Rock Bottom Rides Again

After 32 years, Peter Fonda finally hitches his lost western to the trading post

CP: I wouldn't mind hearing about the allegory and the metaphor.

Fonda: Okay. The river is major--as it is in all mythology. It's right there in the first scene. I'm the fisherman, right? Up out of the water comes a figure [the young buddy character played by Robert Pratt] that's slightly out of focus. We pull focus and up it comes again--taking a breath. I shake my head, almost imperceptibly, as if to say, "You're fucking up my fishing, man." But the symbolism is there: I'm the fisher of men--the Christ figure. I catch this man--in a symbolic way. He comes out of the water--stumbling, bare-ass naked--behind me. He grabs his clothes and heads for the fire. All the elements are there: earth, fire, air, and water. Then we go across the river--into purgatory, where the evil lives, where [Pratt's character] loses his life. And I take revenge: I shoot the bad guy in the feet. Very religious. And foolish. That's the kind of violence I wanted to deal with: the unacceptable violence.

CP: Unacceptable violence was abundant in '71.

Captain America and the Brown Dirt Cowboy: Peter Fonda in 'The Hired Hand'
Universal Pictures/Sundance Channel
Captain America and the Brown Dirt Cowboy: Peter Fonda in 'The Hired Hand'

Fonda: Innocence is lost; in the movie, Ambiguity and Wisdom decide to ride back. My character is Ambiguity: He comes back from purgatory, he rides through this dry, desolate area, and he finally gets home--to the garden. Like Joni Mitchell says: And we've got to get ourselves/Back to the garden. But can you ever really go back? Can you ever really recapture youth? Men are always trying to do it--and failing [laughs]. In the end, [my character] has to be sacrificed--because of his ambiguity, and because of everything [wrong] that he's done to people. He's gonna get whacked--and the audience knows it.

CP: Sounds like another metaphor. I mean, it's not just in the movies of '71 where ambiguity gets whacked.

Fonda: I was feeling ambiguity in my own life, and I was seeing it all around me. I was seeing that it wasn't going to last. It's like when my character in The Limey is talking about the '60s and he says, "'The '60s were really only '66 and part of '67." It really was over after that. In Easy Rider, when they're in the hippie commune and Hopper says, "This is nothin' but sand, man--they ain't gonna make it," and I say, "No, man, they're gonna make it," I was lying through my teeth.

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