From Ballarat, Easy Rider cuts to its heroes riding across the Colorado River and into Needles, Calif. I don’t have the luxury of editing. I drive through Death Valley; stop at Zabriskie Point, site of the dusty orgy in Antonioni’s eponymous film; and spend the night at the Amargosa Hotel in Death Valley Junction, which doubled as the nightmarish Lost Highway Hotel in David Lynch’s Lost Highway—two reminders that movies have left traces on even the most remote parts of America.
The next day, I don’t make it much farther than the end of Easy Rider’s opening credits. I don’t really mind. There’s a reason why this sequence has become so famous. When people talk about the freedom of the open road, the long, easy stretch of I-40 and what remains of Route 66 from Needles to Flagstaff, Ariz., is what they have in mind. The credit sequence finds Billy and Wyatt wearing expressions that suggest they’ve found exactly what they hoped for on the road, all cued to Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild,” a classic rock staple that, these days, is hard to hear thanks to decades of overexposure on classic rock radio and bad covers and in its second life as an ironic signifier in films like One Crazy Summer and Dr. Doolittle 2.
And let’s be honest: It’s not that great of a song in the first place. It’s the visuals that made this sequence iconic. The changing tones and colors of the landscapes Wyatt and Billy ride through often say more than Easy Rider’s spare plot and cryptic dialogue. Hopper lets some scenes play out to the length of an entire song. Paired with the long shots of rolling vistas, the scenes become immersive and dreamlike, even to those not under the influence of the illicit substances favored by the film’s characters.
Those scenes wouldn’t have had such power were it not for the work of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. A Hungarian émigré, Kovacs fled to America with lifelong friend and fellow cinematographer Vilmos Zsigimond after smuggling footage they shot of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution into Austria. They stayed in the states, bringing an outsider’s perspective to an astonishing run of classic American films.
Kovacs, who died in 2007, would later add Five Easy Pieces, Paper Moon, and Shampoo to his résumé. But at the time of Easy Rider, he had worked on only one accomplished film—Peter Bogdanovich’s remarkable debut, Targets—and a lot of quickie exploitation films. Some of those films now provide fascinating insight into their times. Richard Rush’s dark-side-of-the-counterculture movie Psych-Out presents the high-’60s Haight-Ashbury scene with an immediacy not tinged by the paisley nostalgia of later years. And two movies Kovacs worked on for Rush—The Savage Seven and Hells Angels on Wheels, the latter starring Jack Nicholson—found him trying out the bikers-against-a-landscape-imagery form he’d perfect in Easy Rider.
Unable to afford a camera car, Kovacs used boards to mount Arriflex’s liberatingly lightweight 35-millimeter camera to a ‘68 Impala. Some of the handmade roughness of this approach remains visible in the film, as do many instances of lens flare, “mistakes” that Kovacs and Hopper left in the film and that lend it a beautiful, sun-drenched quality. Partly by design, partly by low-budget necessity, Easy Rider helped create a new a way of looking at the American landscape. Hopper found uses for the ragged edges Hollywood films usually sanded off. The style was so imitated by films that followed that it’s become hard to appreciate how radical it looked at the time. Today, even Pixar features occasionally throw in lens flare, never mind that there’s no light to cause it, or even a lens to flare.
The road from Needles to Kingman to Flagstaff offers a straight line and a slow ascent, a gentle pull upward from desert depths to verdant hills and cooler temperatures. But for Wyatt and Billy, the feeling of escape doesn’t last beyond “Born To Be Wild“‘s last chords. Pulling into a motel called the Pine Breeze Inn, they’re turned away by the biker-hating owner, who switches on the “No Vacancy” sign when he sees them approach. The movie has barely started and the good times have already begun to fade.
The Pine Breeze Inn still stands on the outskirts of Flagstaff, just down the road from a large Harley-Davidson dealership in Bellemont. The inn’s closed now; its office sits abandoned in front of an RV park on a dead-end stretch of road. But it seems I’m not the first student of Easy Rider to visit this place. Someone’s hung an Easy Rider poster on the front door, and a peek through the window reveals a second image of Hopper and Fonda, choppering down the highway in the poster that became a dorm-room staple in the years after the film’s release. Wyatt and Billy couldn’t get a room at this place. Now they’ve taken up permanent residence.
Wyatt and Billy’s next stop is Monument Valley, a stunning pocket of sandstone formations situated where Utah meets Arizona. Its history with the movies stretches back far beyond Easy Rider. The location of choice for director John Ford, its five square miles have defined what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West.
The film lingers in Monument Valley. It’s hard not to. The imposing mesas, towering spires, and sandy paths inspire thoughts of the films that have been set there. Some of them, like My Darling Clementine and Fort Apache, starred Peter Fonda’s father, Henry. It’s tempting to view the arrival of the younger Fonda—sporting shaggier hair than any character his father ever played—as a rebuke directed at the elder Fonda’s heroic legacy. But the truth is a little more complicated.
Ford’s favorite leading man was John Wayne. Over the years, Wayne went from being the white-hatted hero of Stagecoach to the tortured obsessive of The Searchers, but his characters rarely changed much within a movie—Ford played to Wayne’s ability to deliver extraordinary performances within a limited range. Fonda’s characters, on the other hand, were frequently changed by events in Ford’s films. The Grapes of Wrath’s Tom Joad goes from loner to messiah; the gangly, inarticulate idealist of Young Mr. Lincoln becomes an able politician.
Fonda often played the hero in Monument Valley, but he wore the mantle uneasily. In Fort Apache, he’s barely a hero at all, guided by bigotry and unable to adapt his rigid military code to the realities of the American frontier. As Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine—the hero whose name Peter Fonda’s character would borrow in Easy Rider—he’s a legendary marshall trying to start a new life as a cattleman who gets sidetracked by the crime and incivility of Tombstone. He wears a look of barely disguised disappointment as he realizes the world is not ready for him to hang up his badge. Fonda always conveyed depths of conflict below his taciturn exterior. (Released the same year as Easy Rider, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, filmed in part in Monument Valley, pushed Fonda’s gift for playing tormented souls in a new direction, casting him as a sadistic villain with an easy smile.)
On-screen, Peter Fonda is very much his father’s son, and his work in Easy Rider plays like a continuation of the family’s understated craft. He doesn’t say much, but he doesn’t have to. He has his father’s gnomic manner, suggesting he’s never quite finished thinking through the situation at hand. He proceeds with an outer confidence that does’t quite square with what’s going on inside his head. He claims doubt as a birthright.
As a Monument Valley sunset plays out in real time, Easy Rider pauses to let viewers consider the moment’s layers. Wyatt and Billy—a pair of modern-day cowboys, if only in name—visit the heart of the West. Or, at least, the movie version of the West. Seeing it in person, I kept doing double takes. Here was a vista unlike anything I’d ever seen—except I had seen it, many times, in postcards, picture books, and films as varied as Forrest Gump, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Ford’s Westerns. This was the frontier, untamed America, the place where the civilizing force of Wyatt Earp met the lawlessness of the Clanton boys—even if it had only played that part in movies.