When "Easy Rider" was released to unsuspecting American audiences on July 14, 1969 - after winning director Dennis Hopper a Best First Work award at Cannes two months earlier - the film’s poster featured the tagline "A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere."

"Easy Rider" went on to garner two Oscar nominations (screenplay and Jack Nicholson as Supporting Actor); a new sort of ragtag and very personalized filmmaking made its mark in Hollywood; college-age viewers got all riled up in celebration; and the film’s $360,000 budget eventually turned into $60 million at the box office.

Now, 50 years to the day after its initial release, "Easy Rider" is again appearing at theaters across the country through Fathom Events (it also plays on July 17). The story of a couple of hippie bikers who make a big score on a cocaine deal, then head out on a road trip from Los Angeles to Mardi Gras, is at once dated and fresh, and many of its messages remain uncomfortably, sadly, and frustratingly relevant.

But looking at the film again all these years later, that tagline never really worked. Nobody goes looking for America in "Easy Rider." Slightly long-in-the-tooth Wyatt and Billy (Peter Fonda, 29 at the time, and Dennis Hopper, 33) hop on their big, loud motorcycles and head east with plenty of drug money hidden in their gas tanks and a plan to escape from the America they know. But they can’t, and unluckily for them, they do find America, and it ain’t pretty.

Though the script is credited to Fonda, Hopper, and Terry Southern, much of the dialogue is improvised, most of it is very spare, and a great deal of the film gets by on the music of the day - Steppenwolf’s "Born to Be Wild," The Band’s "The Weight," The Byrds’ "Wasn’t Born to Follow," Hendrix’s "If 6 Was 9" - blaring from the soundtrack as our heroes (or are they anti-heroes?) go roaring down the road. There are glorious exceptions to the film’s less-dialogue-is-more approach, notably upon meeting the hitchhiking hippie Jesus (Antonio Mendoza) who brings Wyatt and Billy to his commune after giving an oratory about the concept of freedom. The ante is upped when, 45 minutes in, Wyatt and Billy first come in contact with George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) in a jail cell. They’ve been arrested for disturbing a small town July 4 parade, and George has awakened there after another night of excessive drinking, raises an early-morning toast to "good old D.H. Lawrence," dons a football helmet, hits the trail with them, smokes his first joint, and offers up his rambling theory on Venusians intermingling with humans.

The film goes on to make both innovative and excessive use of flash-frame editing, to compare and contrast the personalities of its two protagonists (Billy is restless, uptight, and short-tempered; Wyatt is laid back, tired, the voice of reason), to look at the changing times (a terrifically framed shot at a farm shows Wyatt and Billy putting a new tire on a motorcycle as well as a ranch hand shoeing a horse), and to seemingly include as many nighttime roadside campfires and as much smoking of grass as possible.

Controversial upon its release because of the loose, freewheeling approach to its subject matter and its brutality, "Easy Rider" still works as a hard-hitting piece of cinema. The script gets into dreams of freedom, a longing for a simpler time, a subtle argument both for and against capitalism, intolerance of nonconformists by conservative America, and plenty of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. The iconic ending, involving Wyatt and Billy and two rednecks in a blue pickup truck, remains powerful and unsettling. It’s a 50-year-old film that’s still startlingly significant today.

For information about July 14 and 17 screenings near you, visit www.fathomevents.com.

Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

"Easy Rider"

Written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern; directed by Dennis Hopper

With Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson

Rated R