Every film or narrative is a journey in itself. Therefore, a so-called road movie is nothing but a loose term. Elements of such movies were evident in films from the classical era. However, the term was coined for a batch of movies churned out in the late 60s as well as the early 70s decade. Those films had plots about literally being on the road. Since then, the genre of road movies has diversified itself over the years. The screenplay of these unique movies was based on the passion for being constantly on the move and it soon became an essential genre of Hollywood cinema. The legendary travels of personalities like Mark Twain, Miguel de Cervantes, Walk Whitman, and the like have been influential in shaping up the narratives of road movies.
Visual Images, Symbols, Style, and Themes
As road movies have always been independent projects, low-budget, experimental, documentary, and belonging to mainstream Hollywood, filmmakers from all corners of the world have been attracted to this category. If you watch road movies very carefully, you will find a common feature in all of them; cars or motorcycles are always at the heart of the screenplay.
The plot is styled and themed around border crossings and interstate highways. There are open landscapes, motels, gas stations, diners, highway signs, and of course, an expansive horizon that keeps coming back for different twists in the plot. The most important characteristic of road movies is the moving camera. It is either placed inside the car for an exterior view or outside the car, sometimes on its hood or in another car moving alongside. For an aerial view, the camera is positioned in a helicopter. The main purpose of the moving camera is to give the viewers a feeling that they are actually on the road.
One more significant feature of road movies is the music track that peps up the cinematic sensation. Touches of rock and roll along with some exuberant beats make the journey worth experiencing on screen. The pastoral attitude in road movies inspires the movies’ characters to move away from culture and romanticize nature. These movies are primarily about exploring beyond the social conventions that are linked to home, family, and work. Not having any limitation or boundary and reflecting modernism is the very essence of the narrative structure.
During the Depression
Road movies evolved into a distinct genre in the latter half of the 60s decade. At the time of the Depression, there were quite a few Hollywood films from the classical genre that had elements of a road movie that you see in modern times. Several gangster films in those times portrayed breathtaking driving sequences. Films that revolved around social problems and injustices added mobility to their plot. The 1933 film, Wild Boys of the Road deals with the social decay brought around by the Depression is a classic example. You can also watch You Only Live Once or The Grapes of Wrath - both of these films will give you a vivid idea. Film noir is another genre that influences modern road movies to a great extent.
The transition from Classical Hollywood to Counterculture
By the mid-60s, with the disorientation of the classical genre and counterculture redefining Hollywood cinema, the road movies created a league of their own. The leather-clad youth, with their rebellious and bohemian attitude, having a fetish for motorbikes and cars, and not giving hoots to the social norms and traditions characterized the biker films from the 50s and the 60s. However, if you want to know how the modern road movie came into being, watch Easy Rider or Bonny and Clyde. The massive success of both these films led to the 70s decade being termed as the golden age for road movies.
Postmodern and More Multicultural
As more and more independent filmmakers found the genre appealing, road movies soon became the heart of the popular film culture in the middle half of the 80s decade. Going into the 90s, the road movie started reflecting various tones, transitioning from quirky irony to high-tech ultraviolence with time. Therefore, several road films came to be characterized as postmodern and more multicultural.
As digital technologies rule the roost in the 21st century, it can be assumed that viewers will get to see more inventive films from this genre.