Was Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider” a Catholic film?
Like everyone else, I thought of “Easy Rider” as a counter-cultural film. Young people flocked to the movie when it was released in 1969. Rock songs are peppered throughout. Dennis Hopper’s character defines freedom as the ability to do whatever you want. The characters indulge in a lot of strange drugs. And like other counter-cultural movies of the era, the two protagonists — spoiler alert – are killed at the end. Is the movie nothing but a celebration of hippies, drugs, and unconstrained liberty?
It is not “nihilistic” and “chaotic.” Not only does this movie celebrate family values, it celebrates traditional family values. But even more than that, Easy Rider argues for the enduring strength and power of faith in God as it explicitly rejects hedonism, atheism, and nihilism. This theme is evident throughout the film from the moment the travelers leave Los Angeles to the final climatic scene.
Not surprisingly, culturally-minded conservative bloggers have jumped into the debate. Rod amplifies Gillis’ point. Daniel McCarthy says that Hopper, the film’s director, was a true radical. Bill Kauffman calls the film reactionary. Jesse Walker meditates on its conservative themes.
But I’m not sure any of them are right.
The one scene in the film that sticks with me is when Hopper and Fonda’s characters visit the homesteading family and are invited to a meal. When several of the young children make finishing the meal difficult, the husband turns to Hopper or Fonda, shrugs his shoulders, smiles nervously, and says, “We’re Catholic.” I could never figure out the significance of the scene. Could the scene represent the counter-culture’s recognition of Catholicism’s cultural power?
On reflection, my thought was silly. The thrust of the counter culture movement shared zero sympathy for Catholic family life, while here was “Easy Rider” all but telling Paul Ehrlich to go to hell. But after reading Gillis’ intriguing essay, you can be forgiven for thinking that “Easy Rider” is not a conservative or liberal film. It’s a Catholic film, albeit in a cautionary-tale sort of way. As Gillis explains,
The first episode in Wyatt and Billy’s journey to Mardi Gras occurs at a desert ranch where the travelers are briefly stranded by a flat tire. The rancher provides the necessary tools, then invites the men to supper with his large family. After prayer around a large outdoor table–before which the ignorant and impious Billy had to be reminded to remove his hat–Wyatt insistently and sincerely compliments the rancher on his “spread” and the life he has built there, repeated for emphasis.
Then picking up a hitchhiker, the wanderers stop for gas at Sacred Mountain, with the word “Sacred” from the gas station’s sign splashed in big red letters across the screen as they pull in. Camping on the mountain, the cryptic hitchhiker admonishes Billy for disrespecting the site; once again Billy’s irreverence and impiety are exposed to criticism. Reaching the hitchhiker’s destination, the travelers find a commune hard at work planting crops. The laughter of children animates the episode until Wyatt and Billy join a second Circle of Prayer, movingly and famously depicted by a 360-degree pan of the inhabitants as they pray for the wherewithal to be as generous to others as others had been to them. The commune is a family as traditional as the rancher’s family: underneath the beads and tie-dyed fabric is the agrarian extended family functioning in a classic pastoral.
But, although invited to stay, the travelers move on. They meet George the drunken liberal lawyer (Jack Nicholson) before continuing on towards New Orleans, stopping to camp, where George is killed by locals. Using a free pass inherited from George, they decide to visit a brothel–to the tune of “Kyrie Eleison,” (“Lord have mercy”), drawn from the Electric Prunes psychedelic but authentic and respectful version of the Latin Catholic Mass in F Minor–where they encounter two prostitutes under cathedral ceilings and within walls covered by religious icons. Visiting a church graveyard, they drop acid and commence an unpleasant trip of weeping, shuddering and anxiety–amid frame after frame of sacred imagery and a comforting voice-over of a young girl saying a Rosary as a funeral unfolds before them.
On Mardi Gras night they camp, and Wyatt speaks those famous words, “We blew it” in response to Billy’s shallow, juvenile excitement at the fact that “We’re rich, man!” “We’re free,” Billy goes on, claiming to be “set for life” and ready to retire to Florida, but Wyatt quietly repeats his judgment: “We blew it.” The next day, Ash Wednesday–the Christian Holy Day of atonement and repentance, the day when Catholics memento mori, that is, “contemplate death”–the story ends suddenly and shockingly on a country road in Southwest Louisiana.
If this narrative had been Medieval, could there be any doubt at all of the theme or the moral teaching intended? Sinners wander the countryside on a secular quest, encountering God’s message but failing to acknowledge Him. They seek worldly pleasure at the expense of spiritual fulfillment, finding treasure and discussing it under a tree, only to finally to die a horrid death by the wayside.
As a matter of fact, such a tale was written in the Middle Ages, by Geoffrey Chaucer within the Canterbury Tales (the first “road movie”?), in “The Pardoner’s Tale.” Chaucer, unquestionably a moralist, was also a great satirist, as we see in the vicious lampoon of the venal and grossly hypocritical Pardoner, who preaches all his sermons on the theme of “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) while selling indulgences and false relics to his ignorant congregations.
I’m not convinced that “Easy Rider” is a Catholic film. None of its creators – Hopper, Fonda, Terry Southern – were Catholic. And some films of the great “downote” era, such as “Five Easy Pieces” and “The Heartbreak Kid”, contained subtle but powerful critiques of unconstrained individualism. Still, the question is worth pondering, no?