Captain America (Peter Fonda) and his best pal Billy (Dennis Hopper) have been in Mexico where they have scored a large amount of cocaine which they plan to sell when they get back to the States. They find a buyer quickly, and meet with him at the airport where he tests the merchandise and agrees to hand over the cash, leaving the duo with enough funds to allow them to live comfortably for quite a while to come. They decide that the thing they'd most like to do at this moment is to head off for Mardi Gras, and climb aboard their motorcycles to do that very thing...
It has become very fashionable to reassess Easy Rider, which provided Hollywood and indeed world cinema with a lightning bolt to wake them up to the possibilities of offering chances to up and coming filmmakers with something distinctive to say through their chosen medium, not to mention making it acceptable to have a movie without a happy ending. Now the most common adjective applied to this is "dated", and it's true it no longer looks as vital as it once did, in fact it was already appearing irrelevant within ten years of its release. But that was only to those who failed to recognise just how groundbreaking it had been, as this little movie, which had been thrown together on a tiny budget, still makes waves.
In some ways it's not so much a miracle that it had the impact it did because of its subject matter - drug dealers get stoned on a road trip - but that it was finished at all, with director Hopper at the height of his paranoia and most of the cast and crew who cared to stick around and be shouted at by him out of their heads as much as the lead characters were. But let's not bandy words like "dated" around too liberally, as that is not necessarily a bad thing with the work encapsulating not simply the hippy era of the late sixties, but a genuinely canny prediction that America was not going to go along with this new liberation in thought, and the movement was actually over before it had really got started.
So Easy Rider in its way predicted the demise of the freedoms it depicted, as nothing that Captain America - OK, he's really called Wyatt - and Billy like to indulge in ever caught on in the mainstream. Apart from the drugs, perhaps, but even that is still frowned upon by the majority; it takes the lawyer they meet, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson securing a star in the Hollywood firmament for himself for evermore), to explain that they represent the threat of the counterculture that society in general are not going to accept for long. It may look as if Hopper gathered some friends and acquaintances and shot whatever happened on their meandering across the Deep South, but there was an intelligence to its outlook that often goes unmentioned.
And don't go thinking this was all heavy message and stoned ramblings, as there were aspects to this which almost made the film a comedy. You can point to Nicholson's appearance as lifting the mood, and he has a classic scene where he explains the politics of Unidentified Flying Objects while getting increasingly intoxicated on his first try at marijuana, but there are humorous touches throughout this which indicated a self-awareness that few are willing to credit. It's also no accident that the mood darkens when Nicholson leaves the picture, as Wyatt, the more spiritual of the two (Billy is more of a funseeker), twigs that maybe their lifestyle is not all it's cracked up to be, prompted by the harrowing LSD freakout he has in the graveyard with Karen Black and Toni Basil. If there's a despair that all hope passes with time, then surely that makes Easy Rider still worth watching all these years later, and not simply as a historical document. The music was a collection of rock songs donated to the soundtrack, another reason to see this as revolutionary.
One of the biggest cult stars of all time, he began his career as an actor in the fifties, a proponent of "The Method" which was popular at the time, and a good friend of James Dean, who he appeared with in Giant and Rebel without a Cause. He gradually moved to larger roles - including Gunfight at the OK Corral, Night Tide, Queen of Blood, The Trip and Hang 'Em High - until the late sixties and his directorial debut Easy Rider. The film was a sensation, shaking up Hollywood and becoming an instant classic, but Hopper's increasing dependence on drugs meant he had trouble following up that success as his next work, The Last Movie, was a notorious flop.