Reel Adventures: Road Movies Retraced

Richard Luck

Richard Luck is a critic, feature writer, author and editor. His books include biographies of screen legends such as Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah.
Twitter: @rmgluck2017
See more from Richard at Sabotage Times

The open road, the wind in your hair, destination — self-discovery; yes, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the road movie.

Although essentially an American movie genre, there have been terrific movies set against European, Asian and Australian backdrops. Alas — as is the case with George Miller’s "Mad Max" movies — the journeys depicted often can’t be recreated since the routes don’t follow a logical pattern. Not that we’d want to deter you from zig-zagging madly across Victoria, it’s just that you might wind up spending as much on petrol as you did on your plane fare. There are, however, road movie routes that are relatively simple to follow. So pack your travel sweets, fire up the SatNav and get your motor runnin’...

Easy Rider

It doesn’t make any difference what city. All cities are alike. That’s why I’m out here now…'cause I’m from the city, a long way from the city — and that’s where I want to be right now.

Although Dennis Hopper’s seminal film kicks off in Mexico, we recommend following the voyage of self-discovery it depicts from the second location shown, which is to say the end of the LAX runway. It’s from here that Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (producer-star Peter Fonda) ride out of California via arguably the most famous public highway in the world, US Route 66. Though the road itself runs 2,451 miles between LA and Chicago, our anti-heroes have the great sense to head north while traversing Arizona, allowing them to savour an atmospheric night in Monument Valley. From there, Billy and Wyatt rejoin 66 before heading south when leaving Oklahoma and making for New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras.

While the boys hang out with the young Jack Nicholson on their trip, we’re sure the sun-burnt landscape will prove company enough, what with the miles and miles of chaparral not only making the road seem spectacularly open but also bringing to mind any number of movies and songs. Speaking of music, the "Easy Rider" road to self-discovery comes complete with its own classic soundtrack. Roaring into life courtesy of Steppenwolf’s "Born To Be Wild," the album takes in Jimi Hendrix ("If 6 Was 9"), The Band ("The Weight") and Roger McGuinn (delivering a blistering cover of Bob Dylan’s "It’s Alright, Ma"). And speaking of the big Byrd, it’s also he who performs the Dylan-composed "Ballad Of Easy Rider," a song which, like Hopper’s movie, has long outlived the hazy era it so vividly depicts.

Vanishing Point

Another counter-culture classic is Richard C. Sarafian’s "Vanishing Point" (1971), which stars Barry Newman as Kowalski, a car thief who stakes money on being able to drive a hot muscle car from Denver, Colorado, to San Francisco, California, in just 15 hours. Set at a time when anyone who thumbed their nose at authority was championed, Kowalski’s actions make him something of a folk hero. But while Robin Hood’s heroics were celebrated in the songs of Alan A’Dale, the hot-rodder is celebrated by Super Soul ("Blazing Saddles‘" Cleavon Little), a blind DJ whose access to a police scanner enables our (anti)hero to keep ahead of the cops. Packed to the fender with speedometer-busting car chases and nubile nude motorcyclists, Sarafian’s film might very much be a child of the 1970s, but the journey it depicts is timeless. The 870-mile stretch of Interstate 70 alone is the stuff of driving dreams, taking you all the way from the "Mile High City" and the Rockies to the western edge of the Utah Sierras. A drive so thrilling as to recall a particularly compelling "Top Gear" expedition — just be warned that the high altitude can affect your concentration and reflexes.

One other word of advice — if you like a spot of music while you drive, ditch the hit-and-miss original soundtrack and substitute it with Primal Scream’s "Vanishing Point," an album partially inspired by the movie and features both quotable dialogue samples and a real killer of a track called "Kowalski."

Withnail & I

Look at that, accident black spot! These aren’t accidents! They’re throwing themselves into the road gladly! Throwing themselves into the road to escape all this hideousness!

Two out-of-work actors spend a weekend in the country — that’s pretty much all the plot Bruce Robinson’s directorial debut, "Withnail & I" (1987) has going for it. But since the BAFTA-winning "Killing Fields" screenwriter scripted the plot, the fact it’s threadbare is neither here nor there. No, "Withnail & I" is essentially a movie about two men talking; and my, how they talk — that we’re not quoting dialogue right now is a mercy for which you should be grateful. So instead let’s concentrate on the aforementioned jaunt, the one that takes Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann in a knackered old jag from crumbling 1969 Camden to the ever stunning Lake District. In reality, it is a drive with a dream destination.

Fingers crossed, you should have a happier time of it than the protagonists whose holiday is ruined by randy bulls and over-amorous uncles. With the M6 removing most headaches en route to Cumbria, you can find the infamous Crow Crag holiday cottage by leaving the motorway at Junction 40 just outside Penrith and then taking the A6 to the village of Shap. Crow Crag itself lies a few miles beyond but can be reached if you follow the signs to the local reservoir. And speaking of the notorious bolt hole, after years of seeming on the brink of collapse, it’s now in very rude health thanks to a successfully restoration project. Should you be keen to celebrate your trip by sampling the finest wines known to humanity, beware that the tea shop in question is closer to Milton Keynes than Kendal.

The Trip

Speaking of travelling from London to the frozen north, such a journey provided the basis for the first season of "The Trip" starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as themselves. Directed by Michael Winterbottom ("24 Hour Party People"), the BAFTA-winning series played in the US and some other territories as a feature film. And likewise the second season "The Trip To Italy" (2014) enjoyed cinematic outings on the other side of the Atlantic.

Blending comedy with acute melancholy, this Rob Brydon-Steve Coogan two-hander actually makes a fine companion piece to "Withnail," for as they wend their way from Piedmont to Capri, our heroes discuss growing old, stale marriages and stalling careers, which sounds pretty depressing. But while the boys chew the fat, there’s always something wonderful to look at from the windows of their mini, whether it’s the vineyards of Monforte d’Alba or the beach of Viareggio, a beautiful place lent a certain sadness by its being the place where the poet Percy Shelley perished.

This being a trip that takes in Rome, Pompeii and Revello’s Villa Cimbrone (whose breathtaking "Terrazzo dell’Infinito" was immortalised on film by John Huston in "Beat The Devil"), there’s too much joy and wonder at hand to get too upset about Mr Shelley’s untimely passing. Even Messrs. Brydon and Coogan end up having a good time, and this despite Rob having the not-so-bright idea of listening to Alanis Morisette whenever he is behind the wheel. Far better the majesty of Gustav Mahler which provides the backdrop to the film’s unexpectedly ennobling final scene.

The American Friend

Having made a film called "Kings Of The Road," it’s perhaps understandable that Germany’s Wim Wenders is seen as the master of the European road movie. But while the aforementioned movie has its charms, "The American Friend" (1977) offers a route that’s both more exciting and more comfortable than "Kings’" motorcycle tour of West Germany. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, "The American Friend" stars that man Dennis Hopper (again) as the writer’s most celebrated creation, the talented Mr. Tom Ripley.

Having made his latest fortune from art forgeries, Ripley now finds himself sharing a car with Bruno Ganz ("Downfall"), here playing a picture framer dying of an unspecified blood disease. Glummer company it’s harder to imagine, and since the pair’s journey from Hamburg to Paris largely takes place under leaden skies, not even the promise of the "City Of Light" can brighten proceedings. But imagine doing something similar in late spring, with both cities gleaming and the countryside at its most verdant? "Picturesque" is a term often used to describe rural Lower Saxony, and as you turn onto the A1 12kms south-west of Hamburg city centre, you’re not only free to savour the open fields and forests, but you can do so at the ultra-high speeds the autobahns afford. Furthermore, this 560-mile route can be completed in 10-12 hours, so if you’d like to retrace a road movie’s tyre tracks but only have a long weekend to do so, we suggest you play Ripley’s game.

Rain Man

"It’s a 1949 Buick Roadmaster. Straight 8. Fireball 8. Only 8,985 production models. Dad lets me drive slow on the driveway. But not on Monday, definitely not on Monday."

So you need to get from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Los Angeles, California, in short order but the autistic older brother that you’ve only just discovered you have refuses to fly or to go on the interstate. The answer? Head for America’s backroads. Barry Levinson’s smash hit drama, "Rain Man" (1988) might have won four Oscars, but it’s unlikely to pick up any prizes from speed freaks and rev-heads. If you’ve ever wanted to experience the flea pit motel and down-home dinner scene that’s semi-celebrated in works like "Lolita" (the Kubrick version of which was mostly shot in the UK), this is the journey for you.

To follow in the tyre tracks of Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, you ought to start off by taking the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge across the Ohio River to Kentucky, before stopping at Pompilio’s Restaurant on Newport’s Washington Avenue to savour a pre-trip plate of pancakes. After that, it’s a case of crabbing your way across the country via towns as anonymous as Silver Grove, Kentucky, Metamora, Indiana, and El Reno, Oklahoma. No, it’s not a trip to excite an American, but if you’ve only seen this type of landscape in the movies, you won’t be able to take your eyes off of it. And if you ever find yourself growing sick of the boondocks, don’t forget you’ve got a big night in Las Vegas to look forward to.

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