Easy Rider, Peter Fonda and the Biker Movie Genre

Fifty years ago, the 1960’s was drawing to a psychedelic close. It was a time of war and chaos mixed with free love and flower power. Those of us who remember the ’60’s lived through Vietnam, Kent State, Watergate, hippies, yippies, and Woodstock.

Bad biker movies were a big hit at drive-in’s in those long-haired days of yore and certain notorious motorcycle clubs continued to show up in the press, and never for doing something nice. While there was a brief time when hippies and acid-heads invited Hells Angels to parties in Haight-Ashbury, this came to sudden end when a group of H.A.s disrupted a peace march in 1965. The Oakland chapter even offered President Lyndon Johnson that they would go to Vietnam and fight as a “crack group of fighting guerillas.” Johnson declined that invitation.

Into this time of chaos and confusion, two rebellious film makers offered up their take on the state of America, when convention was tossed out the window and the American Dream was losing its luster. Peter Fonda has said that the ’60’s generation had their own music and style but didn’t have a definitive movie that captured their vibe. That led him to make the film Easy Rider.

In 1969 America’s youth was a stick of dynamite and Peter Fonda lit the fuse. In the film, two drug-selling bikers become icons of the Woodstock generation. Captain America, as played by Peter Fonda, with his red, white, and blue stars and stripes panhead chopper is the quiet reminder of what this country stands for. He is liberty. Dennis Hopper’s character of Billy (as in Billy the Kid) on his flame-painted chopper, is the ugly American, the frontiersman with his pushy ways and rebellious spirit. They are America incarnate as they roll across this country looking for themselves and a bit of the long-lost American Dream. As the advertising slogan for the film read, “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.” And what he did find, freaked him the hell out.

However, the lesson in this film is that America had sold out and so did the Captain and Billy. Despite the deeper meaning Fonda meant to capture in his film, American youth saw something else, they saw two free-spirits on wild Harley choppers bein’ gunned down by ignorant Southern rednecks. More than one teenager sewed an American flag onto his jacket and went out and bought a bike that summer in search of freedom.

Interestingly, Fonda came up with the ending of the film first and worked backwards from there to craft a screenplay with the help of writer Terry Southern. Fonda acted as the film’s producer while Hopper directed. At the time Easy Rider debuted across the country, the hype about the movie centered around the fact that Fonda and Hopper, along with some of the other stars in the film, had actually smoked real pot in the scenes in which they’re seen toking up. In 1969, that was a big deal and people came out to see the movie just to see people get stoned (both on the screen and in the theaters).

Easy Rider was also the first film to really use popular rock music as music videos within the film. Who can forget the opening credits of the Captain and Billy riding their choppers over the blaring strains of “Born to be Wild?” There has never been a biker film before or after Easy Rider that captures the essence of what riding is all about as this film does. There is something about watching those choppers float down southwestern highways in the glory of golden hour that touches on the freedom you feel when piloting a big V-twin. Indeed, in the year following the release of the film, Americans bought motorcycles in record numbers.

            Easy Rider spawned a new slew of low-budget biker flicks trying to capture what they didn’t understand from the original in the first place. “We blew it!” But whether they understood the film’s allegory or not, movie producers saw dollar signs with the success of the Fonda/Hopper film and ran out to capture some of that movie magic with their own brand of cycle cinema. 

            Easy Rider made a whopping 19 million in its original domestic release, which was huge money for an independent picture at the time. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were old hands at being in biker movies, Fonda having starred in Wild Angels and Hopper having starred as the leader of the Black Souls MC in The Glory Stompers. But the post Easy Rider films that came out of American International Pictures and other low budget film factories focused more on the bad ass image of violent bike clubs than the idyllic motorcycle touring adventures of Fonda and Hopper.

            The new batch of biker exploitation films were not just about motorcycle clubs invading small towns. Once in a while, some of these movies actually included biting social commentary. Such was the case in The Savage Seven. Popular for his work in B-movies, Adam Rourke starred as the MC club leader, reprising his role from Hell’s Angels on Wheels. In The Savage Seven, Rourke and his club fight to defend a Native American girl from redneck bigots. The club discovers that they have a lot in common with the Indians, since both groups are seen as outcasts in American society.

            In Angels From Hell, a Vietnam vet named Mike, played by Tom Stern, returns from war and looks up his old bike club The Mad Caps, only to find that they were run out of town by the local sheriff. Stern gets pissed and decided to create a world-wide club that will go head-to-head with the cops. Alas, Mike can’t even keep his own small club together. End of story.

            In a parody of the kind of media coverage that propelled the Hells Angels to stardom, the Fanfare Films production of Run Angel, Run starred William Smith as the member of the Devil’s Advocates Motorcycle Club. Smith sells a story about the club he’s in to a national magazine and gets his face on the cover. This doesn’t sit well with the club, however, and Smith has to, well… run Angel, run before the club fits him with cement biker boots.

            One of the more popular biker movies of the time was C.C. and Company, starring NFL football star Joe Namath and the sultry Ann-Margret up against bad guy biker William Smith. While the film is big on star power, it is shy a plot. A much more entertaining film is Hells Angels ’69 starring actual members of the Hells Angels including Sonny Barger, and the fun to watch Terry the Tramp. The bank heist plot line is pretty silly, but the Angels look good roaring down the California and Nevada highways.

            Other biker movies that tried to cash in on the media blitz of evil biker articles included The Losers, Angel Unchained, and Bury Me An Angel. But none of the slew of cycle cinema could capture the big bucks at the box office nor the style and sense of freedom found in Easy Rider.

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