Every period of American history and culture has at least one quintessential movie that represents everything about that specific zeitgeist. For the end of the 1960s, it’s difficult to find a more significant picture than Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, an unusual biker film about two freedom-loving guys and their trip from California to Florida.
Once called The Loners, Dennis Hopper co-wrote, directed, and starred in the Oscar-nominated biker flick. Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson also starred, and Fonda co-wrote the script with Terry Southern and Hopper, and produced it.
The 1960s, famous for their free-loving, drug-induced hippie optimism and idealism, witnessed the murder of the Kennedys, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the arrival of Richard Nixon and the consequential shift in reigning socio-political spirit. Easy Rider brilliantly simply showed the country for what it really was: a land of surreal natural beauties plagued by the narrow-mindedness and paradoxical fear of the formally revered notion of true freedom. The film was more than enthusiastically embraced by young Americans all over the country, becoming a symbol of anti-Establishment struggle and a cinematic epitome of cultural rebellion that ensued. This led to a fantastic result at the box office, which then triggered a vital change in the film industry, as it was revealed that serious money could be made on low-budget movies made by talented, ambitious young filmmakers with daring ideas and original techniques. The film therefore helped usher a new Hollywood era of fresh filmmaking faces with strong individual voices who took creative control out of the hands of the studios.
Easy Rider was made for less than half a million dollars, earning unbelievable sixty million worldwide, the great majority of which came from the American theaters. After filming finished in 1968, it took Hopper one year to edit 80 hours of footage—which included scenes of real drug use and a jaw-dropping conclusion—into a 95-minute feature that premiered at Cannes on May 12, 1969.
Despite a difficult shoot, it launched the prosperous New Hollywood period of moviemaking, and ignited a revolution in cinema that we haven’t recaptured since.