Thoughts // ROAD MOVIES: AMERICA'S FILM GENRE

For almost 100 years, the 'road picture' has become an important piece of American culture.



Have you ever been watching a movie and had a sudden burst of wanderlust about you? In fact, have you ever watched a movie? Chances are, you've been a victim to one of America's greatest accomplishments in film: the road movie. At its core, the genre is about a main character or group of characters leaving home in search of something by way of a road trip. Generally, this trip is by vehicle, but even that isn't a necessity.


Since the invent of the moving picture as a way to tell stories in the late 1800's, the American touch has been a major moving force in creating what we know today as the movies. From flashy celebrities to technological enhancements, there's a reason the industry is commonly referred to as "Hollywood," the town that has become the home of one of the most lucrative art forms we've ever known.


As such, American ideals and the common way of life have seeped into the moving picture, shaping the morals of stories and the types of thinking typically noted as western theology and progressiveness. Though cinema is a world art, much of the waves of change and adaptation comes at the behest of American film audiences. In fact, in recent years, the box office success of a film in the United States determines if and how a film even gets distributed in other countries. For some films, a huge box office haul will mean the film earns a release on the big screens in foreign countries. A poor box office will result in a film getting something similar to a straight-to-DVD or streaming release.


Besides how audiences eat up a film, it's the way the American culture has influenced storytelling that is an even wider export than the films themselves. Like the Western genre that feels so very American, especially in the early Golden Age of cinema, the road trip film is even more of a domestic tool. Similar to the Western, road movies come from the sense of exploration and finding a piece of the American dream. A road movie doesn't mean the characters have to travel far distances to find themselves, but often they do, seeking out new places, new atmospheres, new ideology, but all wrapped up in a pretty, American bow.


And, with the road movie and its impact on the stories we tell and the ways we approach life as a open road, new advances in filmmaking followed suit. With the invention of the automobile and it quickly becoming the main mode of transportation, tracking shots became an important piece of the filmmaking equation. With clever camerawork, audiences could be transported into the travels, riding alongside the characters. While Westerns are typically about discovery as a total sense of the term, road movies venture even more existential, often laced with self-discovery and self-reflection.


Some of the most famous road movies came about in the earlier days of cinema, like It Happened One Night and The Wizard of Oz. Both films study the topics of home and family. While the roots of journeys and their relation to self-reflection are not new to storytelling, the Odyssey and the Aeneid are early written works that share the trope, the use of the journey in film is now considered a film standard. While the genre did exist in the early 20th century, it wasn't until after World War II that it really took hold. As American culture became idolized worldwide and American citizen obsessed over automobiles and embraced youth culture, driving became just as important piece of America as apple pie and baseball.


In the 1960s, just shy of the hippie movement and Woodstock, rebellion became a hot topic of pop culture notoriety, and with came the films that reflected the need for youthful independence and adventure. Bonnie and Clyde fancied criminal activity overshadowed by the free spirits of its titular characters. Easy Rider gave a face to the outcasts in society who were strong-willed, empathetic, open-minded and thirsty for something fresh and new.


But, road movies haven't always been strictly for the search of new in the form of positive experiences and roaring freedom. Tales based on books captured the sense of travels through other reasons, like poverty and death. The 1940 classic The Grapes of Wrath follows a family not setting out to find something new, but being forced away from the home and land they loved, no doubt discovering more about themselves and humanity along the way. 1996's Get on the Bus finds a group of social justice warriors learning about their heritage while facing the dark sides of society. Even the modern classic road movie, 2007's Into the Wild, is half a search for identity and half a morality tale about overwhelming loss.


There's something captivating about leaving everything behind, packing up the little things that make you you, and hitting the road ahead of you for something new. For America, the changing landscapes represented throughout each region give a sense of the idea of why the trope is so desirable. It doesn't take long to find mountains you've never seen, deserts you've never explored, or beaches with sand that feels surprisingly different from coast to coast. Though, despite the changes in scenery and the wonders a whiff of fresh air provides, there's a safety found throughout the land. American culture is so engrained in the people and places that even the most progressive of towns still hold true to the staples of American society. That's perhaps the greatest strength and weakness in giving up the past to set foot towards the future by way of the road. You don't have to travel too far to still find something that reminds you of home.


Need a bit of wanderlust in your life? From Academy Award-winning pedigree films to laugh-out-loud crowd-pleasers, check out these films that tackle the genre like no other:

(Note: The road movie isn't exclusive to American films, though they have mastered the tale. Other, foreign films have also given the genre incredible entries, like Australia's Mad Max or The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Mexico's Y Tu Mamá Tambien.)


IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT // 1934

Dir. Frank Capra

Starring Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly

Academy Awards Won: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Gable), Actress (Colbert)


THE WIZARD OF OZ / 1939

Dirs. Victor Fleming, George Cukor

Starring Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton

Academy Awards Won: Best Original Song, Original Score


THE GRAPES OF WRATH // 1940

Dir. John Ford

Starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine

Academy Awards Won: Best Director, Supporting Actress (Darwell)


BONNIE AND CLYDE // 1967

Dir. Arthur Penn

Starring Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Estelle Parsons

Academy Awards Won: Best Supporting Actress (Parsons), Cinematography


EASY RIDER // 1969

Dir. Dennis Hopper

Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson


DUEL // 1971

Dir. Steven Spielberg

Starring Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone


BADLANDS // 1973

Dir. Terrence Malick

Starring Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates


SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT // 1977

Dir. Hal Needham

Starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed


THE MUPPET MOVIE // 1979

Dir. James Frawley

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson


NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION // 1983

Dir. Harold Ramis

Starring Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall


PARIS, TEXAS // 1984

Dir. Wim Wenders

Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Natassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell


PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE // 1985

Dir. Tim Burton

Starring Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton


PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES // 1987

Dir. John Hughes

Starring Steve Martin, John Candy, Michael McKean


THELMA & LOUISE // 1991

Dir. Ridley Scott

Starring Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel

Academy Award Won: Best Original Screenplay


DUMB AND DUMBER // 1994

Dirs. Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly

Starring Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Lauren Holly


O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? // 2000

Dirs. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson


SIDEWAYS // 2004

Dir. Alexander Payne

Starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen

Academy Award Won: Best Adapted Screenplay


LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE // 2006

Dirs. Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin

Academy Award Won: Best Supporting Actor (Arkin), Original Screenplay


INTO THE WILD // 2007

Dir. Sean Penn

Starring Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener


NEBRASKA // 2013

Dir. Alexander Payne

Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb


© 2018 by Scottie Knollin.

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