international writers magazine: Cinema Extended Feature by Sam North
An essay on the continuing fascination with the road in cinema
© Sam North
irony of the road movie is that the weak leave, but only the strong
the earliest days of American cinema, the road movie has been
synonymous with American culture and the image of America to the
world. By my definition, the road movie is a vehicle for either
one or a small group of individuals who seek to escape the world
they are living in and set out towards redemption on the road.
Who were most likely to be on the road? The strong or the weak? The irony
of the road movie is that the weak leave, but only the strong survive.
The road either makes or breaks a person. One might have the intelligence
to recognise that in a difficult situation it would be best to move on,
but leaving for the future without a map can be a daunting task. The road
movie reflects a cultural psychosis that not only is tomorrow another
day, but the road is the passage to which a new beginning is possible,
free from the bonds of the past.
In this article I will explore the development of the 'Road movie' and
highlight some of the many films that had been made within the genre.
One might argue that the 'road movie' is not a specific genre, that because
it reflects the styles of 'Film noir' or the thriller, as in Hitchcocks
'North By Northwest' or comedy, such as 'It's mad, mad, mad world.
There is the gangster road movie, the trucker road movie, even the horror
road movie such as 'Kalifornia'. Some might say it is impossible to so
categorise the road movie, lump all of them together and call it a genre.
Nevertheless, from the darkest, to the most banal, all road movies have
something in common, a road, and a socio-economic reason dêtre.
If Myerson's 'Steelyard Blues" is a road movie and a post-industrial
essay, it matters not if it doesn't seem so easily connected to Spielbergs
"The Sugarland Express' or Tati's 'Traffic' which is more about alienation
with the road than a desire to get on it. All are road movies because
they reflect the times they are made in and the road is the great leveller.
Yet, for the sake of this article, however, I shall tend to exclude many
so-called road-movies, such as McEveety's ' Herbie Goes Bananas'
a film about a Volkswagen that talks, or Hewitt's 'The Girl's from Thunder
Strip' a rocker-film. Indeed, one could argue that most rocker, biker,
trucker films are not 'road-movies' in the spirit or style that I define
the 'road movie'. Just because there is a road and someone is driving
on it, does not, I would argue, make it a 'road movie'. There are always
exceptions. 'Gas-Oil' directed by Gilles Grangier in 1955, is a trucker
film, but it has the essential elements of searching for meaning of life
and economic poignancy that mark the essential road movie. Yet, Cahn's
"Dragstrip Girl' 1957, which is a hot-rod film where boy has car
and girl gets hot, is not really within the scope of this article.
Neither would Walter Hill's otherwise excellent 'The Driver' which though
certainly about a skilled driver for a bank-heist gang and has some thrilling
driving in it, overall, the film has no heart and soul and it is simply
a cop chasing a bad guy movie and going absolutely nowhere.
Road movies such as Hopper's "Easy Rider', or Sarafian's 'Vanishing
Point', and Scott's 'Thelma and Louise' reflect characters trapped in
lives that seem pointless, rootless, intellectually stifling. The road
seems to offer an easy escape, set within a western landscape that is
at once beautiful, but, as is the nature of the convention of a road movie,
all manners of dangers may lurk. Not all characters in road movies have
to be helpless. That is not really what these people are. These people
who seek escape often have courage and determination they never knew they
had. It is just that the road is there. It is the road movie that enables
them to find that courage, but there is always a warning. Taking a cult
movie, Guerico's 'Electra Glide in Blue' from 1972, there, for all those
who would ride the road to freedom, lies a cop in wait (Robert Blake),
knowing his job is to frustrate those who seek freedom. The cop as menace,
frustrator, and obstacle to freedom is a common theme of the road movie.
In Ridley Scott's 'Thelma and Louise' an early 1990's movie, two women
escape their petty, nowhere lives, hit the road and find 'liberation'.
Neither woman is weak, or stupid, or dim, but somehow life has conspired
to make one a waitress and one a housewife married to an overpowering
moron who has seemingly crushed her identity. These two wounded creatures
are not to be pitied. They always knew the road was there, only now, as
circumstances have arisen, has the opportunity come that could give them
the breath of fresh air they need.
The convention of the road movie however is to allow a little freedom
and then let it bite you and bite hard. In 'Thelma and Louise', the two
protagonists discover freedom for a mere moment, but a foolish encounter
with a 'rapist' which leads to a lethal shooting in a car park outside
a dance hall, will haunt them for the rest of their journey. It matters
not that the characters seek escape and not danger, in the road movie,
danger seeks them. The road, it seems, is always a dead end.
The Road Movie is not a new phenomenon, however. The need to escape, the
lure of the open road, or undiscovered trail, is not a uniquely American
trait, but one firmly established in folklore. It belongs to a society
that was initially based upon religious freedom. America of the seventeenth
century was peopled with settlers who had escaped European religious oppression
and founded a society based upon their own concept of what culture should
be. That these new 'societies' produced their own kind of internal oppression,
or intolerance meant that for those who could not abide by these rules
sought escape. Escape could be West or South; there was no going back
There were economic factors too. From early days, the American settler
was a farmer and something of an all rounder. The conditions from the
beginning were immensely different to Europe. There, good land was scarce
and almost impossible to own. In America land was plentiful and almost
free. The American settler would simply burn the forest and plant in the
ashes. Slash and burn agriculture became systemised. When the new soil
was exhausted, the farmer or settler would move on. Waste and a lack of
appreciation for the local landscape were almost genetically implanted
into the American mindset from the seventeenth century onwards.
In seeking new pastures, people were no longer restricted by borders,
or petty bureaucracy, the only limit was the terrain, or absence of roads.
The early road movie was possibly the travelling panorama, a popular cultural
event in the 1850's. The showman, or orator would slowly unfold a lavish,
often completely exaggerated, or fictitious panorama, sometimes a hundred
of feet long, and tell the tale of travelling down the Mississippi River
or crossing the Rockies to California. Here, the punters could experience
the dangers and wonders of travel without personal loss. But for many,
this introduction to 'travel' was inspiring and possibly triggered a desire
to see more of their unexplored country. The literature of the time was
often about making trails, finding a way to an imagined paradise, overcoming
the hostile natives, and wild animals. The West had not yet
been perceived as a panacea for all problems. As yet California lay in
Mexican hands and seemingly had no value. Freedom and wealth were associated
with land grabs, farming, the coming railways, and cattle.
America was ever expanding and filled with vast hope. One would travel
a little further west and found a new city. The Mormons after several
bad starts were one of the great forerunners of taking the known boundaries
of the West and building a new life for everyone. Salt Lake City was considered
remote enough to be safe from the influences of others and other religions,
but it was as west as one could go at that time and hope to make a go
of things. For at least the first one hundred years of American history,
the chances of making a fortune by travelling west were limited by the
absence of communications, hostile Native Americans, harsh weather, and
ill health. Yet, the West, and the road west were always perceived as
the way of escape. For heroes and villains.
The Wagon Train was not just a manifestation of a population seeking new
opportunities, it was a public confirmation that the new American society
was not actually able to provide for all and the route west was considered
always as liberation from poverty, or reality, or both. The first road
stories are Wagon Train yarns, not stories about lone fur trappers, or
Lewis and Clarke geological expeditions. They were stories of people seeking
escape and a change of luck. Often they would be new immigrants who had
found that the East Coast lacked the space or career chances they had
sought. These people would pack all they had into fancy wagons, join the
next 'train' leaving St Louis and hope God would provide. Quite often,
many never reached the West. Disease, corrupt or inept wagon masters,
misfortune, bad weather, discontent, or just the plain reality of seeing
the desert and hostile terrain of the Rockies would make people turn back,
or try to settle the plains. That they'd try to do this in places that
had no access to cities, markets, schools, and doctors says something
about the hardiness of these settlers or their foolishness.
As Americans sought a new life, a parallel experience was going on in
South Africa where the Boer farmer, who did not like the British was trekking
north to seek a new land where they could self-govern with God and no
English rules. Their harrowing stories where dead babies are tossed out
of the wagon as drought and starvation grip the trekkers was mirrored
many times by American Wagon train settlers. It formed the basis of many
legends (not least the horror of Cutter's Pass where one Wagon Train were
caught out by the onset of winter and resorted to cannibalism). For the
generations that followed, the monumental experiences of their forbears
in getting west provided them with a moral justification for their own
The real change to the perception of the West came when California was
bought from the Mexican Government in 1848. What looked like a huge expense
then, looked to be the bargain of the century six months later when gold
One of the first successful works of literature to fully address the hope
and despair of the move west was Mark Twain's (Roughing It) ' where he
travels out West to witnesses the gold rush and the newly formed wild
and lawless society that was evolving. It was a time of magnificent opportunity
riding on a crest of endless optimism and chronic failures.
The discovery of gold in 1849 created a worldwide fantasy with 'going
west' that was to continue up until the present day. The West at once
became mythic and psychologically linked with success. It was the nineteenth
century lottery ticket to a new life and the 'road west' is forever linked
in American minds with escape. Slash and Burn culture had already ensured
that 'moving on' was a way of life, but now, here was a chance to take
a short cut on life, get rich quick. The road became a signifier for freedom
and the romance of the 'road' became a way of life that would be celebrated
in literature and film for the entire twentieth century.
One might never call Charlie Chaplin's film 'The Gold Rush' a road movie,
yet, many of his films were directly associated with the road. The opportunities
and pitfalls that come to the lone tramp walking the road were understood
by the first cinemagoers. Rootless men, unemployed men travelled the roads
and rails in search of a life, little understanding that their very rootlessness
was a causal factor in their never-ending poverty. Men and women all over
the world laughed at Chaplin, but equally understood that the road and
poverty was never distant from their own lives.
D.W. Griffith understood the lure of the unknown place. His film 'The
Wind' manifestly opened out cinema, took it into hostile territory, and
proved that film could go on location. But 'The Wind' is not a 'road movie'.
of the most successful early road movies is John Ford's 'The Grapes
of Wrath'. Based upon Steinbecks novel about the great social
disaster that followed with the clearing of vegetation and people
from farmlands to create vast farms. Without trees, the soil began
to literally blow away to create huge dust storms. This, combined
with the Wall Street crash of '29, resulted in the great clearing.
People literally left the land in hundreds of thousands.
They all headed to the land of opportunity California, and took whatever
they could with them, on the road. It isn't known how many died, or even
how many eventually succeeded, but the influx into California of millions
of impoverished people who needed food, schooling, and hospitals was a
great shock. It was a society ill equipped to deal with this influx. Yet
for all the immediate suffering those migrants must have felt, history
was on their side. When the Second World War came to the USA, it was California
that had the massive pool of cheap labour that could be put to work in
the Navy yards, aircraft manufacturing, and vehicle production. For these
people, a golden age was about to begin. Once again, California was to
provide sustenance to the myth that there really was a pot of gold at
the end of the road. There were dissenters from this view however.
In the 1973 Robert Altman's film 'Thieves Like Us' about criminals on
the run in the impoverished 1930's landscape provided a brilliant companion
piece to the earlier film 'The Grapes of Wrath, which was more about
dignity among the poor, than honour among thieves. The atmosphere of poverty
and lack of trust combined with the quite vicious desperation of Carradine
and Duvall's characters seems now to be a more accurate portrayal of what
really happened in the depression than Hollywood was prepared to let their
audiences know at the time. 'Thieves' Like Us' with it's haunted characters,
the car, and the sleazy motels; they are all part of the essential constituents
of the road movie. The impending sense of doom is another.
Authur Penn's 'Bonnie and Clyde' 1969 was another stylish take on the
road/gangster movie in the same vein and of the same period. The fantastic
rainstorm of bullets at the end in slow motion was a defining moment in
70s cinema. Bonnie and Clyde was a defining moment in many more
ways, the film having an influence on fashion and what was acceptable
in screen violence, It launched the career of Gene Hackman as well as
Faye Dunaway and just about everyone in that film. It resonated with the
public and nicely paved the way for 'Paper Moon' a road movie with a good
heart by Bogdanovitch starring Ryan O'Neal (as a bible selling con artist)
and Tatum O'Neal, who won an Oscar for her performance. Perhaps people
wanted to believe that the past wasn't entirely bleak.
Made at around the same time as the 'Grapes of Wrath', 'The Wizard of
Oz' was a road movie with a difference. Dorothy takes the yellow-brick
road and finds herself in Oz. The great adventures she has, the wonderful
friends she meets, wicked witches aside, all leads her to the city where
all mysteries will be explained, all problems will be solved, all prayers
answered. For Oz one might read Jerusalem, or Mecca, or Las Vegas. Each
one, just like Oz, turns out to be an illusion. Dorothy not only gets
no answers, but also discovers the wizard of Oz is a phony. The Wizard
of Oz has just one message for the people of America, 'There's no place
like home. Tell that to the people driven off the land by the dustbowl.
'The Wizard of Oz' has a happy ending, and a message that seemed at odds
with the times it was made (1939). Perhaps it was addressing a wider audience,
that of America versus Europe. For eyes looking east to Europe where Fascism
was sweeping all before it, perhaps 'No place like home', meant more to
an American faced with a millions of immigrants from Europe. That, and
the building resentment that came with 'cheap labour' displacing 'American'
jobs. The net effect to the explosion of Europeans arriving was to trigger
more people on the East Coast having to go on the road to seek their fortunes
Not all the people travelling the highway were angels, or economic victims.
Some were villains.
In the film 'Petrified Forest' starring Bogart in his first villain role
and Leslie Howard as a poverty stricken English poet and migrant, here
emerged another icon of the road movie. The Roadhouse. The dusty roads
had yet to be beaten into highways, the Roadhouse was the lone refuge
in a hostile environment. Here be shelter, food and gasoline. 'Petrified
Forest' was itself a neat metaphor for a lost world. It is a place where
Duke Mantee takes a stand against the cops in a dust storm. The bad guy
takes over the Roadhouse and a philosophical discussion takes place between
the sucker, the guy on the road, and the criminal, who is just taking
advantage of what ever comes his way.
Here, at last is a road movie that exposes the heart of what forms the
basis of its structure. The arduous journey, the scent of hope, and the
bitter cup of reality when the seeker of freedom comes up against nemesis.
The road movie is very rarely about the road, or even the journey. Even
then, it was about hope and despair. Another film that covers the heart
of darkness that is the Roadhouse is 'The Postman always Rings twice'.
Here, when a drifter comes by, the roadhouse owner's wife bored by her
situation and married to an older man, seizes her opportunity. Passion
with the stranger leads inevitably to murder. If 'Petrified Forest' didn't
signal enough, Postman told it in neon, the road movie was a phenomenon
and was always going to be an article of the state of society, America
and a reflection that told the truth about it, cold heart and all.
It could be argued that the road movie must, to be true to the genre,
involve a road. Yet, many of the essential ingredients of the road movie
were and are encompassed by the 'Western'. 'The Searchers' may be about
a man searching for his niece, but nevertheless it is also about a man
on a horse, on a trail, meeting with hostile elements and the outcome
isn't necessarily what the protagonist desired. From John Ford's 'Stagecoach',
to 'Butch and Sundance' and Eastwood's 'Outlaw Jose Wales', men, on horses,
on the trail, encounter always more than they bargained for and the trail
might not always lead West, but in all cases, they hope it might lead
to El Dorado.
For comic relief one can add Laurel and Hardy's 'Way out West' or Bob
Hope's 'The Paleface'. No not exactly road movies, but all the elements
are in place, a dusty road, a small town, hostile receptions, and the
strength to surmount all obstacles. Road movies are in the end about searching
for Utopia and often ending up with Dystopia. The journey West was synonymous
with that search.
in Part Two... From Detour to Sideways
Sam North 1999-2007 www.samnorth.com
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