Easy Rider is a 1969 American road movie written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern, produced by Fonda and directed by Hopper. It tells the story of two bikers (played by Fonda and Hopper) who travel through the American Southwest and South with the aim of achieving freedom. The success of Easy Rider helped spark the New Hollywood phase of filmmaking during the late sixties. The film was added to the Library of Congress National Registry in 1998.
A landmark counterculture film, and a "touchstone for a generation" that "captured the national imagination", Easy Rider explores the societal landscape, issues, and tensions in the United States during the 1960s, such as the rise and fall of the hippie movement, drug use, and communal lifestyle. Easy Rider is famous for its use of real drugs in its portrayal of marijuana and other substances.
The protagonists are two bike-riding drug dealers: Wyatt, nicknamed "Captain America" (Fonda), and Billy (Hopper). Fonda and Hopper have said that these characters' names refer to Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. Wyatt dresses in American flag-adorned leather, while Billy dresses in Native American-style buckskin pants and shirts and a bushman hat.
After smuggling cocaine from Mexico to Los Angeles, Wyatt and Billy sell their contraband to "Connection," a man (played by Phil Spector) in a Rolls-Royce. With the money from the sale stuffed into a plastic tube hidden inside the Stars & Stripes-adorned fuel tank of Wyatt's California-style chopper, they ride eastward in an attempt to reach New Orleans, Louisiana, in time for Mardi Gras.
During their trip, Wyatt and Billy meet and have a meal with a rancher, whom Wyatt admires for his simple, traditional farming lifestyle. Later, the duo pick up a hitch-hiker (Luke Askew) and agree to take him to his commune, where they stay for a day. Life in the commune appears to be hard, with hippies from the city finding it difficult to grow their own crops in a dry climate with poor soil. (One of the children seen in the commune is played by Fonda's four-year-old daughter Bridget.) At one point, the bikers witness a prayer for blessing of the new crop, as put by a communard: A chance "to make a stand," and to plant "simple food, for our simple taste." The commune is also host to a traveling theater group that "sings for its supper" (performs for food). The notion of "free love" appears to be practiced, with two women seemingly sharing the affections of the hitch-hiking communard, and who then turn their attention to Wyatt and Billy. As the bikers leave, the hitch-hiker (known only as "Stranger on highway" in the credits) gives Wyatt some LSD for him to share with "the right people."
While jokingly riding along with a parade in a small town, the pair are arrested by the local authorities for "parading without a permit" and thrown in jail. In jail, they befriend ACLU lawyer and local drunk George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). George helps them get out of jail, and decides to travel with Wyatt and Billy to New Orleans. As they camp that night, Wyatt and Billy introduce George to marijuana. As an alcoholic and a "square," George is reluctant to try the marijuana ("It leads to harder stuff"), but he quickly relents.
George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) with Wyatt (Peter Fonda)While attempting to eat in a small rural Louisiana restaurant, the trio's appearance attracts the attention of the locals. The girls in the restaurant want to meet the men and ride with them, but the local men and police officer make mocking, racist, and homophobic remarks. One of the men menacingly states, "I don't believe they'll make the parish line." Wyatt, Billy, and George leave without eating and make camp outside of town. The events of the day cause George to comment: "This used to be a hell of a good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it." He observes that Americans talk a lot about the value of freedom, but are actually afraid of anyone who truly exhibits it.
In the middle of the night, the local men return and brutally beat the trio with baseball bats while they are sleeping. Billy luckily manages to scare the men off by pulling a switchblade on them. Wyatt and Billy suffer minor injuries, but George is killed by a machete strike to the neck. Wyatt and Billy wrap George's body up in his sleeping bag, gather his belongings, and vow to return the items to his parents.
They continue to New Orleans and find the brothel George had intended to visit. Taking prostitutes Karen (Karen Black) and Mary (Toni Basil) with them, Wyatt and Billy decide to go outside and wander the parade-filled street of the Mardi Gras celebration. They end up in a cemetery, where all four ingest LSD. They experience a psychedelic bad trip infused with Catholic prayer, represented through quick edits, sound effects, and over-exposed film.
Making camp afterward, Wyatt declares: "We blew it." Wyatt realizes that their search for freedom, while financially successful, was a spiritual failure. The next morning, the two are continuing their trip to Florida (where they hope to retire wealthy) when two hillbillies in a pickup truck spot them and decide to "scare the hell out of them" with their shotgun. As they pull alongside Billy, one of the men lazily aims the shotgun at him and threatens and insults him by saying "Want me to blow your brains out?" and "Why don't you get a haircut?" When Billy flips his middle finger up at them, the hillbilly fires the shotgun at Billy who immediately hits the pavement, seriously wounded in the side. As the truck then takes off past Wyatt down the road, Wyatt races back to put his jacket over his injured friend already covered in blood before riding off for help. But by this time, the same pickup truck has turned around and closes on Wyatt. The hillbilly fires at Wyatt as he speeds by the pickup, hitting the bike's gas tank which instantly erupts in a fiery explosion with parts flung everywhere along with Wyatt. The movie ends with a shot of the flaming bike before the camera ascends to the sky: the duo's journey has ended.