November 2005

Roundtable

Easy Rider and American Empire: A Postcolonial Interpretation

William Cummings

While mythical, symbolic, and sociological readings of Easy Rider suggest themselves, for me what most infuses this classic film with meaning is the American experience of empire. In other words, I am interested in a postcolonial interpretation of a film commonly seen as rooted in the cultural contradictions of 1960s American society. I don’t mean that the film was covertly an antiwar film—Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda deliberately did not want to make a film about the war and left scenes of American military equipment on the cutting room floor. And I mean more than just saying that the film shared in the sensibilities of the Vietnam era. To me Easy Rider is inconceivable without Vietnam.

Filmed only months after the 1968 Tet Offensive, which for many Americans exposed the bankruptcy of the Vietnam War, Easy Rider gains meaning from its proximity to this cataclysmic chapter in American history. It is in this sense that Easy Rider is postcolonial. Without the critical backdrop of the failed effort to prop up a puppet empire in South Vietnam, the experience of viewing Easy Rider would be utterly different.

The parallels between Wyatt and Billy’s journey across the American southwest and the American journey into Vietnam are first evoked in depictions of the landscape. Functionally the landscapes are identical. The desert is as beautiful and hostile as the jungle, especially at sunrise and sunset. A southwest populated by abandoned vehicles and dilapidated buildings also suggests ruin in the wake of empire’s collapse. This equivalence deepens as Easy Rider progresses, and by the end of the film they have reached the hot swamps and thick forests of Louisiana, a terrain eerily similar to that of lush tropical Vietnam.

Consider, too, the similarity of helicopters and motorcycles. Like their counterparts half a world away, Wyatt and Billy are dependent on machines for their mobility, survival, and identity in a hostile environment. Motorcycles are equivalent to helicopters. Helicopters fundamentally transformed the way in which Americans waged war. So too motorcycles transformed the ability of Wyatt and Billy to engage with or disengage from society. Machines have increasingly come to mediate our experience of the world, and Vietnam played a crucial role in driving home both our dependence on them and their limitations.

To indulge in a visual symbolic reading, the costuming of Hopper and Fonda also connote empire. Wyatt’s Captain America jacket, bike, and helmet and Billy’s frontiersman outfit are iconic emblems that signify American expansionist confidence. Both are evocative of a wilderness-conquering ethic that historically has meant the defeat and removal or assimilation of native peoples. Displayed here ironically as reminders of values that have been eclipsed by American materialism and racism, they nonetheless represent empire as something characteristically American. With names drawn from mythic figures from the Wild West, Wyatt (Earp) and Billy (the Kid) are the symbolic heirs of the westward expansion across North America and the larger ideology of America’s Manifest Destiny. Empire has been central to American culture, and this truth is on display in every scene in Easy Rider.

Also on continuous display in the film is death. Its constant looming presence is marked by empty landscapes, abandoned buildings, derelict vehicles, threats of violence, at least one dead animal, murder graveyards, slave shacks, Catholic eschatology, Wyatt’s premonition of his own fiery death, and of course blasts from a shotgun at the film’s close. Tripping on acid in a graveyard after leaving a whorehouse in riotous Mardi Gras—has any social norm been left intact in this scene?—is an apt metaphor for the American descent into Vietnam. Extravagances of life and death were everyday facts of life for the soldiers there. They led to the temptations of anarchy and ended in madness and brutality. What is Dennis Hopper’s crazed, conflicted photographer in Apocalypse Now but Billy gone more fully insane in the heart of darkness?

The American experience in Vietnam degenerated into a perverse showcase for the erosion of American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Imperialism has a corrosive effect on ideals such as freedom. It simultaneously feeds (and feeds on) values such as greed and racism. The same disturbing social dynamics that led to decades of involvement in Southeast Asia are also on display in Easy Rider. In a statement with more than a kernel of truth, George Hanson tells Billy he can get them out of jail as long as they haven’t killed anybody, “at least nobody white.” It is a reminder about the crippling racism in American society, but also reminiscent of the still mainstream belief in 1968 that non-white Vietnamese deaths were justified. Racism is always an enabling condition for empire.

The most enigmatic scene, but one which lends itself to a postcolonial interpretation, is the campfire scene on the eve of Billy and Wyatt’s death. Having scored big with their cocaine running, the two reflect on their achievement. Billy’s immature and hollow triumphalism—“we’re retired in Florida now, mister!”—is in stark counterpoint to Wyatt’s somber conclusion: “We blew it.” Billy is talking about money; Wyatt about something much larger. He is casting judgment on American society’s failure to live up to its ideals, of course, but this comment also speaks to American involvement in Vietnam. This conflict, after all, was a stunning example of money squandered, lives destroyed, and America’s imperial betrayal of freedom and liberty. Where to go from here?

Easy Rider does not conclude: it simply terminates. The senselessness of Billy and Wyatt’s deaths resonates with the deaths of so many other young American men in Vietnam. The film sequence most troubling for its resonance with empire is the final moments when we via the camera lens leave the scene below in a helicopter as Captain America dies from a fiery crash in the midst of a thickly forested, impenetrable landscape. Like the American war in Vietnam, Easy Rider leaves us without a sense of closure. In this postcolonial reading, the film is a reminder that empire is not something overseas and far away, but an integral part of our society. To echo Captain America again, “We blew it.”

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