Almost all the 20th century’s great film directors have, at one time or another, been drawn to the road movie: the Coen brothers, Fellini, John Ford, Walter Hill, Sam Mendes, Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Spielberg, Wim Wenders. Alfred Hitchcock always remained in thrall of the Permanent Way. The 1953 Palme d’or winner ‘Wages of Fear’, starring a craggy Yves Montand, stands out as a European exemplar, although the film is set in South America. Rarely seen on TV or art house circuits, this classic deserves a BFI restoration and re-release.
The genre’s two most enduring themes are the lure of the open road – which must be embarked on without map or compass – and the need to escape, often from some unstated horror. Scott’s ‘Thelma and Louise’ easily heads the first category, while Spielberg’s ‘Duel’, chillingly tops the latter bill.
Arthur Penn’s recently-restored classic period piece ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ is certainly worthy of conclusion, while ‘Easy Rider’, starring Peter Fonda and a very stoned Jack Nicholson, and ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ both went on to become hippie cult movies. Walter Hill’s ‘The Driver’ (which includes a breathtaking cops-and-robbers car pursuit, with an angelic-faced Ryan O’Neill outsmarting and demolishing no less than eight police cars) remains the definitive urban car chase. Cops as baddies chase hippie biker heroes in ‘Electra Glide in Blue’, while ‘Vanishing Point’ runs ‘The Driver’ a close second for stunt driving. And we can hardly conclude this road movie roll-call without mentioning the joyously quirky ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ which features a singing George Clooney and 19 wonderful blue grass tracks. According to the Coens, they based the story on Homer’s Odyssey!
Fifty-five years after its publication (and five years in the making), the film of Jack Kerouac’s Bible of the Beat Generation, ‘On the Road’ has finally arrived. Whether it is destined for the pantheon of great road movies is a moot point.
In 1962 Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brando, urging him to star in a film version; Brando was to play his alter ego, with Kerouac casting himself as Neal Cassidy. Brando ignored the letter. A decade later, Francis Ford Coppola bought the film rights and since then at least five film treatments have been prepared at his Zoetrope production studios, with everyone from Brad Pitt to Sean Penn and Dennis Hopper to Russell Crowe being considered for the leads.
Director Walter Salles’ first road movie, in 2004, was ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, the poignant record of Che Guevara’s South American travels six years before the Cuban revolution. The Kerouac saga employs the same documentary-naturalism style. Locations chosen by Salles include Argentina, Chile, Canada, Mexico, Arizona, Calgary, Louisiana, Nebraska and San Francisco. Little wonder Zoetrope’s $25m budget sprang a leak during filming, resulting in Kristen Stewart volunteering to take a pay cut.
Aspiring writer and sexual ingénue Sal Paradise (aka Kerouac), hunky Dean Moriarty (aka Neal Cassidy) and poetic jester Carlo Marx (aka Allen Ginsberg) head for the open highway and unbridled hedonism, with Dean moving effortlessly in and out of marriages, separations, parenthood and divorces with child brides Emylou and Camille. There are two delightful stand-out cameos: Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (aka a gruff, gun-toting William Burroughs) and Coati Mundi as the gibberish-singing Slim Gaillard.
Scenically, this is no National Geographic TV channel documentary of the rolling plains of the mid-west. Indeed, Eric Gautier’s hand-held camerawork seems more preoccupied with the interior of the trusty Hudson and its occupants than the landscapes their highways take them across. But perhaps the biggest disappointment is the film’s soundtrack – a strange melange of forgettable pop, jazz and folk – which fails to showcase greats like Bird, Miles, Mulligan and Dizzy, to whom these cats would surely have been grooving on the road and on the juke boxes of all the diners they stopped at.
To coincide with the film’s UK release, the British Library is showing (until 27 December) the original manuscript of ‘On the Road’. In April 1951, after his cross-continental adventure, Kerouac taped together eight rolls of blank teletype paper to form a continuous 150ft-long ‘scroll’. This he loaded into his typewriter, completing the novel in only 20 days of continuous, caffeine-fuelled typing.
‘On the Road’, starring Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty and Kristen Stewart as Marylou, is at the Courtyard, Hereford, from 17–22 November and at Ludlow Assembly Rooms on 21 & 22 November.