The biker craze began back in 1953 with The Wild One, a post-Streetcar, pre-Waterfront Brando vehicle where he plays the tough talking leader of a street gang; when asked what they are rebelling against, he answers “Whattaya got?” Sixteen years (and innumerable biker films) later, Easy Rider bookended the genre and, along with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967), announced the beginning of New Hollywood.
In order to understand New Hollywood and the importance of Easy Rider, you have to understand Old Hollywood. Old Hollywood is also known as the days of the Studio System; a time when movies were turned out like cars on an assembly line. Every one had their role and they stuck to it. The studio owned you and rented you out as they saw fit. Unless you were a huge star like Bette Davis or Spencer Tracy, you had very little say as to the types of films you would make. Directors followed suit; the bigger the name, the more freedom you had, however, these were also few and far between – Billy Wilder, Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles, Preston Sturgess, and a handful of others. Not even Alfred Hitchcock had carte blanche. His only Oscar winning film, Rebecca (1940), was more a product of its producer David O. Selznick than the Master of Suspense; it wasn’t until the 50s and his contract with Universal that Hitch gained the freedom to make his masterpieces.
Old Hollywood is also deemed such because it was run by old people. People like Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, and Darryl F. Zanuck who had been at the studios for decades, albeit overseeing some of the greatest movies ever made (It Happened One Night, The Wizard of Oz, All About Eve) were not and could be in touch with the youth generation who proved after the success of Blackboard Jungle (1955) that they were a viable, ticket-buying audience. (Jungle prophetically and without coincidence was the first film to use a current rock and roll song as a part of the score, the famous “Rock Around the Clock”)
There are many reasons the studio system failed. For one, Congress made the studios give up their monopolies on theatres. Before, Paramount, Universal, et al. owned movie theatres across the country that would only play their studios’ films, unfairly shutting out smaller studios or the occasional independent from getting their movies seen. Secondly, the rise of the independent had begun in earnest with the films of Cassavettes, Warhol, Brakhage, and Mekas; films with minimal to no plots, shot on incredibly low budgets. Studios like AIP, famous for its association with Roger Corman, churned out hundreds of titles, sometimes making a film in less than a week (Corman’s cult film The Little Shop of Horrors was made in 1960 in less than three days). And of course, the advent of television cannot be undersold, causing studios to go big or go home (hence Vista Vision, Cinemascope, Stereo Phonic Sound, 3D, and films bursting with opulence like The Robe and Cleopatra).
Then, there was the Cahiers du Cinema, a French trade magazine written by critics turned filmmakers with names like Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, and Varda; they analyzed the works of Hawks, Welles, and Hitchcock, elevating their films to the status of art and introduced the auteur theory, the idea that the director, not the producer, was the author of the film. This also ushered in many foreign films to American audiences. Due to the culture’s newfound obsession with all things cinema, Film Studies became a major in college. For the first time, directors were going to school to learn how to make movies, people with names like Scorsese, De Palma, Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas. Coupled with those groomed from television (Lumet, Eastwood, Altman, Peckinpah), Hollywood literally hemorrhaged with new talent in the 60s; people passionate about cinema and armed with the techniques of the European masters like Kurosawa, Renoir, and the French New Wave.
The social upheavals of 1960s America also informed the types of films people wanted to see. Films became grittier. Bonnie and Clyde blew on to the scene out of nowhere, romanticizing villains and glorifying violence; In the Heat of the Night (1967) had a black man retaliate the slap of a white man; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) shocked with its sado-masochistic relationship and crude language, creating the MPAA in the process.
Dennis Hopper got his start as an actor in acclaimed films like Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Giant (1956), and Cool Hand Luke (1967). He studied at the Actor’s Studio with Lee Strasberg and was part of the Warhol Factory crowd. He was also known for being a loose cannon, a paranoid/borderline insane drug addict who occasionally slapped around his women. Peter Fonda, son of Henry and sister of Jane, starred on Broadway before teaming up with Roger Corman on The Wild Angels (1966), a biker film famous for Fonda’s speech at the end (watch the speech and you will see the parallels to Footloose’s ending monologue are inevitable). Around the same time, Hopper made The Glory Stompers (1968), a horrible film produced by AIP and radio jockey Casey Kasem (!) where Hopper plays the leader of a bike gang that accidentally kills a man, then rapes his woman, and eventually sells her as a slave to the Mexicans.
Fonda and Hopper worked together on another Corman film, The Trip (1967, written by none other than Jack Nicholson). Fonda plays a struggling commercial director in the middle of a divorce who decides to unwind with an acid trip. Bruce Dern, Fonda’s co-star in The Wild Angels, plays his “guide” through the trip. It’s a terrible movie (like most things Corman touches) with a terrible performance by Fonda. Hopper plays – naturally – the drug dealer who gives him the LSD and a hallucination of a priest in a scene that plays like a cross breed between Sweet Movie (1974) and Myra Breckenridge (1970), complete with bright, shimmery colors, shoddy set, and video projections.
One night, Fonda was (stoned) looking at a photo of himself in The Wild Angels and got an idea about two modern day cowboys riding cross-country on motorcycles. Fonda called Hopper in the middle of the night with his pitch. Fonda would produce, Hopper would direct, and they both would co-write and co-star. Hopper loved it. They both assumed that AIP would finance their baby (Fonda had a three-picture deal), but the heavy drug content worried them. Instead, Hopper and Fonda took a meeting with BBS, a new independent production company that had just produced Head (1968) and would go on to produce hits Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The Last Picture Show (1971). They decided to give first time director Hopper 40000 dollars and three 16mm cameras to shoot the Mardi Gras sequence of the film as a test. No script, just an idea. Fonda, apparently inept at producing a film as well, mixed up the dates of Mardi Gras and had to scramble a crew together in a week. Hopper, ever the megalomaniac, shot 15 hours of footage. The studio liked the footage and gave Hopper the green light.
There are differing accounts of who actually wrote the film. Fonda claims it was a collaboration; Terry Southern, co-writer of Dr. Strangelove (1964) and author of the short story collection Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes (1967) claims he wrote every word; Hopper, of course, claims that he wrote every word. The film credits all three.
The story follows two hippies, Wyatt aka Captain America and Billy (modeled after Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid), as they drive their newly purchased motorcycles (bought with the proceeds of a giant coke score from Mr. Wall of Sound, Phil Spector) cross-country. The plan is to go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans for one last hoorah before retiring in style in Florida. Along the way, they pick up a fellow drifter and visit his commune, eat with a family after changing a flat in their barn (notice the great deep-focus two shot where Hopper juxtaposes shoeing a horse with changing a tire), and get thrown in jail for “crashing a parade without a permit.” Despite the gorgeous cinematography of László Kovács – also DP on Psych-Out (1968, another dreadful AIP drug film, starring Nicholson and produced by Dick Clark), Five Easy Pieces, and Bogdanovich’s great Paper Moon (1973) – Easy Rider drags from vignette to vignette. Fonda lacks any of his father, sister, or even his daughter’s charisma (sad for a main character) and Hopper, looking like Charles Manson at the rodeo, a man you would think would monopolize the screen with his antics, blends into the background of his own movie. (Incidentally, after the Tate/LaBianca murders, Manson asked Hopper to play him in a biopic; Hopper declined)
And then 45 minutes in, Jack Nicholson enters Easy Rider and it comes to life. Jack, as we all know, possesses a special something, a charm, an intoxicating allure; a combination of his thick New Jersey accent, dashing good looks, and menacing, yet school boy smile; the perennial adolescent, underlying a deep pain he masks in women, booze, and frivolity. As the drunken lawyer Wyatt and Billy meet in jail, Nicholson’s George solidifies the “Jack” he began in countless Corman pictures and continued in Bobby Dupea, Randall, Satan, and the Joker. Notice the ironic humor of Wyatt teaching George to smoke pot (Jack was and always has been an avid pot smoker and outspoken advocate for NORML). Or his discomfort in the restaurant when the yokels passively threaten them. Or his last conversation with Billy. Jack’s delivery of his life on other planets monologue alone earns him his Oscar nomination (the first of 12).
And then Jack dies – he is beaten to death by some rednecks for his affiliation with a group of hippies, beautifully foreshadowing the film’s inevitable finale – and thankfully leaves his urgency with the film. Billy is externally unfazed; he thinks visiting the whorehouse in New Orleans where George was headed is tribute enough for his death. We are supposed to believe that Wyatt is hit hard by this act, hence not sleeping with his prostitute, but in Fonda’s hands we don’t care.
The best scene in the film is when Wyatt and Billy arrive at Mardi Gras with madams Karen (Karen Black) and Mary (Toni “Hey, Micky You’re So Fine” Basil) and drop acid. Due to Hopper’s legendary, tyrannical behavior, Hopper had only one cameraman for the acid trip scene (from the three he gathered for his pre-Kovács test) and was off speaking terms with Fonda; Hopper used his personal knowledge of Fonda’s mother’s suicide to illicit the performance he wanted. The acid trip is a good ten minutes, but never feels it. The cuts are fast and groovy – the most appropriate adjective – filled with sex and tears.
That night around the campfire, Wyatt turns to Billy and utters his famous, “We blew it” line. This has become a part of Hollywood folklore as to what he actually meant. They didn’t blow the money. Did they blow the opportunity? What opportunity? They are doing exactly what they want to do, still headed the next morning for Florida. They can’t be held responsible for George’s death. They didn’t antagonize the townspeople to act out. So what could they have blown? And how much can we take from Billy’s follow-up line, “This is what we are supposed to do”? I think “We blew it” refers to the youth generation’s idealism. With the death of George, we learn that the “squares” cannot co-exist with the “hippies.” Wyatt’s guilt and blame are self-inflicted, stemming from a generation who thought they could change the world. But The Man was too strong and they could never win no matter how hard they tried. Billy’s follow-up line could be taken as one of hope – we fail, we try again, we succeed, per the cycle – or one of adolescent nonchalance – who cares about the movement? We got the money. Let The Man think we are failures. I think it is a hybrid of the two. Like other works of the period – namely the musical Hair – the clash of the generations and their differing ideologies don’t come with handbooks or easy answers. The title Easy Rider is steeped in irony.
The film Easy Rider, however, did not “blow it.” It won a top prize for Hopper at Cannes and turned its makers into celebrities. On a budget of 360000 dollars, the movie grossed 19 million dollars, paving the way for the freedom of the 70s, the best decade of American cinema. Films like Woodstock (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Picture Show (1971), The Godfather (1972), Cabaret (1972), Pink Flamingos (1972), Badlands (1973), Blazing Saddles (1974), Chinatown (1974), The Conversation (1974), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Nashville (1975), Tommy (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Network (1976), Annie Hall (1977), Eraserhead (1977), and Halloween (1978) brim with originality and daring, making them show up on innumerable lists of the greatest films of all time. Easy Rider was nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actor for Jack and Best Original Screenplay for Fonda, Hopper, and Southern) and has appeared on both incarnations in 1997 and 2007 of the AFI’s Top 100 at #88 and #84, respectively.
On the strength of Easy Rider, Fonda directed his own movie called The Hired Hand (1971), an old-fashioned Western about a drifter returning home after many years to a family he once left behind. Just when things seem back to normal, Harry (played with similar blandness by Fonda) must rescue his friend (played with equal blandness by Warren Oates) from the throngs of a hooligan. The film, as done by John Ford starring John Wayne or Gregory Peck would have worked, but the film tries to combine the feelings of a classic and an edgy piece of modernism through its clichéd story and “European” techniques like superimpositions and freeze frames, coupled with moody lighting, and a grand New Hollywood shoot-out, killing the hero in the last reel as Hopper did in Easy Rider and Penn did in Bonnie and Clyde. The film never gels due to Fonda’s lack of personality behind and in front of the camera.
Jack Nicholson also tried his hand at directing with Drive, He Said (1971), the story of a basketball player’s loyalty to the game and his girl; and a young man struggling to stay out of the draft. The movie should have focused on one or the other. Co-scripted by Nicholson, the film never gets off the ground, unsure of its footing. The only interesting scenes – not surprisingly – are the basketball games. Bruce Dern as the coach gives a nice performance that should have been front and center. And poor Karen Black – great in her Oscar nominated turn in Five Easy Pieces and follow-up roles in Nashville and Burnt Offerings (1978) – has little more to do here than have sex. Clearly, this was a favor for Jack.
Hopper, basking in the hubris of Easy Rider, was allowed to make The Last Movie (1971), a surreal film within a film (Hopper’s favorite filmmaker was Buñuel) about a once retired stunt coordinator called in to help aboriginals make a movie. Hopper, ever the von Stroheim, had hours of footage to sift through and it took him a year to edit the film. (Easy Rider’s editing also lasted a year and its original cut was three and a half hours) Despite winning the Venice Film Festival, The Last Movie was panned and ended Hopper’s career as a director until 1980’s Out of the Blue and he didn’t appear in an American film of note as an actor until Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), where the film’s star Marlon Brando refused to appear on screen with him due to his drug addiction, forcing Coppola to shoot them separately; for Coppola’s part, he supplied the frenetic Hopper with whatever drugs he needed to get him through the shoot and keep the peace.
It’s quite sobering to listen to the commentary track of Easy Rider recorded thirty years later. Hopper is calm and sedate, light years from the man whose wife was afraid to leave him for fear he would strangle her. You can almost hear an apologetic embarrassment in his narration, like he knows that he acted a fool and ruined his own chances of having a successful directorial career. Hopper died last year from complications of prostate cancer, but not before getting his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame two months prior. The King of the Counter Culture had made it.
“In these days of war and rumors of war – haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” These lines, appearing on a title card, open us to the world of Lost Horizon (1937), an under known and sadly forgotten Frank Capra film made right in the midst of his three Oscar triumphs (It Happened One Night – 1934, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – 1936, and You Can’t Take It With – 1938) for Best Director, where he holds the record.
I came to Lost Horizon, fittingly, by accident. Like Robert Conway, the film’s protagonist, I was brought to the film by an outside party. A few years ago, I set a goal for myself to see all of the films nominated by the American Film Institute for their decennial list so when the time came for its next unveiling in 2017, I would be equipped with the knowledge to fully judge their decisions. Most of their nominees and choices are standard American fair: The Godfather, High Noon, Midnight Cowboy. Loving and living film the way I have for the past decade, I have amassed a knowledge and an appreciation for all things cinema and felt I had a grasp on the American Classics, even if I hadn’t necessarily seen them all. On one of my many perusals of the list to decide what to watch next, I realized I had never even heard of Lost Horizon. This was a testament, so to speak, of its anti-popularity within the American lexicon, which given its anti-capitalist politics, is understandable. In actuality, this film, and its progenitor novel, of course, introduced one of our most well known and sought after ideas: The Land of Shangri-La, that magical place where life is void of conflict and people actually do live happily ever after.
“Our story starts in the war-torn Chinese city of Baskul, where Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) has been sent to evacuate ninety white people before they are butchered in a local revolution.” Conway, along with a motley crew of four others, including his brother, board a plane to escape to Shanghai where the British Government is waiting to fly him back to England where he will take over as Foreign Secretary. Despite his brother George’s (Jon Howard) excitement, Robert, in a drunken joy, voices his concerns through a great monologue, exposing his true feelings that foreshadow the remainder of the film:
“Just you wait til I’m Foreign Secretary. Can’t you see me with all those other Foreign Secretaries? You see, the trick is to see who can outtalk the other. Everybody wants something for nothing. If you can’t get it with smooth talk, you send your army in. But I’m going to fool them. I’m not going to have any army. I’m going to disband mine. I’m going to sink my battleships. I’m going to destroy every piece of war craft. Then when the enemy comes, we’ll say, ‘Come in, gentlemen. What can we do for you?’ Then the poor enemy soldiers will stop and think, ‘There’s something wrong here. We’ve been duped! This is not according to form. These people seem quite friendly and why should we shoot them? Then they’ll lay down their arms.”
George, in one of his many intense or judgmental comments throughout the film, urges him not to drink anymore, sending Robert back to reality:
“Don’t worry, George, nothing’s going to happen. I’ll fall right into line. I’ll be the good little boy that everybody wants me to be…Just because I haven’t the nerve to be anything else.”
Truer political words were never spoken.
The next morning the passengers realize their plane is being flown in the wrong direction. When they try to talk to the pilot, they realize he has been replaced with a Chinaman wielding a gun. But why have they been kidnapped? And where are they being taken?
Not long after, they “crash” in a plush pile of snow, conveniently nuzzled between two mountains in the Himalayas. As if on cue, a group of men led by Chang, (H.B. Warner – Cecil B. Demille’s Jesus in his silent film King of Kings, 1927, and one of Norma Desmond’s “waxworks” in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, 1950) greet them with appropriate clothes and tools to make the trek through the inclement weather.
They are taken to a beautiful palace known as Shangri-La: a fully functioning, self-sufficient oasis. The travelers are grateful for their rescue, yet anxious to return home as soon as possible. All except Conway. He feels as if he has been here before and is drawn to its majesty.
The following day Chang explains the philosophy of Shangri-La to Conway: “We preach the virtue of avoiding excesses of any kind including virtue itself…We rule with moderate strictness and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. As a result our people are moderately honest, moderately chaste, and somewhat more than moderately happy.” They have no crime because “there can be no crime when there is a sufficiency of everything.” There are hardly any disputes over women because if one man wants your woman, it would be considered rude not to let him have her. (No word on how the women feel about this. Presumably, the same would work in reverse). There is no money because there is no need to stock pile cash for a rainy day. Any outside supplies they may need are brought in by porters who come through every few years in exchange for the gold that rests in their valleys. Chang finishes by saying, “You would be surprised, dear Conway, how a little courtesy all around helps to smooth out the most complicated problems.”
He further learns that Father Perrault (Sam Jaffe, coincidentally blacklisted in the 1950s for being a Communist), a Belgian priest built Shangri-La centuries ago. We learn soon after that Father Perrault is still alive (one of the place’s charms). Conway’s arrival is no accident. Father Perrault has summoned him. Given Conway’s political leanings and utopian literature, he has been brought to Shangri-La to rule upon Perrault’s imminent death. Unfortunately for the others, they happened to get on the wrong plane at the wrong time.
Conway keeps this knowledge to himself and eventually the others learn to love the land. Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), a former plumber, decides to eschew his plans to steal the gold and instead build a complex aqueduct system so the natives in the valley can have running water. Lovett (Edward Everett Horton, known to most audiences as the narrator of “Fractured Fairytales” on Rocky and Bullwinkle), a paleontologist, decides to put his twenty years as a Geology professor to work by teaching the local children. And Gloria (Isabel Jewell), who we know nothing about other than she presumably has consumption, will do whatever the men tell her. The only one who remains reticent is George, positioning himself as the villain of the film. He refuses to buy into Shangri-La, swearing that something is afoot, which is further fueled by Maria (Margo), a local girl in love with him who begs to leave. When the porters finally arrive to take them away, George is the only one who wants to leave. Despite Conway’s desire and duty to stay – and affection for local Sondra (Jane Wyatt) – George and Maria convince him to leave as well. It is only after they do that Conway discovers the truth about Shangri-La and does everything in his power to return.
The idea of Lost Horizon is greater than the film itself. The plot doesn’t really get exciting until they reach Shangri-La, which takes over thirty minutes, and the opening scene escaping from China is mostly inconsequential, used as nothing more than a ploy to allow the film to take place in the mysterious mountains of secluded Tibet. None of the characters are very developed beyond surface levels, serving merely as symbols of demographics: the charming Average Joe, the uptight intellectual, the objectified female, the noble hero, and the loud, brash attractive man who if he didn’t worry about something, he would have no purpose in life. Given the film’s parabolic structure, it is understandable why the characters are broadly drawn, as well as the film’s lack of close-ups. Thematically, it also makes sense that we are let in very little to the characters pasts, wants, and desires because this would be antithetical to the Marxist mantra Lost Horizon propagates. All we must know about them is that they are different than Conway and very different than the people at Shangri-La. It is interesting to note how Father Perrault, a Westerner, would come to an Eastern country to teach and spread the Christian concept, as he calls it, of “being kind” through a decidedly Eastern governmental system such as Socialism.
If I had the aplomb to edit Capra, I would have started the film on the plane and omitted cutaways to the embassy, trimming fifteen minutes from an overly long movie, which would make it less of an epic and more a sociological character study a la Lord of the Flies.
Coincidentally, over the years, there have been numerous versions of the film, running various lengths, to push certain agendas. Originally, Capra turned in a six-hour film to be released in two parts, but the studio rejected this version for financial reasons. (Who was going to sit through a six-hour movie and even if people did, it could only be shown once a day). Capra then cut it down to 3.5 hours, but this version was shown only once in Santa Barbara, CA. Due to negative feedback, the film’s producer and Capra rival Harry Cohn, decided to make his own cut, shaving it to 132 minutes. Other versions have been less than two hours, cutting out things to make the film more patriotic during World War II and excising additional material to quell the Communist principals that run through the film. The American Film Institute commissioned a restoration in 1972 to return Lost Horizon to the 132 minute cut. Robert Gitt, the film’s preservationist, explains in the audio commentary his almost twenty year struggle to create the most complete version, using 16mm blowup prints found in Canada and still frame images in lieu of footage the same way George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) were restored (prior to the discovery of its missing footage).
Despite my fervent belief that remakes are almost always substandard (Gus van Sant’s Psycho, anyone?), I found myself imagining within the first thirty minutes the prospect of a remake. If made today, the opening titles, if they existed, would have to change “white people” to “civilians,” to be more politically correct, the characters would be ethnically diverse, the female character would actually be developed, and to get the most out of the metaphor, the film would be set in the Middle East. Conway would be an American diplomat as opposed to a British one and could not be played by anyone but George Clooney. No one working in film today possesses the political cache, humanitarian attitude, calm demeanor, and Everyman status (not to mention the handsomeness) needed to anchor an epic of controversial ideas like Socialism. The film would be helmed by Steven Spielberg or, even better, Steven Soderbergh. The former would repeat the warmth of Capra with childlike innocence and wonder, whereas the latter would endow the film with a bite, exposing the potential problems and unfortunate realities of a Communist state (like how do the natives really feel about being the ones who cook the meals and tend the horses?) and fully use the periphery characters as they are intended: to show that people from different walks of life can come together, divorce their egos, and work collectively for the greater good without the need for selfish incentives. Father Perrault sums this up best:
“Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is. What blindness. What unintelligent leadership. A scuttling mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong against each other compelled by an orgy of greed and brutality. The time must come, my friend when this orgy will spend itself; when brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword…For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life…based on one simple rule: Be kind. It is our hope that the brotherly love of Shangri-La will spread throughout the world.”