The Failure of the Flag in Easy Rider
Michael J. Chappell
Easy Rider has many elements of a quintessential American movie. It details the search for wealth through the quick hit, it tells the tale of a journey through the large American landscape, and it exacts justice for the main characters’ crime-based independence. And throughout the film is sprinkled the image of the American flag, that symbol of freedom for which so many have fought and died. In the flag lies the belief in freedom that Americans stake as their right to possess; after all, the national anthem glorifies the sacrifices made by Americans as the flag is seen in the rockets’ red glare. In Easy Rider, the most obvious flag symbol is the gas tank and helmet of Wyatt (also not so subtly named Captain America), but there are many more allusions or outright representations of the flag. In the use of the flag, the film comments on the freedom symbolized by America, a freedom three men die trying to attain.
Just three minutes into the movie the first allusion to the flag appears. As Wyatt and Billy await the arrival of the character known in the credits as “The Connection,” they are silhouetted against a vast red-and-white-striped barrier at the end of an airport runway. The flag-striped barrier is the background to the business transaction about to take place, and the beat up pickup truck of the protagonists contrasts nicely with the black Rolls Royce that glides silently into the picture. Against the striped background, the linking of the working-class pickup truck and the cash-based aristocratic Rolls transacting business is the American dream writ small. That the new-found wealth is based on a drug sale should not be overlaid with an excess of moral outrage. When Billy says toward the end of the film, “We’re rich, man. We’re retired in Florida now, mister,” he is simply one more retiring American citizen. It does not matter how they got the money to retire; after all, there are plenty of businessmen retired in Florida who made their money in equally unsavory ways. (Can you imagine the manic Billy playing shuffleboard with his fellow retirees?)
Of course, the most blatant flag imagery is the gas tank on Wyatt’s bike, topped by his flag-painted helmet and American flag sewn to the back of his leather jacket. Plus, there are the red, white, and blue stripes on the arm and running down the front of his jacket. He is a biker Uncle Sam, draped in the flag, riding the promise of American freedom into the gloriously varied American landscape of the first half of the movie. Wrapped in his flag imagery, he is almost a caricature of what it means to be a patriot. Seduced by the siren song of the open road, silently advocating his freedom from time and other more pressing aspects of American culture, such as a television-narcotized populace, the Puritan work ethic, and the pressure to settle down and raise a family, he refuses to contribute to his own imprisonment within a money-based culture in which the (economically) free man is seen as a threat.
However, in one of the most important scenes in the film, Wyatt is literally imprisoned. He and Billy are jailed for parading without a permit in a small southern town. The scene is significant because the bikers meet George Hanson, an alcoholic lawyer who joins them on their trip to New Orleans, but who is murdered along the way. As the two bikers are jailed, a door of metal lattice strips is slammed shut. Behind the door is Billy, ranting as usual, and Wyatt, quietly surveying the cell—what is significant about the scene is that Wyatt’s back is to the camera, so we see the American flag on his back crisscrossed by the jail door’s lattice work. All that potential represented by the flag—the freedom, the open spaces, the release from time and cultural expectations—ends once that door closes. Occurring roughly halfway through the film, the closing of this jail door begins the downward slide to the end of the bikers’ freedom. Up to this point, Wyatt and Billy experience the open road as freedom and adventure as they encounter other Americans traveling their own routes to freedom—the rancher, admired by Wyatt for doing his own thing in his own time, and the commune members trying to lead a life off the American grid. But now, roughly halfway through the film, freedom’s threat is finally acknowledged and the spirit of the movie turns menacing.
The jailing of the bikers begins their descent into the hell of the second half of the film. From here, we follow them through a small town, the street lined with flags, but the camera lingers on one flag that appears to be upside down. This serves as an omen of the death of freedom. Soon the bikers are mocked by small-town rednecks in the all-American café replete with Coca Cola and “home made pies” signs, and not long after George’s speech about freedom—“It’s hard to be free when you’re bought and sold in the marketplace” (a line that has stayed with me since I first saw the film almost 30 years ago)—they are attacked in the night. After George’s murder, though they press on to New Orleans, the sense of freedom embodied in the flag seems to have vanished. Now they are simply wanderers whose joy in the freedom of the road and in the supposed freedom of the country has been drained from them as sure as the blood from George’s wounds.
As Wyatt and Billy continue on their trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, arguably the ultimate celebration of unrestrained hedonistic freedom in America, Wyatt seems too devastated to enjoy the journey; he is silent, moody, and depressed. The bad acid trip in the cemetery confirms this change in mood. However, there is an important flag scene in New Orleans. As Wyatt, Billy, and the two prostitutes walk the streets during Mardi Gras, the frame is filled with a waving American flag. The flag waves just after a military band has passed; then the scene cuts to display the flag on Wyatt’s back. The broader image of the nation embodied in the flag-filled frame is balanced by the literally embodied flag on Wyatt. What is enacted is the idea of national freedom and individual freedom, as well as a symbol of protection for all citizens—a symbol which will fail the bikers at the end of the movie. In fact, the only flag seen after the disaster of Mardi Gras is the flag on Wyatt’s jacket as he lays it on Billy’s shot gunned body. Just as soldiers are draped in the flag when their bodies return from war, so Billy is covered, a death in a cultural war where—as George said earlier in the film—those who are free are killed by those who mouth the slogans of freedom and salute the flag, then pull the trigger or swing the axe in their anger to prove how free they are.
Images and text copyright © International Journal of Motrocycle Studies