IT’S HISTORY, MAN: Majors screen Easy Rider at the Browning Cinema

Author: Alex Wimberly

As part of their History Workshop class last fall, Notre Dame history majors gathered to see the counterculture classic Easy Rider. After viewing the film at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center’s Browning Cinema, the students—all taking the introductory course for new majors, HIST 33000/History Workshop—headed to dinner for a chance to discuss the film with Professor Dan Graff.

Easy Rider follows two bikers who hit the road in search of good times and the “real” America. Discovering camaraderie with some they meet and hostility from others, their journey highlights many of the divisions within the country in the late 1960s. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) represent the hippie generation, resisting conformity and experimenting with new ways of living. Drug use, free love, and communes are all part of the bikers’ experience, as is violence. Released in 1969, produced by Fonda, and directed by Hopper, Easy Rider quickly became an iconic film, helping to launch the careers a new generation of Hollywood stars, including Jack Nicholson, who received an Oscar nomination for his prominent supporting role.  

Most of the students attending had never seen the movie before, but came away appreciative of the film and the experience at the Browning Cinema. Seeing it on “the big screen” was a big plus for sophomore Robert Billups (HIST ’17). “The shots of sunsets and scenery could be appreciated,” he noted, and the “good surround sound” enhanced the “background conversations and subtler statements of the characters.”

The students gained a great deal from the dialogue and the imagery. Billups said the movie helped him “visualize the stresses, problems, and connections” of the characters, and that he “got a better understanding of the boundaries of trust in that time.” For classmate Aniela Tyksinksi (HIST ’17), the film showcased “the gender norms, the place of popular culture in society, and the prevailing attitudes towards the various subcultures” of the 1960s.

Maggie Blake (HIST ’17) particularly appreciated being able to connect the themes of the film with the topics discussed in class. “It directly applied to what we were studying in the History Workshop,” she explained. “The added bonus of discussing the movie with the class right after watching it helped me to process what I had just seen while it was still fresh in my mind.”

Blake said she was able to use the film as a source for a paper, and Billups found that it helped “tie together a lot of the different readings” from their class. Tyksinski was enthusiastic about both the discussion prompted by the film and the inclusion within the study of history of “less conventional sources” like feature films. “These events challenge us,” she argued, “to interrogate the contemporary media…to ask what they argue explicitly and implicitly about various people…and to critique whether those representations are indeed accurate.”

The outing to see Easy Rider also gave the students an opportunity to reflect on why studying history is worthwhile, and why they chose history as their major. As Billups put it, the movie “contributed to my historical understanding of the 1960s and served as a good catalyst for questioning the reasons that I enjoy studying and interpreting the past.” For him, “reconstructing the past” is better than “passively accepting it,” and studying history helps “make sense” of a world in which “order is rarely self-evident.”

“As for being a history major,” Blake said, “I could not be happier with my choice.” “I love hearing personal, human stories and what they tell us about the development of mankind.”

Tyksinski, who is hoping to become an advocate for immigrants’ human rights, believes studying history is essential for what she wants to do. “My history classes are absolutely fundamental to understanding the driving motives (political, socioeconomic, personal, etc.) of immigrants who come to the U.S., the opportunities available and unavailable to them, and the systemic marginalization and exploitation of immigrant communities.” “History is the shaping and reshaping of the human narrative,” she argued, not the “mere compilation of simple, indisputable fact.” She sees her task as a historian as presenting “events, perspectives and persons” in a way that will “do the most justice to subjective human experience.”

As Easy Rider’s Wyatt and Billy might say, “That’s heavy.” Even with enjoyable evenings like the one at the Browning Cinema, history isn’t always an easy ride.

Easy Rider was only one of several History on Film titles integrated into undergraduate history courses screened in the fall 2014 semester. Others included the classic Hollywood screwball comedy/labor romance The Devil and Miss Jones (1941, directed by Sam Wood) and the documentary Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011, directed by Pamela Yates), which explores the ongoing struggles to bring resolution to Guatemala’s multi-decade civil wars. Ted Barron, the Senior Associate Director of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, indicated that the partnership between the history department and the Browning Cinema was a natural fit, and that the ongoing History on Film series was beneficial to the Center as well as the attendees. As he put it, “The diversity of interests among the History faculty complements the range of programming we strive to present each semester.”

For information about the history major and the History Workshop, see: Exploring History

For information about the current calendar of films screening at the Browning Cinema, see: Now Showing at the Browning