what is known as 'country witticisms.' One of the girls boldly suggests asking the bikers to take them for a ride and then is dared to "go ahead." Other customers are also threatened and make loud asides about their appearance, insulting them as "weirdo degenerates" - the local townfolk are fearful of something they don't understand:
Customer 1: You know, I thought at first that bunch over there, their mothers had maybe been frightened by a bunch of gorillas, but now I think they were caught.
Customer 2: I know one of them's Alley-oop - I think. From the beads on him.
Customer 4: Well, one of them darned sure is not Oola.
Customer 1: Look like a bunch of refugees from a gorilla love-in.
Customer 2: A gorilla couldn't love that.
Customer 1: Nor could a mother.
Customer 3: I'd love to mate him up with one of those black wenches out there.
Customer 4: Oh, now I don't know about that.
Customer 3: Well, that's about as low as they come. I'll tell ya...Man, they're green.
Customer 4: No, they're not green, they're white.
Customer 3: White? Huh!
Customer 4: Uh-huh.
Customer 3: Man, you're color blind. I just gotta say that...
Customer 1: I don't know. I thought most jails were built for humanity, and that won't quite qualify.
Customer 2: I wonder where they got those wigs from.
Customer 1: They probably grew 'em. It looks like they're standin' in fertilizer. Nothin' else would grow on 'em...
Customer 3: I saw two of them one time. They were just kissin' away. Two males. Just think of it.
Feeling threatened by the "Yankee queers" and their alternative, non-conformist lifestyle, the narrow-minded Deputy and Cat Man suggest eliminating them:
Deputy: What'cha think we ought to do with 'em?
Cat Man: I don't damn know, but I don't think they'll make the parish line.
George quickly loses his hungry appetite and Wyatt rises to "split" - the waitress has refused to serve them anyway. The teenage girls follow them outside and gather around to ask for a ride, but Billy changes his mind when he notices the Deputy peering out the cafe window at them - "the Man is at the window."
At their next campsite around a campfire (because hotels and motels won't accept them), the film's fourth campfire scene, George (in a conversation with Billy) expresses the prophetic theme of the film - their threat to the Establishment and to Americans who are hypocritical about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In his famous "this used to be a helluva good country" speech, George articulates the real reason for the hostility and resentment that they generate. Billy's notion is that their non-conformist mode of dress and long hair spark intolerance. But lawyer George philosophizes that they represent something much deeper and more fearful - freedom, unconventionality, and experimentation in a materialistic, capitalistic society:
George: You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it.
Billy: Huh. Man, everybody got chicken, that's what happened, man. Hey, we can't even get into like, uh, second-rate hotel, I mean, a second-rate motel. You dig? They think we're gonna cut their throat or something, man. They're scared, man.
George: Oh, they're not scared of you. They're scared of what you represent to 'em.
Billy: Hey man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody needs a haircut.
George: Oh no. What you represent to them is freedom.
Billy: What the hell's wrong with freedom, man? That's what it's all about.
George: Oh yeah, that's right, that's what it's all about, all right. But talkin' about it and bein' it - that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. 'Course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they're gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em.
Billy: Mmmm, well, that don't make 'em runnin' scared.
George: No, it makes 'em dangerous.
George ends his confident words of wisdom with another flap of the arm and "nik, nik, nik, nik, nik, nik, nik - Swamp." After they settle down in their sleeping bags, unidentified men [presumably the men from the cafe] ambush and attack them and beat them with baseball bats in the dark. Billy and Wyatt are both bloodied and bruised, but George has been clubbed to death. [Ironically, George as a lawyer from a rich family shared more in common with his local assassins than either Billy or Wyatt, but he is the one who is murdered.] Billy goes through George's wallet, wondering what to do "with his stuff." They find some money, his driver's license, and his card to a New Orleans brothel: "He ain't gonna be usin' that." As homage to their departed friend/companion, they immediately travel on.
The next scene abruptly finds them in a New Orleans restaurant, where they are served a fancy meal with wine (as the soundtrack plays "Kyrie Eleison" by The Electric Prunes). Thinking they'll "go there for one drink" because George "would have wanted us to," Billy and Wyatt make their way to the House of Blue Lights, the brothel/whorehouse - a place of institutionalized love that George dreamed of visiting. The interior of the whorehouse is decorated with sexual and religious paintings and with an ornate ceiling and chandelier. The salon has a few prostitutes seated on couchs, a pimp, a Madame, and a golden-haired woman who dances on a table. After snuggling and being entertained, Billy gets smashed and enjoys spending their drug money. Remote and out of touch, Wyatt stares off into space postulating: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." Wyatt looks up to an inscription on the wall which reads: "Death only closes a man's reputation and determines it as good or bad."
There is a momentary, quick flash forward - an aerial shot of a fire burning alongside a highway - it is the final image of the film - Wyatt's motorcycle burns beside the road.
The Madame brings in two hookers, Mary (Toni Basil), a dark-haired woman who accompanies Wyatt, and Karen (Karen Black), the "tall one" who joins Billy. With the two prostitutes, they wander through the crowded Mardi Gras celebration in the streets, where there are large floats and revellers are singing and parading in costumes. ("When the Saints Go Marching In" plays in the background.) As the group moves down the street, Wyatt comes upon a dead dog lying at the curb - they stoop down to it.
Then, the bonded quartet enter a cemetery, a place of institutionalized death, where they all split the packet of the hallucinogenic drug LSD, given them earlier by the Stranger. Although the drug experience promises peace and enlightenment, the acid trip is a sacrament of confusion and disillusion.
A girl's voice repeatedly recites religious creeds during the sequence:
I believe in God, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth...Was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell - the third day, he arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, to sitteth at the right hand of God - the Father Almighty. Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in God, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ - his only son, Our Lord. Received Holy Ghost. Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried....Blessed art Thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now...
Their drug trip/experience is a disjointed, distorted, purposely chaotic sequence of images, painful memories and sounds. Wyatt overlaps the creed with his own crude ramblings and eventually ends up sobbing: "Oh Mother why didn't you tell me? Why didn't anybody tell me anything?...What are you doing to me now?...Shut up!...How could you make me hate you so?...Oh God, I hate you so much." Both women take off their clothes and pose nude in the cemetery while Wyatt embraces one of the marble statues. They frolic throughout the crypts, but ultimately they all share a sour, bad trip together. Both Mary and Karen scream and sob: "I'm going to die. I'm dead...Do you understand?...Oh dear God, please let it be. Please help me conceive a child...I'm right out here out of my head...Please God, let me out of here. I want to get out of here...You know what I mean...You wanted me...You wanted me ugly didn't you? I know you johns - I know you johns."
Toward the end of their restless, nomadic odyssey, they leave New Orleans and ride on eastward to Florida, accompanied by "Flash, Bam, Pow" by The Electric Flag.
At another campfire, the fifth and final campire scene [in the last scene before the film's climax], Wyatt and Billy exchange deep thoughts about the freedom they have found on their journey pursuing the big drug score - "the big money." Their rootless, drifting pursuit of the American dream and the promise of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll has been questionably successful, dissatisfying, transitory and elusive. Billy is unaware of the cost of their trip to his own soul. Wyatt believes there may have been another less destructive, less diversionary, more spiritually fulfilling way to search for their freedom rather than selling hard drugs, taking to the road and being sidetracked, and wasting their lives:
Billy (gleefully greedy): We've done it. We've done it. We're rich. Wyatt. (Laughs) Yeah, man. (Laughs) Yeah. Clearly, we did it, man we did it. We did it. Huh. We're rich, man. We're retired in Florida, now, mister. (Chuckles) Whew.
Wyatt (introspectively): You know, Billy. We blew it.
Billy: What? Huh? Wha-wha-wha- That's what it's all about, man. I mean, like you know - I mean, you go for the big money, man, and then you're free. You dig? (Laughs)
Wyatt: We blew it. Good night, man.
On the road again the next morning to the sound of "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" (Bob Dylan's tune sung by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds), they travel through more landscapes of America, scenes which reflect the regional diversity of the country and creeping industrial pollution.
The ending of the film is remarkably bleak, cynical and fatalistic. On one of the last stretches of roadside where American industry has not yet sprawled, two armed rednecks in a small pickup truck think they'll have some fun with the two bikers:
Driver: Hey, Roy, look at them ginks!
Roy: Pull alongside, we'll scare the hell out of 'em.
Roy reaches back and takes down his mounted shotgun from the back of the cab and aims it out the window at Billy:
Want me to blow your brains out? (Billy obscenely gestures with his 'finger') Why don't you get a haircut?
A sudden shot-gun blasts Billy in the stomach and he is mortally wounded. His bike rolls and skids down the road. Wyatt stops and turns back toward Billy to help him:
Billy: Oh my God! (He gags)
Wyatt: Oh my God! I'm going for help Billy.
Billy: I got 'em. I'm gonna get 'em. (He sobs and moans)...Man, I-I'm gonna get 'em. Where are they now?
Middle America's hatred for the long-haired cyclists is shown in the film's famous ending. When Wyatt speeds down the road to seek help for his dying friend, the rednecks turn around and drive toward him - gunfire again blasts through the window and Wyatt's bike flies through the air. [Significantly, Wyatt's dead body doesn't appear in the final scene.] The closing image (of the earlier flash-forward) is an aerial shot floating upwards above his motorcycle which is burning in flames by the side of the road. Death seems to be the only freedom or means to escape from the system in America where alternative lifestyles and idealism are despised as too challenging or free. The romance of the American highway is turned menacing and deadly.
The words of Ballad of Easy Rider (by Roger McGuinn of The Byrds) are heard under the rolling credits. The uneasy aerial camera shot pulls back on the winding river alongside the highway. The river - which extends to the hazy horizon - is the final image of the film before a fade-out to black. The ballad is about a man who only wanted to be free like the flowing river amidst America's natural landscape:
The river flows, it flows to the sea
Wherever that river goes, that's where I want to be
Flow river flow, let your waters wash down
Take me from this road to some other town
All I wanted was to be free
And that's the way it turned out to be...
Also Worth Your Attention...
AMC Filmcritic's Review of Easy Rider