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Road Movies

Road Movies



The term "road movie" is a loose one because almost any film, narrative or otherwise, can be interpreted as a journey. Likewise, many narrative films follow characters from place to place. Elements of the road movie appeared in classical-era films, but the term first circulated to describe a group of New American films of the late 1960s and early 1970s that were very much about being "on the road." Appropriately enough, the genre since then has traveled in many directions.

The road movie is a unique yet essential genre of American cinema, dramatizing a fascination with mobility. Exploring the very theme of exploration, the road movie reinvents the classic literary journey narrative, drawing inspiration from Homer's Odyssey, the wanderings of biblical prophets, and the epic travels of Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), Mark Twain (1835–1910), and Walt Whitman (1819–1892). More direct and recent literary influences are John Steinbeck (1902–1968) and Jack Kerouac (1922–1969). Road movies feature characters on the move, often outsiders who cross geographic borders but also transgress moral boundaries. With their reflexive focus on the interplay between automobile and camera technology, road movies mobilize a dynamic cinematic spectacle of movement and speed. Road movies celebrate journeys rather than destinations.


Filmmakers from all over the cinematic map have been drawn to the road movie: low-budget independent, mainstream Hollywood, experimental, documentary, gay, feminist, and most national cinemas. Yet certain consistent features can be identified among them. The genre prefers cars or motorcycles at the center of the action (though travel by train, bus, or simply walking are not uncommon). It also tends to rely upon the iconography of interstate highways and border crossings. Related visual motifs are vast, open landscapes and expansive, seductive horizon lines. Highway signs, motels, diners, and gas stations also recur for various plot twists.

Whether characters in road movies ramble at a leisurely pace or speed frantically with cops close behind, one of the genre's most compelling aesthetic characteristics is the mobile camera. Positioned inside the car looking out or outside the car—on the hood, alongside in another car, close by in a helicopter—the moving camera helps represent plot-driven motion and also affords the viewer a kinetic sense of being on the road. Other important stylistic features include dynamic montage sequences designed to convey the thrill of driving; long takes and long shots, expressing an exaggerated traversal of space and time; and the framing devices of front and rear windshields, side windows, and side- and rearview mirrors. Another of the genre's signature means of enhancing the cinematic sensation of driving is an exuberant music track—usually rock and roll, with its back beat propelling the journey.

The road movie also reflects upon technology, depicting an ambivalent modernist fusion between (human) driver and (machine) vehicle. At the same time, a romantic, pastoral attitude often inspires characters to leave culture behind and rediscover nature. Road movie journeys generally involve some kind of cultural critique, an exploration beyond the social conventions associated with home, work, and family. The narrative structure of the road movie tends to be open-ended and modernist, as opposed to formulaic and classical. Two general narrative designs prevail: the quest and the outlaw. Quest road movies meander and probe the mysterious experience of discovery, as in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) or Paris, Texas (1984). Outlaw road movies are more desperately driven by crime, where characters hit the road fleeing from the police. Outlaw couples, along with more sex and violence, figure prominently here, as in Deadly Is the Female (rereleased as Gun Crazy, 1949) and Natural Born Killers (1994). Many of the best road movies combine elements of both the outlaw and the quest narrative.

Typically, the genre focuses on a driver/passenger couple—usually boy-girl, as in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), or buddy-buddy, as in Easy Rider (1969). Female buddy films such as Thelma and Louise (1991) became more popular in the 1990s. Other less common variations include parent-child and cop-prisoner. Even more rare are road movies focusing on large groups, as in Get on the Bus (1996), or on a lone driver, as in Vanishing Point (1971). Other car-oriented variations include road comedies like Flirting with Disaster (1996), road horror films such as Near Dark (1987), and racing films like Death Race 2000 (1975). Rock concert touring films such as Almost Famous (2000) offer yet another generic offshoot. Roam Sweet Home (1997) and The Cruise (1998) display some of the quirky directions experimental road documentaries have pursued. Urban "enclosed" driving films like Taxi Driver (1976) and Speed (1994), where a circular route or city grid displaces the genre's more classic border crossings and linear distances, are a distinct group as well.


The road movie emerged as a distinct genre near the end of the 1960s, as baby boomers began hitting the road. It was during the Depression, however, that certain classical genre films developed elements of the modern road movie. While numerous early gangster films used dramatic driving sequences, the related social-conscience film sometimes incorporated mobility as part of its more pointed political critique. Wild Boys of the Road (1933), for example, exposes the social decay caused by the Depression by following the trials of homeless children riding the rails. Other notable films in this vein are I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), You Only Live Once (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Screwball comedies often employ a travel motif to present the divisive but amusing antics of the lead couple. It Happened One Night (1934) integrates road travel into its narrative and theme: despite their differences, the lead couple undergoes an identity change and fall in love as a result of of traveling together. Twentieth Century (1934) and Sullivan's Travels (1942) follow this pattern. With its emphasis on wandering, migration, and the frontier, the western also proves to be a formative, if indirect, influence. While westerns usually portray a time before cars, many road movies allude to cowboy treks through an untamed wilderness, such as Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1948), and The Searchers (1956).

Another classical genre with more direct influence on the modern road movie is film noir, which codes the road as a menacing threat, a perpetual detour from which one may never escape. Much of the road movie's cynicism (as well as its B-movie, low-budget, on-the-run look) derives from the 1945 classic Detour, where a man's cross-country sojourn to marry his girl gradually spirals into a nightmare of crime and murder. Detour emphasizes the journey as the undoing of the protagonist's very identity, suggested also in Desperate (1947). Like Detour, The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953) establish fear and suspense around hitchhiking; They Live By Night (1948) and Gun Crazy are exemplary of outlaw couple road film noir. The attraction of road film noir lives on in contemporary neo-noir movies like The Hitcher (1986), Delusion (1991), Red Rock West (1992), and Joy Ride (2001).

In the 1950s, a few road comedies appeared, notable for a wholesome conformity antithetical to most road movies: one of the last Bob HopeBing Crosby "road to" films, Road to Bali (1952); Vincente Minnelli's The Long, Long Trailer (1954); and the final Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy vehicle, Hollywood or Bust (1956). While 1950s road movies are rather scarce (and flimsy), other literary and cultural developments are crucial to the post-Hollywood birth of the genre as "independent." Accompanying President Eisenhower's burgeoning inter-state highway system was the emerging postwar youth culture portrayed in films like The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Moreover, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Jack Kerouac's On the Road appeared in 1955 and 1957 respectively, two monumental road novels that rip back and forth across America with a subversive erotic charge. This is the era when American mobility took off as middle-class tourism and commuting and also as beatnik wanderlust. By the mid-1960s, with classical Hollywood sputtering out and the counterculture seeking to redefine America, the road movie came into its own.

The genre's critical distance from conformity is intimated by the many hotrod and biker films of the 1950s and 1960s that champion leather-clad bohemian youth rebellion by fetishizing cars and motorcycles. But it is really Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider that launched the modern road movie. Besides being exemplary of the auteur-driven genre revisionism of the New American cinema, both films portray mobility as essential to narrative structure and political commentary, reinventing the spirit of On the Road for young anti-establishment audiences. Using the Depression setting to speak to sixties civil strife, Bonnie and Clyde celebrates the infamous outlaw couple as a sexy, exhilarating antidote to the dead end of small-town America, and capitalist greed generally. But Easy Rider seems the true prototype of the genre, explicitly spelling out the challenge of the counterculture through the road trip. This landmark American independent film uses the journey to affirm an alternative lifestyle and to expose the stifling repression of conservative America. Despite their visionary conception of movement, both films end rather grimly, with the rambling antiheroes gunned down on the road by Southern bigots.

Given the huge success of both films, the early 1970s saw a proliferation of road movies, becoming a golden age for the genre. With the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal looming, many of these road movies expressed post-counterculture disenchantment. Picking up on the cynical tone concluding Easy Rider, films such as Five Easy Pieces (1970), Two-Lane Blacktop and Badlands (1973), and Thieves Like Us (1974) were driven by antiheroes unsure of where or why they are going. Presenting rather incoherent narrative and character motivation, these films yield a more disturbing, "minimalist" journey that nevertheless probes mysterious emotional landscapes. The road movie also inspired the early years of the "film-school generation": Francis Ford Coppola's The Rain People (1969), Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971) and The Sugarland Express (1974), Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha (1972) and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), and George Lucas's American Graffiti (1973).


While continuing to appeal to independent filmmakers (and constantly appearing at film festivals), the road movie in the mid-1980s swerved to the center of popular film culture. Expanding its parameters into the 1990s, the road movie embraced a wide spectrum of tones, from quirky irony to brash sentimentality to hi-tech ultraviolence. Not surprisingly, many of these films can be characterized as postmodern, and as more multicultural.

A good signpost of the road movie trends of the 1980s is The Road Warrior (1982, Mad Max 2 in native Australia), with its cartoonish, postapocalyptic violence and elaborate driving pyrotechnics. David Lynch's lurid, surrealistic Wild at Heart (1989) is another postmodern hallmark, remaking the outlaw couple for the 1990s with high camp allusions to Elvis and The Wizard of Oz (1939). Conversely, Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), and Dead Man (1995) use deadpan, minimalist absurdity to update the quest, prison-break, and Western trek, respectively. Joel and Ethan Coen's Raising Arizona (1987) pokes fun at the outlaw couple with heavy-handed irony; their more recent O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) yokes together Homer and Preston Sturges (Sullivan's Travels) for an oddly picaresque Depression-era pilgrimage. Other postmodern road movie parodies are Lost in America (1985), True Stories (1986), and Roadside Prophets (1992); more earnest, sentimental, and yuppified is the only road movie to win the Best Picture Oscar®, Hollywood's Rain Man (1988).

In the early 1990s, some road movies put more diverse drivers behind the wheel. Thelma and Louise is exemplary here, highly popular and controversial for its feminist carjacking of the male-dominated genre. Their desperate journey is clearly a rebellion against the abuses of patriarchy. On the other hand, some critics felt the film simply plugged two women into the buddy road movie mold, thus neutralizing its feminism. In any case, in its wake women began to appear with more gusto on the celluloid highway, as in Boys on the Side (1995). Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) is a compelling exploration of life on the road for gay hustlers in the Northwest; his Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) similarly trace the routes of marginalized, unconventional travelers. Other road movies notable for their uncommon perspectives are The Living End (1992), an HIV-positive road trip that rages against homophobic culture; To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), featuring a multiethnic troupe of transvestites on their way to Hollywood; Get on the Bus, which follows a diverse group of African American men across the country to the Million Man March; and Smoke Signals (1998), which tracks the journey of two Native American buddies into the traumas and magic of their ethnic heritage.

Another significant road movie strain of the 1990s is the ultraviolent outlaw film, which often bleeds into the horror category by focusing on traveling serial killers. With fingerprints going back to Truman Capote's true crime novel In Cold Blood (1966) and the obscure independent film gem The Honeymoon Killers (1970), films like Kalifornia (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), Freeway (1996), and Breakdown (1997) use hypernoir suspense and graphic violence to follow killers who hide and thrive on the road. Natural Born Killers took this tendency to new heights, using MTV-style aesthetics to glorify its killer couple, but also to question such cultural glorification.


Inflected by westerns and the Depression, the road movie, with its roaming hippies and young lovers on the run, seems distinctly American. There are, however, international traditions. Some road movies from the European art cinema of the 1950s and 1960s examine spiritual identity rather than rebellion, crime, or the spectacle of driving cars. Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy (1953, Italy), Federico Fellini's La Strada (1954, Italy), and Ingmar Bergman's Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957, Sweden) all illustrate this existential sensibility. French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard comes closer to the American genre's tone with Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Weekend (1967); but these journeys too are punctuated by philosophical digressions of a European bent. Agnés Varda's Sans Toit Ni Loi (Vagabond, 1985) is another unusual French take on the road movie, mixing documentary and fiction modes to suggest the social causes of the death of a young homeless woman. Having emerged from the New German cinema movement of the mid-1970s, Wim Wenders established his reputation through the road movie. Most of his early films, such as Alice in den Städten (Alice in the Cities, 1974), Falsche Bewegung (The Wrong Movement, 1975), and especially Im Lauf der Zeit (Kings of the Road, 1976), seem to filter nomadic excursions through a pensive Germanic lens. Typically, Wenders's characters are somber drifters coming to terms with their internal scars.

It is perhaps not surprising that filmmakers in both Australia and Canada have employed the road movie for articulating tensions around national identity and modernity. Like the United States, both nations possess a vast wilderness that constitutes an important facet of their cultural heritage. Canadian and Australian road movies often employ this frontier adventure space to engage social conflicts between indigenous and colonial cultures or between urban modern and mystical rural environments. Directed by Australian Bruce Beresford and set in the wilds of 17th century Canada, Black Robe (1991) embodies this framework as it follows the doomed journey of a French Jesuit priest on a mission to convert native tribes. The Australian Mad Max films (1979–1985) have become canonical for their dystopic reinvention of the outback as a post-human wasteland where survival depends upon manic driving skills. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) is a watershed gay road movie that addresses diversity in Australia. Walkabout (1971), Backroads (1977), and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) use the Australian outback journey to confront white-aboriginal political relations. Bill Bennett's Kiss or Kill (1997) is a hip and clever Australian take on the outlaw couple. Canadian director Bruce McDonald has worked the rock 'n' road movie repeatedly, with Roadkill (1989), Highway 61 (1991), and most notably Hard Core Logo (1996), a mock documentary about a punk rock band's reunion tour. David Cronenberg's notorious Crash (1996) seems a fitting end-of-millennium road movie: its head-on portrayal of perverse sexual arousal through the car crash experience drove the genre over the edge for some viewers (like media mogul Ted Turner, who successfully lobbied against its US theatrical release).

Road movies from Latin America share traits with the European approach. Generally speaking, Latin American road movies focus on a community of characters rather than star individuals, on mature quests rather than young outlaw narratives, and on national issues related to North-South and urban-rural divides. A good example is Subida al Cielo (Mexican Bus Ride, 1951), where Luis Buñuel brings his European sensibility to bear on a peasant's strangely enchanting bus journey to the city to attend to his dying mother. As in Fellini's La Strada, Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), and Buñuel's other road movies Nazarín (1958, Mexico) and La Voie Lactée (The Milky Way, 1969, France), the journey here is episodic, a kind of carnivalesque pilgrimage. Such a "travelling circus" quality is visible in later Latin American road movies, such as Bye Bye Brazil (1979, Brazil), Guantanamera (1995, Cuba), and Central do Brasil (Central Station, 1998, Brazil). Conquest-era journey narratives are also popular in Latin American cinema, Cabeza de Vaca (1991, Mexico) being one of the finest examples. Profundo Carmesí (Deep Crimson, 1996, Mexico) and El Camino (The Road, 2000, Argentina) are intriguing riffs on the outlaw couple road movie. With its focus on the sexual experiences of two young male buddies with an older woman during a road trip, Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too, 2001, Mexico) represents a turning point for the American-style road movie, and, predictably, was a huge success in the United States.

As twenty-first-century film continues to thrive under the power of digital technologies, it is safe to assume that more inventive road movies will appear on the horizon.

SEE ALSO Action and Adventure Films;Crime Films;Genre


Cohan, Steven, and Ina Rae Hark, eds. The Road Movie Book. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Corrigan, Timothy. A Cinema Without walls: Movies and Culture After Vietnam. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking Press, 1957.

Kolker, Robert Phillip, and Peter Beicken. The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema as Vision and Desire. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Lackey, Kris. RoadFrames: The American Highway Narrative. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Laderman, David. Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Lewis, Tom. Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life. New York: Viking Press, 1997.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. Paris: Olympia Press, 1955.

Sargeant, Jack, and Stephanie Watson, eds. Lost Highways: An Illustrated History of Road Movies. London: Creation Books, 1999.

David Laderman

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