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