With Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s classic beat novel ‘On The Road’ out in cinemas this week, it seems a fitting time to look back at some of the very best American road trips to be found in cinema. It’s quite a broad subject area this one with a wide variety of films to choose from. This is largely due to the fact that filmmakers can have their characters embark on epic road journey for any number of reasons. Sometimes it’s in order to reach a certain destination, sometimes a burning desire to get back home and sometimes it’s for nothing more than the thrill of adventure.
The idea of the great American road trip is an important part of the country’s culture. The thrill of hitting the open road and blazing a trail across America’s countless highways and byways is a concept which has cropped up in American songs, books and films for generations. The vast scale of the country as well as the great contrast to be found within its various States and regions has always lent itself to movies in particular. There’s something undeniably cinematic about the vast expanses and the unforgettable landscapes as well the diners and small town attractions which add up to create the distinct essence of Americana.
The films I’ve chosen here largely differ in genre, tone and storyline, but they all share a common thread in the form of the road trip. The characters involved will all get something different out of their journeys and will all have vastly different experiences, just as we the viewers will from watching them. There’s a great number of such movies to choose from ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous (see: The Cannonball Run), but what follows is the select few which I feel best capture the spirit of the great American road trip.
Easy Rider (1969)
As the film’s tagline suggests, this was the story of two men who went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere. Easy Rider is the archetypal road movie and revolves around two biker pals who set out from Los Angeles en route to New Orleans where they hope to arrive in time for Mardi Gras. Stars Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who also produced and directed respectively, took on the iconic roles of Captain America and Billy and their drug-fuelled adventure helped to define a whole generation.
As they tear across Southwest America’s landscape, picking up Jack Nicholson along the way in his breakout role, the duo experiment with drugs and take in the spirit of communal living which was part of the emerging counter-culture that was spreading across America. However, the pair also experiences the prejudice and resistance to new ideas which still existed in certain quarters. This bigotry was the antithesis to the concept of liberty they so vehemently embraced. Few films can match Easy Rider for generating a sense of freedom and of love for the open road and even today it’s easy to see why it captured the zeitgeist so easily.
“They’ll talk to ya and talk to ya and talk to ya about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.”
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
This cult classic takes place on that most iconic of American Highways, Route 66. Two-Lane Blacktop is an existential and low-fi road movie about two nameless street racers, played by singer James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, who earn their money driving from town to town and challenging locals to drag races. The duos’ beloved car, a 1955 Chevy, is their prized possession, but they risk it all after challenging another driver, played by Warren Oates, to a cross country race finishing in Washington DC. Incidentally, it was this cinematic cross-country race which would go on to inspire the real life Cannonball run.
There’s minimal dialogue and a slow pace to the whole movie and so the various stark landscapes become an even more vital part of the film. The use of Route 66 only adds to the sense of quintessential Americana as The Driver and The Mechanic (as they are credited here) take off across the country and live their lives on the open road. It’s a film very much of its time, but one which resonates with a distinct tone and style throughout.
“You can never go fast enough.”
Terrence Malick’s Badlands utilises a strangely picturesque Midwest America as the backdrop to Kit (Martin Sheen) and his naïve girlfriend Holly’s (Sissy Spacek) journey as they take to the road and embark on a bloody murder spree. The film’s subject matter, which sees sociopathic Kit sweet talking young Holly and filling her head with romantic ideas as he commits terrible crimes, was understandably controversial upon its release. Corrupted teen Holly is our narrator for most of the film and Sissy Spacek’s eerily ethereal voiceover adds to the movies’ dreamlike quality that Malick’s lyrical style generates.
The so-called Badlands of America have rarely looked better and the haunting and striking imagery which the director captures is up there with his very best work. The background is frequently bleak and unwelcoming but Malick manages to capture the beauty that can be found in the American wilderness. As the star crossed lovers take their spree out on the open road it’s the ultimate blend of America’s love of road tripping and the desensitised attitude it was developing towards violence.
“Little did I realise that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana.”
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
A distinctly different beast from the other entries in this article, but nonetheless still a stonewall road trip classic. Uptight businessman Neal Page (Steve Martin) is desperately trying to get home to Chicago from New York when a colossal snowstorm forces his seemingly simple short flight to divert and land in Wichita, Kansas. As he embarks upon the long journey home is unwittingly joined by larger than life and infinitely irritating shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy).
After plane and train both fail the duo, they turn to a rental car (only after Neal unleashes one of the all-time great movie tirades at an unhelpful rental car company employee) and set off on the long drive back to Chicago. It’s certainly not the type of film which makes you yearn for the open road, in fact you could make a strong case that this is the ultimate anti-road trip movie, but both Martin and Candy were at their peak when this was made and both put in arguably career best performances. The sight of John Candy gleefully playing the air-sax as Martin snoozes and the car slowly sets alight as they cruise through the night, will always a joy to behold. Like so many road trip movies, the characters themselves experience an emotional journey as well as a physical one, and the surprisingly touching ending is a fitting way to bring their adventure to a close.
“Six bucks and my left nut says we’re not going to be landing in Chicago.”
Midnight Run (1988)
This mismatched odd-couple action comedy sees Robert De Niro’s former cop turned bounty hunter Jack Walsh escorting Charles Grodin’s mafia accountant turned embezzler Jonathan ‘The Duke’ Mardukas on the long journey from New York back to LA. After The Duke makes it very clear he cannot fly, Jack is left with no option but to take him on a lengthy road trip across the width of the United States. As the Mafia and various other unsavoury characters get involved, it starts to become a far greater challenge than Walsh first expected.
The main focus of the film is obviously the burgeoning relationship between the two central characters. De Niro and Grodin bounce of each other brilliantly and both possess a deft comic timing which makes their journey so enjoyable to watch. While the film is ostentatiously an action thriller, it’s the relationship between the two men and how it slowly develops which really makes the film work. Where some road trip movies are memorable for the sights and scenery, this one is all about the people you share it with.
“You have two emotions, silence and rage.”
Sideways is Alexander Payne’s bittersweet comedy drama about two middle aged buddies embarking on what is meant to be a mature and relaxing drive through the wine country of Santa Barbara California. Paul Giamatti plays Miles, a struggling writer and wine fanatic who is struggling to come to terms with his divorce, while Thomas Haden Church plays Jack, a self-absorbed actor who is after one last fling before he ties the knot.
The two friends soon become involved with a pair of local women and Miles tries his best to keep his friend on the straight and narrow whilst simultaneously trying to get back into the dating game with the beautiful Maya. The two friends’ journey is set against the luscious green fields and valleys of California wine country and the sun kissed scenery is seemingly the perfect setting for their leisurely get away. Things don’t necessarily go as the pair had planned but by the end of the film they have both been forced to mature and for Miles it proves vital in helping him to accept the past and begin to move on.
“Try to be your normal, humorous self. The guy you were before the tailspin. Do you remember that guy? People love that guy.”
Also worth a watch
It Happened One Night (1934)
Vanishing Point (1971)
Paris, Texas (1984)
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)