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Road Movies of Note

Sep 6, 2008
The Road Movie, we've all seen at least one either knowingly or not and it serves as a good tool for the writer and or director to show a change in the protagonist over the course of a journey. It gives a blank canvas against which characters can be revealed as separate from their environment in ways that films shot in specific locations don't always offer.

Road movies tend to follow a set structure - there is a challenge to be met along the journey, new knowledge and allies are gained - and traditionally end with the protagonist(s) reaching their destination changed for the experience or deciding to keep on with their journey.

There are literally hundreds of examples of road movies but decidedly few of a high quality, some well known, others not. Road movies blossomed after World War 2 with America's post-war boom and the growing automobility of the youth culture. With their roots back in spoken and written tales of journeys such as Homer's Odyssey, the Road Movie really took off as a genre in the 1960s with the release of the much loved Easy Rider.

Released in 1969, Easy Rider was a road film that roared at the establishment and documented the rise and fall of the hippie movement. The counterculture film explored the American social landscape of the end of the sixties. Two bikers, Wyatt and Billy - played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper - have smuggled drugs from Mexico to Los Angeles and decide to head to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras, with the proceeds of the drugs sale stuffed into the fuel tank of Wyatt's chopper.

On their journey across America, Wyatt and Billy encounter a hitch-hiker heading home to the commune he lives in, get thrown in jail only to be freed with the help of drunken lawyer George (played by Jack Nicholson), the death of a friend when George is beaten to death when the trio are attacked in the night and a whorehouse in New Orleans.

With it's look at counterculture America, use of music and imagery, Easy Rider was heralded as a masterpiece and helped to start off the New Hollywood phase and was later added to the United States Film Registry, deeming it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Following two years after Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop took the use of music in the Road Movie a little further by starring James Taylor and Dennis Wilson alongside Warren Oates and Laurie Bird. The film revolves around two drag racers who live in their 1955 Chevy making a living from challenging local residents as they drift from town to town along Route 66.

Though not a commercial success, Two-Lane Blacktop was a hit with critics and has since become a cult classic - especially among fans of Route 66 as the film depicts the iconic road before it was converted into an Interstate. Moreover, the film was also one of the inspirations for Brock Yates to create the Cannonball Run.

Adding a new edge to the Road Movie genre, and announcing Mel Gibson to the world, Mad Max showed the highways of the not-so-distand future as a violent place when it was released in 1979. A story of social breakdown, murder and vengeance, Mad Max thrusts Mel Gibson's police officer Max Rockatansky into a battle with Toecutter, leader of a murderous biker gang, who burns Max' partner and murders his wife and son.

Becoming the Road Warrior, Max takes the law into his own hands, hunting down and killing the gang members one by one. Though initially a slow burner upon release, Mad Max gained success around the world garnering over 100 million dollars, spawning two sequels - with talks for a third in progress - and mad a star of Mel Gibson. For his part, Gibson gives one of his best performances in this superbly directed film which turned the Road Movie into something dark, sinister, and even ominous with its predictions of a fuel deprived future.

Thankfully, the future of the road movie wasn't bleak or half as dark as predicted by Mad Max when the next big hit of the genre arrived in 1987. Far from it. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a comedic classic that also happens to be a classic road movie. The film starts simply enough, all Neal Page (played by Steve Martin) wants to do is get home to his family for Thanksgiving but is hampered by a cancelled flight. Deciding on an alternative means of transport Page is hampered by presence of Del Griffith (John Candy).

What follows is a hilarious three day wild goose chase filled with some of comedy's classic scenes; there's the scene where the two drive down the wrong side of the road and Martin imagines Candy morphing into the devil, the infamous "those aren't pillows!" revelation, Steve Martin's foul-mouthed tirade at the car rental agent and countless scenes where Neal blames Del for every single miss-hap.

While it would be easy to dismiss Planes, Trains and Automobiles as a comedic Road Movie, it is also one with great heart. After all of their arguments a bond forms between the two and they pull together and finally reach home (yes it's cliched but it was the 80's). Then there's the final revelation; that Del's wife - of whom a picture is placed on every motel nightstand and Del frequently speaks - has been dead for 8 years and Del has been alone ever since which leads Neal to inviting him into his home for the holidays.

Greeted with critical acclaim upon release, the film has gone on to be considered a classic. All the more noteworthy given that Martin and Candy were still considered as low-brow comedians, the director - John Huhges - was known for his teen angst films, and had produced one of the most highly regarded films of the decade.

Of a less comedic nature but equally as touching, Rain Man was released in 1988 and follows two brothers as they travel across America. Sounds simple enough but Raymond Babbit, portrayed by an Oscar winning Dustin Hoffman, is an autistic savant and his brother Charlie, in one of Tom Cruise's finest performances, has taken him without permission.

Finding out that his father has left all of his multimillion-dollar estate to a brother, whose existence he new nothing of, Charlie Babbit takes his brother from the care home in an attempt to ransom him for the money he feels he's owed. The problem is that Raymond won't fly and so Charlie is forced to drive cross country, as Raymond is also averse to highways, to Los Angeles in his father's classic car. What follows is a touching story that sees the initially selfish and monetary driven Charlie Babbit developing a relationship with his brother that's built on something other than greed and even becomes protective of his brother.

Rain Man manages to tick all the boxes of what's needed to create a great Road Movie. The characters need to start their journey at the same place with a set destination in mind, face and overcome numerous challenges on the way and arrive at their destination changed for them. In this instance Charlie is no longer driven by money and self gratification but has learnt to deal with the needs of those he loves be it his brother or his previously neglected girlfriend.

There's no point in putting your characters in a car, on a motorcyle or even on a train if they don't go anyway both physically and personally.

The road and travelling upon it has become a metaphor in many ways and long may it continue to be represented accordingly in films.
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