How would Jesus look on a chopper? "Born to Be Wild" replaces "Rock Around the Clock" in the opening, though views of youth in revolt haven’t progressed much since The Blackboard Jungle. Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid are now counterculture ramblers split between Peter Fonda’s thousand-yard stare and Dennis Hopper’s helter-skelter peepers, both "with tombstones in their eyes." The voyage is from Los Angeles to New Orleans, financed by dope money and lubricated with flash cuts, zooms, and Steppenwolf, The Byrds, and Jimi Hendrix. The hippie commune in the desert is put forth as the epitome of "doing your own thing in your own time," the camera turns 360° at their dinner gathering to forge a sort of circular Giotto mural. The AIP biker-flick aesthetic, puffed up into mythical fatalism: Stoned campfire improv and fuschia-silhouette sunsets abound, along with "geeeeeet it?" forehead-slappers (cocaine sold at a junkyard, horseshoes equal motorcycle wheels). Despite it all, it’s a valuable document of hepcat actors taking snapshots of America circa 1969 while shooting a pandering movie. László Kovács’ cinematography keeps stretching space in the lyrical biking sequences, enthralled by the sheer size of the road. "The Pusher" played as dollar bills are rolled up into tubes and fed into a flag-festooned gas tank would have tickled Kenneth Anger. And the sanctimonious air is dissipated by Luke Askew’s deflating testiness as the hitchhiker pondering the essence of Porky Pig, and by Jack Nicholson’s sweet-natured clowning as the gone-to-seed Southern gent tagging along in his football helmet. (Jack’s liquid-breakfast toast shows the hand of Terry Southern: "To ol’ D.H. Lawrence.") "Your time’s running out, man." "I’m hip about time." Does Fonda’s inscrutable epitaph ("We blew it") refer to a generation’s wasted potential for revolution, or to the production’s endless supply of doobies? Hopper makes a hash of the hallucinatory Mardi Gras sequence, but he knows enough to capture the elusiveness of freedom, and to linger on Bob Dylan’s poetry as sung by Roger McGuinn. With Karen Black, Toni Basil, Warren Finnerty, Luana Anders, Robert Walker, Jr., and Phil Spector.
--- Fernando F. Croce