The road movie has been a staple of Hollywood since the moving picture business first took off. Of course, they didn't know back then that what they were creating were road movies, mostly due to the fact that early films from the genre didn't have any roads in them. Before the movie world became obsessed with four wheeled transport those long treks across lonely wildernesses were done on horseback. Just about every Western of the thirties, forties and fifties featured some sort of plough across Mid-Western plains and Wild West territories, searching for cattle rustlers, ladies of loose morals or dastardly Indians. One of the first truly great treks was The Searchers (1956) which embodied all the traits of the perfect road movie in one of John Wayne's most memorable performances. The sentiments of Wayne's arduous journey were carried forth into other burgeoning genres, such as the drama movie Thunder Road (1958), comedy The Great Race (1965) and even the war movie Apocalypse Now (1979). But lets be honest here, what a really great road movie needs is tarmac, miles and miles of it, topped off with a big brute of a vehicle, whether it be car, truck, jeep, or motorbike. The skylines have to be epic, the roadsides dusty and our heroes preferably of the anti variety. Fortunately Hollywood is awash with closet petrol-heads, and the romance of a long ramble along on the blacktop has led to some of moviedom's most poignant and photogenic films. So pack your bags, put out the cat, fill up your petrol tanks, and hitch up your wagons. Here are the maps and directions for ten unforgettable journeys.
- EASY RIDER (1969)
The road movie of road movies. This Dennis Hopper directed masterpiece set the standard for all subsequent highway roaming the world over, from Paris, Texas (1984) to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Charismatic lead actors, unforgettable soundtrack, eye-catching scenery, aimlessly wandering plotline, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) had it all and it was the first one to do it. Given the way the sixties were going it was only a matter of time before someone made a film about the ultimate "trip”. That we had to wait until 1969 for it to appear is perhaps an indication of the studio’s reluctance to indulge the writers and actors of the time. It took the combined might of Hopper and Peter Fonda to come up with the right script. But the production wasn’t smooth sailing, no doubt a product of the freewheeling plot and its heavy drug riffing. The flimsy story details two bikers, Wyatt and Billy, as they travel across the American southwest in search of the spirit of their country. Their stopping point is the New Orleans Mardi Gras festival, but the final destination is not nearly as important as the adventures they have on the way. America never looked so appealing to those viewing the movie from over seas. It looked wild, open and free in a way that very few nations were. One of the duos most important rendez vous’ is with George Hanson, vital both internally and externally speaking. It marked a turning point in Wyatt and Billy’s journey and also afforded actor Jack Nicholson the breakout role he deserved. On both counts, we should be very grateful.
Tasty Morsel – That was actual marijuana that Hopper, Fonda and Nicholson smoked in the scene around the campfire, hence the spontaneous nature of the dialogue.
- TWO LANE BLACKTOP (1971)
Once Easy Rider had paved the way the garage door was open for most of Hollywood to let rip with their own gasoline fuelled adventures. The early seventies were a veritable traffic jam of cheaply made, endlessly rambling pictures from the cheesy Gas-s-s-s (1971) and the wonky Grand Theft Auto (1977), to the underrated Sweet Revenge (1976) and the balmy W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975). One of the best to follow directly in Hopper’s footsteps was this sparse Monte Hellman directed affair. With a slender story line that makes Easy Rider look like an opus, the movie has almost no plot to get in the way of the beautiful wide open spaces and the dusty grey of the road passing underneath. The central characters are the unnamed "Mechanic” and "Driver”. These two solitary dudes plough the highways of America in their 1955 Chevy looking for fellow road-rats to race. When they bump into a cocky driver called "GTO” they agree to race him to Washington, with the losers having to hand over the keys to their motor. Off of this central premise the movie meanders its way along a seemingly random string of events. With a strong sense of pioneering spirit Two Lane Blacktop (1971) follows its own rules, kicking into touch the constraints of normal cinematic story telling. But even in this unconventional setting we still manage to empathise with the nameless characters that accompany us on the journey to the film’s abstract ending. Truly a film about the journey and for the journey.
Tasty Morsel – Keep an eye out for Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boys drummer, in his only acting performance.
- CONVOY (1978)
There is something inherently manly about the road-trip. I guess it stems from the fact that motor vehicles have, historically speaking, been a male dominated interest. Even in this equal opportunity age it is still primarily men that like to get greasy under the hood of a crap-heap on wheels. So it goes that in cinema a road trip has largely been a male only pursuit. And films don’t get much more manly than Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978), which paired bearded country and western singer Kris Kristofferson with a phallic like "big rig” truck. The success of Convoy marked the peak of a mid-seventies obsession with American trucking and mysticism that surrounded the enigmatic truckers that ploughed up and down the long highways of the US. Convoy followed on from the popular television show Movin’ On (1974) and the movie White Line Fever (1975) both of which championed the eighteen wheeler. The story follows Kristofferson’s Martin "Rubber Duck” Penwald as he runs from a corrupt lawman, drumming up support from fellow truck drivers along the way. The film had much cultural significance on both sides of the Atlantic, its truck driver premise a fresh idea to many. Coupled with the catchy theme tune, and the appealing second-hand speak of C.B radio communication Convoy proved to be a surprising success. The New Mexico vistas ensured that it was in essence a Western film on wheels and its box office takings ensured that this minor sub-genre kept on trucking with outings such as Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Breaker Breaker (1977), High-ballin’ (1978), Coast to Coast (1980) and even stuck a fender into the slasher genre with Roadgames (1981).
Tasty Morsel – Keep your eyes peeled for a cameo by director Peckinpah as a sound gaffer during the interview scene.
- PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (1987)
The comedy film has seen its fair share of entertaining jaunts, the Road To... movies (1940 to 1962), The Muppet Movie (1979), The Blues Brothers (1980), National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), Clockwise (1986), Dumb & Dumber (1994), Tommy Boy (1995), Me Myself and Irene (2000), Sideways (2004) to name but a few. One of the very best is this coming together of two of the eighties greatest comedy actors, the superb Steve Martin and the late great John Candy. As with all good road movies, the story has a basic premise, one mans torturous journey home to see his family on Thanksgiving. The poor sap in question is Martin. The man that starts his journey from hell by stealing his taxi at the airport is Candy. As bad weather and poor timing move Martin’s day from bad to worse Candy shoehorns himself into Martin’s travelling arrangements, with rib-tickling consequences. Written and directed by eighties maestro John Jughes, the film was enough of a success to repair the filmmakers reception in Hollywood after a number of commercial flops. It also marked perhaps the zenith of Martin and Candy’s onscreen comedy performances. They made a terrific cinematic pairing and the trunk full of laughs that accompany them on their ride can be laid squarely at the feet of the actor’s delivery of Hughes chucklesome script, "Those aren’t pillows”. A heart-warming conclusion rounds the trip off nicely.
Tasty Morsel – Recognise the exterior shot of the Boeing 707 in the film? It’s the same one that was used in the movie Airplane! (1980).
- MIDNIGHT RUN (1988)
Robert De Niro isn’t exactly known for his comedic flair. Give him a serious part and acting nirvana usually follows. Stuff him in a comedy and the results are slightly less inspiring, Analyze This (1999), The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (1999), Analyze That (2002), Showtime (2002), for shame. There has been one delightful exception, the 1988 Martin Brest directed buddy comedy Midnight Run (1988). Perhaps the reason Run worked where other De Niro comedies failed is that the acting maestro plays it straight, letting the comedy arise from the situations his forthright bounty hunter Jack Walsh finds himself in. Walsh’s target is Jonathon "The Duke” Mardukas, an accountant who has embezzled $15million from a Las Vegas gangster. "The Duke” is played by Charles Grodin in the performance of his career. Grodin’s trademark fake naivety is a spot on counterpoint for De Niro’s familiar thousand yard stare. The back and forth banter between the pair is an absolute delight, as Walsh drags Mardukas across the Western United States in order to get him back to LA in time for his bail deadline. Small character conceits combine to make their journey the most enjoyable De Niro led expedition you’re likely to go on, from Walsh’s fear of flying to Mardukas’ constant nagging. The supporting cast are on top form to, including amongst them the excellent John Ashton, Yaphet Kotto, Dennis Farina and Joe Pantoliano.
Tasty Morsel – Three made for television movies that followed on from the original film were released in 1994. None of the original cast returned.
- THELMA AND LOUISE (1991)
One for the ladies, this 1991 Ridley Scott movie was a cultural phenomenon when it was released in July of that year. Not that the story concept was a ground breaking one, but an across America trek featuring a vehicle stocked exclusively with women was a refreshing concept at the time. The ladies in question were Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as Thelma and Louise respectively, two Arkansas gals whose weekend break soon turns into a weekend on the lam. Their first stop is the Silver Bullet saloon where Thelma catches the eye of an unsavoury local. After too much booze she finds herself in the car park with the man, who then attempts to rape her. Louise comes to her aid but in the altercation that follows shoots the man dead. The pair flee the scene and begin a frantic drive to the Mexican border, finding a freedom of spirit in the incidents that occur on the way. As character arcs go the movie certainly has its work cut out, with Davis’ ditsy Thelma only managing to adhere herself to the viewer after a garage robbery late in the film’s running time. Thank the Lord then for the wonderful Sarandon who drives the film’s first half with a veteran hand. She gets excellent support from Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen and Christopher McDonald. And then there is the scene stealing Brad Pitt in his break-out role. You’re fooled into thinking he is there for his abs alone until Thelma leaves the all important envelope of getaway money on the night stand; then Pitt’s roguish talents shine through. The semi-tragic ending has a surreal beauty to it, as do the dusty vistas and end-of-the-world gas shacks that the girls stop at periodically. Wistful as they are, you are still left wondering how a simple fishing trip morphed into mini suicide pact.
Tasty Morsel – Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster were originally meant to play the titular pair, but the long pitching process meant that director Ridley Scott had to look for alternatives.
- THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)
The Straight Story (1999) is an endearing tale of personal salvation set in the quiet farm land of Iowa and Wisconsin. It is the story of an elderly man that drives his thirty year old tractor 240 miles to make peace with his estranged brother. So who do you reckon the studio hired to sit behind the camera and direct? Spielberg perhaps? Richard Curtis maybe? Cameron Crowe even? Wrong, wrong and wrong again. Apparently the right man for the job was avant-garde helmer David Lynch, the man behind bizarre Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986) and Lost Highway (1997). Full credit to Lynch though, he ensured that the true life story of Alvin Straight’s tractor sojourn never once fell back onto its sentimental laurels. Despite the aw-shucks nature of an old boy driving his 5mph farm vehicle across two states in order to make amends with his stroke victim sibling, the movie never strays into sickly sweet territory. Lynch’s directorial traits take a back seat for the most part to, so that veteran actor Richard Farnsworth can work his magic in the titular role. His personable but genuine interaction with the characters he meets on the way make up the bulk of the story. At the time of filming Farnsworth was terminally ill with bone cancer, the illness having caused partial paralysis. Alvin having lost the use of his own legs, Farnsworth took the part out of respect for the man and what he achieved. He was rightly Oscar nominated for his work, becoming the oldest performer ever nominated for the award, a fitting tribute to two great men. If they gave an Oscar for best setting, the beautiful mid-west vistas that are Farnsworth’s sole travelling companion would surely have won gold.
Tasty Morsel – Richard Farnsworth’s first movie role was as a stuntman on the 1937 Marx Brothers picture A Day At The Races.
- O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU (2000)
No one does cute and quirky cinema quite like the Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan have barely put a foot wrong since their debut Blood Simple (1984) and in 2000 they treated audiences to what may be the most charming movie. The brothers were no stranger to the road movie genre, already having turned in the wonderful Raising Arizona (1987). What became O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) was an entirely different trip, though no less magnificent. Loosely following Homer’s Odyssey we journey with three prison escapees through 1937 Mississippi. They are led by George Clooney’s amiably dim Everett who convinces the other two that he has buried treasure which he will share with the men. They have four days to retrieve it from its valley home before the area is flooded to form a dam. The treasure that Everett is actually going to retrieve is his wife, who has found comfort in the arms of another man. The comedy comes in all forms from dark to slapstick, and is played with effortless grace by all concerned, from Clooney, to John Goodman, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Holly Hunter and Chris Thomas King. The story makes the most of its beautiful setting leaving you longing for a more simple way of life where the sun always shines and you’re not more than a short walk away from breezy cornfields and twittering hedgerows. And the journey itself is a cheerily twisty one taking in the sort of plot swerves no viewer will see coming, all backed by one of the most off-beat but catchiest soundtracks of all time.
Tasty Morsel – Recognise the cabin in the valley that the trio find themselves at just before the flooding? It is a replica of the infamous cabin from Evil Dead (1981), a tribute to director Sam Raimi from the Coens.
- THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (2004)
There have been two genres of cinema that the road movie has been most kind to. We have already touched on the comedy road movie. The other genre is the drama film. There have been many excellent pictures that have utilised a long traipse as a dramatic device, Badlands (1973), Rainman (1988), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Broken Flowers (2005). Even The Lord of the Rings trilogy was one long trek to the top of a volcano. One of the best dramatic road journeys of recent years is the Walter Salles directed Diarios de Motocicleta (2004). The film was based on the travel journals of future Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. The story follows Che, a twenty three year old medical student at the time, as he travels across South America with his friend Alberto Granado. As the title suggest, motorcycle is the chosen form of transportation for the most part, but what starts out as a two wheeled voyage of hedonism quickly takes on much deeper meaning as Che observes the poverty and neglect of many of his fellow Latinos. Expecting a trip full of fun times and dear diary moments but finding a life changing world of harsh realities, Gael García Bernal is a revelation in the role of Che. Rodrigo de la Serna is solid in the supporting role of Granado. But the stars of the show are director Salles, cinematographer Eric Gautier and the incredible South American scenery. If you aren’t left with a deep desire to retrace Che’s footsteps after viewing Diaries you best check with your doctor that you aren’t developing a fear of the great wide open.
Tasty Morsel – When Salles film made its debut at the annual Sundance Film Festival, the real life Grando was invited to attend. Unfortunately he was not granted a Visa by the stingy US immigration office.
- INTO THE WILD (2007)
When it comes to cinema, the most heart breaking tales are often the true stories. Let’s face it, if what we are watching is a close approximation of a tale of woe that actually befell a real person at some point, it is much more poignant than a made up story about some clod that never existed. Best stick some tissues in the fridge for this one then. Into The Wild (2007) is the equally uplifting and tragic true story of Christopher McCandless (played beautifully by Emile Hirsch), a university student that disappeared into America to discover the true nature of the wild. Uniquely McCandless, who renamed himself Alexander Super Tramp whilst on his journey, gave away his $24,000 in savings and cut up his credit cards before setting off. He also didn’t tell his parents, just leaving a note for his sister before heading off in his old Datsun with a bag of essentials. McCandless’ travels were turned into an article for Outside magazine, and later a bestselling book by Jon Krakauer, before actor Sean Penn directed the movie adaptation in 2007. For those that think the USA is one long line of Starbucks and McDonalds, the film is essential viewing. You’ll be hard pressed to find a film that extols the wonder of America’s wide open spaces and varied vista than this. Achingly beautiful, the film is offset with an underlying melancholy by the touching relationships McCandless strikes up before his final trip to the true wilds of Alaska, none more so than the tear jerking run in with Hal Holbrooks elderly loner. Whether all that happens on the journey we watch was true is beside the point. Into The Wild is still an amazing tale of a true independent spirit, the sort of person a lot of people aspire to be but very few have the bravery to become.
Tasty Morsel – The watch that Hirsch wears in the film was McCandless’ actual watch, given to Hirsch as a gift by McCandless’ mother.