November 2005

Roundtable

What Happened to My Motorcycle Movie?

Greg Semack

When the movie title Easy Rider jumped out at me from the pages of my TV Guide, I thought it would give me a great opportunity to revisit my youth and spend some time watching one of the best motorcycle movies of all time. I hadn’t seen the movie in 30 years. So I went through my closet looking for a tie-dye shirt and bell-bottom jeans to wear in order to put myself in the proper frame of mind. A couple hours later, I was wondering what had happened to the old motorcycle movie.

I guess I just wasn’t paying attention when I saw the movie years ago. Or maybe selective memory was the culprit. Instead of finding a couple hours of motorcycling adventure, I found a movie that dealt with immorality and illegality, with heavy doses of distrust and bigotry. The central characters were drug pushers. They were befriended along the ride by social dropouts, an alcohol abuser and prostitutes, and were eventually killed by local bigots just for sport. In short, there didn’t seem to be any “good guys” in this movie.

The movie took place at a time when the age of innocence had ended. Political assassinations and the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia were fresh news stories that told a tale of a country at war with itself. Distrust of anyone who didn’t walk, talk, or look like the person in the mirror was becoming an ever more polarizing influence across the nation.

So where were all my fond memories hiding? The most redeeming scenes were those that depicted the simple pleasures of motorcycle touring. The shots of Wyatt and Billie cruising through the scenic southwest were awesome. The prevailing thoughts of days with no schedules or responsibilities were firmly tied to the two machines and reinforced with every open road scene. The blurry images of the movie’s cross-country tour had been replaced by the vivid memories of my own two-wheeled trips across similar roads. The fascination of what it would have been like to be along on the ride with Captain America had given rise to the personal images of my own travels. It occurs to me that here was a case of Hollywood falling short of reality.

Maybe there was, after all, a hero in this movie. If so, it was the motorcycle. The motorcycle was the common thread that made the movie flow. It symbolized personal freedom in a way that plays out daily in many people’s real world lives. It could be that the concept of the motorcycle as a “freedom machine” started with this movie and becomes personally reinforced every time someone heads out with the wind in their face.

The riding scenes in Easy Rider gave many people a goal. “Get a bike and go have an adventure” became a subliminal message that many people couldn’t begin to realize until years later. For some it was simply a phase. But for thousands of people it became attainable and actually delivered more than it promised. Memorable moments can take place at any time on a motorcycle trip and generally do. The concept of the journey being more important than the destination had its roots in this movie.

There was one other new concept that Easy Rider provided. Previous motorcycle movies always conformed to a model. To start with you needed to have a gang. Then you sprinkled in the requisite drugs and alcohol, wild sex scenes, and of course the brawling. Although there were drugs, alcohol, and sex in Easy Rider, there was no gang. And the motorcyclists themselves were the targets of the violence and not the aggressors. The face of motorcycling was changing.

Today, there are still motorcycling clubs and gangs. But more often than not, like Wyatt and Billie, it’s individuals or small groups that are doing the road trips. And one of the best excuses for these road trips are motorcycle rallies. Not only do you get away from your normal routine, but you also get a strong dose of what fuels your passion once you arrive. If you’ve ever attended the Sturgis rally in August or Bike Week in Daytona Beach in March, you know the feeling that you’ve landed on the motorcycle planet. In these cases, not only is the journey exciting but the destination contains all the elements of a motorcyclist’s interests. And to make things even better, once you get there, you can go for a ride.

Ok, so I don’t know if I’ll be in a hurry to watch Easy Rider again soon. If I never observe another marijuana inspired campfire conversation it will be too soon, and I don’t need to know any more about what Jack Nicholson was like before he became a Laker fan. But sometime in the future, as I’m rolling down the road, I just may be wondering what Peter and Dennis are doing.

 

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