With its memorable tagline “A man went looking for America…and couldn’t find it anywhere,” Dennis Hopper’s 1969’s “head classic” Easy Rider has a lot to answer for and is often considered to be the defining example of what has subsequently come to be called “the Road movie:” a genre in which various misfits go searching for something which is almost impossible to find in an inhospitable and unfriendly world, usually “blowing it” in the end. Maybe, like we all do, uh, man?
However, influential as it may well be, Easy Rider was certainly not the first movie to feature anti-heroes on the road to nowhere. After all, chases across the state line were a staple part of Film Noir (Raoul Walsh’s 1941 High Sierra and the oddball Robert Mitchum moonshine war trucker drama Thunder Road from 1958 being good examples); Hitchcock had men on the run all over the place (especially in North By Northwest, arguably his most purely entertaining movie); what is The Grapes of Wrath if not the ultimate story of crossing America and westerns often portrayed journeys across wide open spaces in search of somewhere better – Ford’s Stagecoach and Hawks’ Red River being two obvious examples). The word “space” reminds me that Sci Fi too has borrowed a thing or two from the road movie (Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey was advertised as “the ultimate trip;” Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running has the hippy drippy Bruce Dern journeying across the solar system in an attempt to preserve our world and Logan’s Run has its protagonists fleeing it, instead of facing ritual sacrifice at the age of 30). Meanwhile, post-Apocalyptic movies are almost defined by the main characters “trying to get somewhere” (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for instance, whilst Mad Max is “the road warrior;” his latest incarnation heading out across Fury Road, where else?). Horror films too have plundered the concept literally and metaphorically (think about the Wrong Turn series, The Hitcher and even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and there’s even been a subgenre of comic road journeys over the years, which would certainly have to include the perennially popular Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road To…series; John Hughes’ still golden Planes, Trains and Automobiles and even National Lampoon’s European Vacation. Plus, on top of that, what is The Wizard of Oz if it ain’t basically the granddaddy of all (yellow bricked) road movies?
One thing’s for sure, however, and that’s the fact that, like the western and (arguably) the musical, road movies are one of those genres which are intrinsically American (although, of course there are easy to find examples from other parts of the world – Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien; Phil Noyce‘s Rabbit-Proof Fence and Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road and Alice in the Cities immediately spring to mind) but, in the years following Easy Rider, the genre became one of US cinema’s greatest exports. No wonder they call it the second Golden age.
Possibly because of a backdrop of Vietnam, a cynical post-Watergate malaise and the failure of the peace and love generation, epitomised by the disastrous Altamont rock festival, there are (ironically) a great many staggeringly good late 60s and early 1970s films which loosely fit within the genre including The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde plus, from the 70s, Jerry Schatzberg’s under-sung Scarecrow (Al Pacino and Gene Hackman team up to open a car wash but don’t); Terence Malick’s art house debut Badlands; Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail with Jack Nicholson on fire; the outstandingly wonderful Peter Bogdanovich Depression-set black and white serio-comedy Paper Moon (shot for shot one of the most artfully composed films of the decade in this reviewer’s opinion); practically all of Sam Peckinpah’s 70’s output including 1972’s The Getaway, 1974’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and, of course, his 1978 Convoy; Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, which ends with the screen literally melting; rock band Primal Scream’s favourite film Vanishing Point and Steven Spielberg’s impressive Goldie Hawn starring debut The Sugarland Express. Brilliantly titled Elektra Glide in Blue from 1973 may ostensibly be a “biker cop movie” (and a small one at that) but those who have seen it will never forget its existential denouement which more or less defines the whole genre in its final unforgettable minutes.
No consideration of the genre should fail to also acknowledge subsequent adventures on the road, including the pure magic of David Lynch’s The Straight Story (no cars or “hogs” in this one – just a good old lawn mower, in what is possibly Lynch’s finest hour); Wim Wenders’ melancholic Paris Texas (composer Ry Cooder steals the show) or the Coen brothers’ goofy take on Homer, O Brother, Where art Thou? (it’s interesting that Ethan has apparently returned to the genre with his forthcoming lesbian road movie Drive-Away Dolls, due in September, which has a great poster riffing on Baby Driver). Much loved Robert De Niro/Charles Grodin comedy crime drama Midnight Run also has fun with the genre (and so do audiences), as does John Landis’ cult comedy The Blues Brothers, which was one of its most expensive forays (although Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World probably cost more).
The UPP has chosen to pay tribute to the genre by honing on a very small sub-genre of the Road movie – the “Summer road-trip” and will be screening Little Miss Sunshine, which features a standout performance from the recently departed actor Alan Arkin; George Sluizer’s literally “dreadful” 1988 Dutch drama The Vanishing (Spoorloos) with its Wicker Man-esque ending (don’t worry, it’s not the pretty abysmal American re-make by the same director) and “Head movie” to end ‘em all, Jodorowsky’s 1970 mystical western El Topo.
Unsurprisingly, the season also includes Ridley Scott’s 1991 feminist take on the genre Thelma & Louise, which is screening from a new digital print to celebrate its 32nd anniversary. Scott’s new film, Napoleon starring Joachim Phoenix, opens in November, so it will be interesting to see how it matches up.
If airport strikes, war, Brexit, global catastrophes, the cost of living crisis and riots (hasn’t 2023 been a doozy?) have made you reluctant to travel outside your comfort zone this Summer, then you could do a lot worse than heading down to the UPP in August and, to paraphrase an old saying, let the movies take the strain.
Keep on trucking with the maverick spirit, I say.
And, as Bette Davis might put it, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night…”
Dr Andrew C Webber is a Film teacher and examiner with over 37 years’ experience. He currently contributes to both the Cinema of the 70s and 80s magazines (available on Amazon); cassette gazette fanzine (available from cassette pirate on e-bay) and the Low Noise music podcast available on Spotify and Apple podcasts.