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The international writers magazine: Cinema Extended Feature by Sam North
An essay on the continuing fascination with the road in cinema

The Road Movie
© Sam North

'The irony of the road movie is that the weak leave, but only the strong survive'.

From 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 Hitchcock’s '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 d’être. 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 Spielberg’s "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 Banana’s' 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 to Europe.

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 existence.

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 was discovered.

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'.
One of the most successful early road movies is John Ford's 'The Grapes of Wrath'. Based upon Steinbeck’s 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 70’s 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 West.

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.

Continued in Part Two... From Detour to Sideways

© Sam North 1999-2007

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