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Easy Rider: Dennis Hopper’s Prophetic Biker Trip, 40 Years Later

The landmark biker odyssey Easy Rider was a generational revelation in 1969 — but on video in recent decades, it’s become a prehistoric leaf fossil dipped in the preservative amber of pop culture. Seen again on the big screen, it regains its original dignity if not its old power. Two hellish angels of the road — “Wyatt,” for Wyatt Earp (Peter Fonda, who devised the story and produced), and “Billy,” for Billy the Kid (Dennis Hopper, who directed) — sell a load of cocaine to a Wealthy Mystery Man (played by Phil Spector, of all people) and cross America toward their idea of Valhalla (a retirement in Florida, of all places). Fonda wears Old Glory on his leather shoulders and, to make matters even more self-consciously mythic, travels by the nickname “Captain America.” The Diggers, a thriving commune of that era, were scheduled to appear early on, but don’t — there was a dispute over money. An irony, and a pity — actual communards would have given the film a lasting bite of authenticity. The commune sequence improvised in their absence is weak and silly, and makes the proactive idealism of the 1960s look unintentionally ridiculous. Jack Nicholson shortly saves the day, in the supporting turn that made him a star, as the drunken Texas lawyer who runs away with the circus Wyatt and Billy embody. “They’re scared of what you represent to ’em,” he says of the hate-filled rednecks our heroes encounter in postures of escalating menace. Hopper’s neorealist style and Terry Southern’s witty screenplay are at their best in these scenes. (Set Easy Rider next to Dr. Strangelove, which Southern also wrote, and Nicholson’s lawyer shares a verbally precise wavelength with both Slim Pickens’ rootin’-tootin’ wing commander and Sterling Hayden’s semi-ecstatic paranoid visionary.) Despite its datedness, the film remains prophetic. When Wyatt says, late in the game, “We blew it,” that mysterious line (a provocative puzzler back in the day) is never explained. Now, just as mysteriously, it no longer needs to be. (Nuart)