By Heather Johnson
Perennially fascinated with the feel of the wind in one's hair, a new life in a new locale, and the freedom and mysteries along the unknown terrain, the road movie is a quintessentially American art form. While not a genre of its own per se, the road movie can encompass elements of other genres, including everything from horror, thriller and film noir, to comedy, cult and crime, among others. To further complicate matters, we can trace the road movie concept back to an era dating back long before there were cars.
Consider Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, which follows Odysseus, king of Ithaca, on his voyage home after the Trojan War. One of the first works centered on the journey, The Odyssey spawned several films through the years. In 1911, director Francesco Bertolini based the silent film Odissea on the classic Greek poem. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a more recent derivative (even though brothers Joel and Ethan Coen claim to have never read the poem), involves (I'm oversimplifying here) a trio of escaped chain gang prisoners traversing across the southern U.S. so that the lead character, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) can reunite with his wife. Another excellent "cons on the run" road movie with a music tinge was Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law, co-starring singers (Lounge Lizard) John Lurie and Tom Waits, along with Roberto Benigni, skulking through the swampy south; Like O Brother, it also has, not surprisingly, a fine score.
The road movie typically involves one or more people in motion who face one or more challenges, and emerge either with newfound knowledge, a personal awakening, or, in the most tragic cases, death. These films often conclude with the protagonist reaching a destination, whether it's home or away from home, and with either pleasant or unpleasant results. Other times, a road movie depicts nomadic characters on a seemingly endless journey. Either they thrive on this type of adventure or don't see a way out of a vagabond lifestyle. The desire for something better, whether it's going to sunny California or the bustling Big Apple in search of fame and/or fortune, or escaping from a deadbeat husband, a dysfunctional family, or the law, is one defining element of the road movie.
The Grapes of Wrath
In 1940, John Ford directed one of the earliest road movies, The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck's classic novel. Set in the early '30s, the Joad family's native Oklahoma had become a giant dust bowl, a result of the clearing of vegetation to create vast farmland. One of those farmers, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), returned home from jail to find his home in foreclosure, not to mention in the middle of a dust storm. Desperate, Joad, like so many others during the Great Depression, packs up his family and heads west to California, in search of "a better life." Their journey is not a pleasant one, but they endure, their spirit and perseverance helping them overcome the tragedy that meets them along the way.
Even more famously, one could cite director Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz, filmed in 1939, as a road movie. Although the road Dorothy travels down is made of yellow brick, her encounters along the way with fantastical witches, a tin man and talking lions and scarecrows, as well as her quest to reach a final destination, reflect the road movie's spontaneous spirit, albeit with a happy ending that finds Dorothy content at her Kansas home.
It Happened One Night
One of the best road movies of all time is also one of the best romantic movies, and some would argue, one of the better screwball comedies - It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert (and which surely influenced the later film The Sure Thing, with John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga the strange bedfellows stuck together on the road). It doesn't get much better than that. Except, perhaps, with Sullivan's Travels, in which a film director (Joel McCrea) pretends to be poor so he can find out what it's "really like," but ends up "stuck" with Veronica Lake for most of his traveling. Preston Sturges' classic was also referenced in the Coen's O Brother Where Art Thou - which took its title from the film McCrea's character wanted to make.
On the run
Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, a road movie of the gangster variety produced by lead actor Warren Beatty in 1967, follows the notorious bank robbers from Oklahoma to Texas as they rob small banks along the way and escape the Establishment with every sharp turn of the wheel. They're young, rebellious, beautiful drifters who live on the run and out of their car on the open road. Their life is about the journey, and they meet their demise as a result of their violent adventures along the way.
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