Road movies didn’t really hit the screen as a genre until the post-war years delivered Henry Ford’s brainchild from the hands of the rich into the hands of the masses. Indeed, Frank Capra’s award-winning comedy It Happened One Night, perhaps the earliest incarnation of the road movie, was originally titled Night Bus because its characters had to be seen to travel by public transport.
But it didn’t take long for the car to become entrenched in Hollywood’s psyche as a symbol not only of affluence but also freedom and mobility. It’s no accident that the first real road movie, Edgar G Ulmer’s B-flick Detour (1946), was also a film noir, a genre that famously plays with notions of destiny, in which star Tom Neal plays a down-at-heel pianist who’s hitching across country to join his fiancée. Although he has the whole of America at his disposal, Neal quickly gets locked into a spiral of fate that encapsulates the whole noir ethos — all roads lead to nowhere.
Ulmer’s shrewd use of the road as metaphor was quickly picked up by Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night and Joseph Lewis’ Gun Crazy, in which fugitives see the road as their only escape, a pathway to hell patrolled by the sinister highway police. Even as late as 1960, when Janet Leigh made her suicidal decision to flee with the boss’ money in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the road still represented a zen-like date with fate, a route to take you not where you wanted to be but where you were somehow meant to be.
With many a winding turn
The publication of Jack Kerouac’s beatnik classic On the Road in October 1957 changed all that, turning America into a land of opportunities. The roadmap was now an I-Ching of possibilities, where the destination didn’t matter, just the journey. This didn’t really find its cinematic equivalent for over a decade, however. Hollywood was still a conservative place, and though On the Road made the bestseller lists, it could not endorse the drop-out lifestyle.
Thus, the first film to really aspire to Kerouac’s vision came from outside the studio system — directed by Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider remains the paradigm of the road movie. Playing two cocaine dealers riding their motorcycles from LA into the desert, Hopper and co-star Peter Fonda drew on the pioneer spirit of the western to reinvent the road as a means to travel, learn and explore. The meaninglessness of the trip is never an issue — the tagline famously ran: “A man went looking for American and couldn’t find it anywhere” — but its exploration of the psychological geography of America definitely is.
This metaphysical dimension of the road movie was quickly seized in the fall-out from the fading hippie culture. The Love Generation had tried and failed, and the road movie offered a chance to explore the big questions that sex and drugs had failed to answer. The car was a place to speculate, a place to talk and ruminate, while the road offered the perfect visual complement.
It’s worth noting that road movies are almost an exclusively American genre — although some have been made in Europe, particularly by Berliner Wim Wenders — all refer to the wide open spaces of the American hinterlands, a barren planet of opportunities. And of the films that swiftly followed Easy Rider — Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop — many now seem ponderous and dated.
I drove all night
The heyday of the ‘pure’ road movie was shortlived, and perhaps the next milestone in its history was 1991’s Thelma and Louise, Ridley Scott’s feminist western in which two put-upon women take to the road and vent their frustrations. Although not a road movie in a classic sense, it still views the road as emblematic of choice and freedom. Indeed, since the early ’70s, the road movie has existed only in its hybrid genres, occupying those moments of the film where the characters bond — Niagara, Niagara — keep an appointment with destiny — Wild at Heart — or open their eyes to new sights and experiences — My Own Private Idaho.
But these films only draw on the past. Travel is no longer exotic and sophisticated communication systems mean that America is now perfectly self-aware: there’s nothing to look for, nowhere to hide. But our love affair with the road is a hard habit to kick — it still represents a place where we can be ourselves, know ourselves, and for a fleeting moment in time, know exactly where we’re going.