Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider
Peter Bart explores this topic in his book Boffo: How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb.
The idea for the film Easy Rider (explored in Bart’s chapter Kaleidoscope of the 60’s) began with a stoned Peter Fonda wanting to make a motorcycle movie in response to an edict by Jack Valenti, who wanted Hollywood to make more wholesome Sound of Music type films (There is a chapter on The Sound of Music in Bart’s book, but that’s another story). So Fonda got an unproven director (friend and co-star Dennis Hopper) and wrote the film with Hopper and Dr. Strangelove writer Terry Southern. They also brought in a B-movie actor for an important supporting part (some guy named Jack Nicholson). They managed to get it produced and backed by Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson (the folks that brought you the unusual Monkees’ epic Head). Easy Rider got made on a very tight budget, but became one of the biggest hits of the year.
Watching the movie again today, one might be prone to label it as being dated. Possibly, but I don’t see that as necessarily being a bad thing. It is definitely a product of its time. I don’t think it would have worked coming out in 1967 (too soon) or 1971 (too passé). To use an unfortunate cliché, it caught the zeitgeist of its time (I again apologize for using this phrase).Many of the scenes, such as their time at a commune (featuring a memorable full circle camera shot of the communers by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs), the Mardi Gras acid trip and of course the famous café scene filmed with “real” hateful, redneck non-actors are classic. But my favorite scene is still Jack Nicholson smoking his first joint (Peter Fonda: No man, this is grass. Jack: You mean marijuana?) and rambling on and on about extra-terrestrials that are living among us.
Lets also not forget about the great soundtrack (Dylan, Hendrix, The Byrds,The Band and, of course, the classic “Don’t Bogart That Joint my Friend.” by The Fraternity of Man.)
And if you’re looking for a movie that represents the zeitgeist of 1969 (Damn, there’s that phrase again!), I don’t think you’ll find a more fitting one than this one.
Peter Fonda's 1971 follow-up to Easy Rider was The Hired Hand, a Western. As you see by the poster above, it was promoted as a sort of Western Easy Rider, but that definitely isn't what The Hired Hand is. There are plot similarities between the two films. Harry Collings (Fonda) does travel around with a partner (Arch, played by Warren Oates). There is also a third partner who is killed by locals early in the film. We also have a nice soundtrack, but instead of a Rock and Roll, we have a more mournful but absolutely appropriate score by Bruce Langhorne. But in The Hired Hand, Harry isn't looking for America, he finds that after years of drifting he wants to return home to his wife (Verna Bloom). He wants this despite his partner's desire to explore the wonders of California.
If you want to look at The Hired Hand as a cult Western, it doesn't have the epic grandeur of Once Upon a Time in the West, the style of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the societal implications of Little Big Man or the sheer oddness of El Topo. It also only has one shootout and that's at the end of the film...Okay, that scene did make me think of Easy Rider a little. What it does have is a nice tone of its own and the leisurely pace that works in favor of the story line. I'm glad it was included in the 1001 book and am glad it has found an audience in more recent years.
Peter Fonda and Warren Oates in The Hired Hand