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.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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