Travel has been a staple of story-telling since stories were first told, and, as I outlined in my post last week, the side-by-side development of motor cars and motion pictures in the first half of the 20th century created what now seems like an idyllic dream of fun on the road. But with Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn’s 1967 film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the road trip movie took a much darker turn. Violently bloody and anarchic, Bonnie and Clyde is credited with introducing all sorts of bad behavior into the road trip movie, and these themes (and actor Jack Nicholson!) dominated movies for decades: the iconic cross-country motorcycle movie Easy Rider came out in 1969, featuring one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, followed by the seriously musical Five Easy Pieces. The under-rated cult duo Vanishing Point (about a Dodge Challenger racing from Colorado to San Francisco) and Two-Lane Blacktop (starring pop stars James Taylor and Dennis Wilson) were released in 1971.
The creepy but compelling Badlands came along in 1973, and there have been at least a dozen more “bad boy” road trip movies in the years since: the post-apocalyptic Peak Oil horror story of Mad Max (1979), Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), all the way up to the hilariously strange Zombieland (2009), starring Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg as lonely survivors of a mad-cow epidemic, traveling zombie-clogged roads from Texas to California in search of roller coasters, Bill Murray (as himself), Twinkies and true love (or something like that…).
Road trip movies weren’t all blood and guts though: the late 1970s also saw a pair of trucker-themed trash classics, Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978), whose commercial success spawned some “Saturday Night Live” comedy hits. John Belushi in Animal House (1978) introduced the catch phrase “Road Trip” to the wider world, then came Blues Brothers (1980), Chevy Chase’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Albert Brooks’ Lost in America (1983). The road trip fun took a final turn with Tim Burton’s debut film, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)—in which our tight-suited hero tracks his stolen bicycle, by way of biker bars and giant dinosaurs, all the way from Santa Monica to San Antonio’s Alamo.
Road trip movies soon began to head in yet another new direction, the “buddy” movie: in 1988 Rain Man was a blockbuster success for Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, whose fear of flying forced a cross-country road trip down Route 66, in which they confront their complicated histories of brotherhood and abandonment. In 1991, Thelma and Louise featured two strong women who find themselves outlaws on the road and introduced Brad Pitt to the movie-going world. But a few years later the buddy movie turned to farce: in 1994’s Dumb and Dumber, moronic best friends played by Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey as mobile dog groomers, stumble into a kidnapping and set off on a cross-country road trip from Rhode Island to the Rocky Mountains. Careless and crude, but at the same time sweetly innocent, Dumb and Dumber brings us back from the heavy days of Easy Rider, and its $250 million box office take helped inspire a real renaissance of road trip films (not to mention a prequel, and a just-announced sequel).