Westerns were the ultimate back road film. On television, Route 66 took viewers to small towns, cities in the middle of the country, and along back roads across America. Simon & Garfunkel in their song “America” talked about going to look for America. Easy Rider made a lot of money. Film producers took notice.
Movies on the road showed small town America, offered scenery that many Americans hadn’t experienced, and featured people like average moviegoers. There were plenty of films taking place in Los Angeles and New York but most people did not live in the biggest cities. Enter films that were offbeat, took place on a journey, embraced dialects and different cultures, and even offered big city people in small towns like a fish out of water. Today, when a film takes place somewhere than a big city it is no big deal. Films are produced cheaper in other parts of the country than New York and Los Angeles, but in 1970 it was a big deal.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the youth culture started rejecting many things traditional about America and went searching. Popular music fed the thirst for adventure, just take a listen to “Born to Be Wild.”
The film industry was in transition as younger filmmakers and producers were gaining influence. Even older filmmakers like Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah were breaking the norm and hitting the road. Younger directors like Steven Spielberg, Michael Ritchie and Michael Cimino took off for two-land blacktop.
Some of the more interesting films that embraced the back roads were:
The Getaway – Sam Peckinpah has three films on this list. The Getaway was a big budget, star-packed chase and bank robbery film. Filmed in numerous Texas small towns, which gives a nice old fashioned flavor but allows a lot of breathing room.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia – This is really a Mexican road picture since that is where is mostly takes place. Another Peckinpah film, this time starring Warren Oates, this film is mostly two people on the lam and their run-ins with unsavory characters. Go in with modest expectations and you can find some rewards.
Little Fauss and Big Halsey – Robert Redford carefully built his career trajectory after the Butch Cassidy hit. This was an offbeat, buddy motorcycle racing film. Small time characters who development a partnership of sorts. Dusty and breezy, the film shows life on the small-time cycle riding circuit.
Two Lane Blacktop – The ultimate back road travel film, notable for starring pop stars James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. A throwback to the early 1960s street drag racing, the film is modestly filmed and mostly features non-actors.
Charley Varrick – Directed by Don Siegel, this film had Walter Matthau riding high as a leading man, even in action films. The backdrop is New Mexico where Matthau and partners hold up a small town bank and then pretty much hide out while being chased by the mob wanting their money back. Very effective use of New Mexico landscape, the film has a big city vibe but in a country setting.
Mr. Majestyk – Charles Bronson is a melon picker in Colorado who runs afoul of the mob (familiar 1970s theme) and spends the film trying to extricate himself from problems with both the mob and the law. Filmed in Colorado, the scenery from lush field to mountain terrain contributes to the story. A great action film.
Dirty Mary Crazy Larry – Mostly, a chase film along the back roads of California in a Dodge Charger, driven by race car wannabes. A game of cat and mouse between the sheriff and the occupants of the car. Some nice helicopter photography ads to the country road chases. An under-appreciated little film.
Pocket Money – Paul Newman and Lee Marvin and filmed in the Southwest. Cattle drivers out to make some needed money. Well-meaning guys get mixed up with some shady characters. Not one of Newman’s better films of the decade.
Prime Cut – A film with the beef packing business and the mob as the backdrop. Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman in one of their lesser films. It probably looked good on paper but there isn’t much to like here.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – A first effort by Michael Cimino for Clint Eastwood, and it was a homerun. It takes place in Montana in various small towns and in the back country. Eastwood and Jeff Bridges are buddies who re-create a robbery with the help of George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis. A combination of light comedy and action, the film features some beautiful Montana country and a great early 1970s vibe.
The Sugarland Express – Steven Spielberg scored big with Duel, a made-for-TV film about a salesman on the back roads of California being menaced by a trucker. He brought this energy and swagger to The Sugarland Express, his big screen debut. It contains a freshness and vulnerability that his late career films lack.
Vanishing Point – A cross-country trip in a Dodge Challenger, Kowalski encounters many unusual characters as he tries to outrace the law to make it from Denver to San Francisco nonstop. It is a scenic trip across Colorado, Utah and Nevada. Picking up on the vibe of disillusionment with much of society and pushing past the Establishment to find purpose and meaning, the film is a hard reality of dreams coming to an abrupt end. The desert and mountain scenery is wonderful, as are the many unusual people along the way.
Junior Bonner – A cowboy and rodeo film, but it is really about returning home to your hometown to face fractured family relationships and unfulfilled dreams. Hard to think Sam Peckinpah made this mostly charming tale. Proves there can be big dreams in small towns.
The Last Picture Show – This was the ultimate small town drama. Dusty, suffering small town in the early 1950s, with many interconnecting stories. It really doesn’t fit in this group but it was made during this time frame about a changing America. Peter Bogdanovich came of life with this film.
Road films provided a freshness to films at a time when America, and pretty much everything else, was under the lens and being questioned, especially after the Vietnam War. This need to search and explore did not start with Easy Rider, Route 66 or even with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Americans have always been on the move, physically and literally. Horace Greeley is given credit for saying, “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.” Growing up is a state of mind and where better to experience it than on gray pavement pointed toward the blue sky.