The American Road Movie: Driving Away From the 1960s Counterculture

The Woodstock Festival in the summer of 1969, as many will attest to, marked a landmark in the American post-war social consciousness. Michael Wadleigh’s award winning documentary Woodstock (1970) brilliantly captured the infamous concert in its entirety, not only showcasing the creative musical talent that marked the decade prior but also informing us of a nation’s mood at the end of a very significant period in its history. There was a sense throughout the documentary that something phenomenal had been achieved by the country’s youth (the children born just after WWII) e.g. the Civil Rights Movement, women’s rights being recognised more, freedom of sexual expression and drug experimentation. For me, Joan Baez with her piercing, angelic strains during ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ embodied this very assuredly – a new wave of resistance and empowerment resonated in her voice. There was a change afoot and as the tens of thousands of revelers, drunk, stoned and tired from all the peace and free love, traipsed through the muddy fields toward the exits, there was a symbolic sense of finality to a lot of things, not just this astounding documentary (which is over three hours long!).

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Woodstock Festival at White Lake, New York, 1969

The 1960s were definitively over and people knew it. It was time to sober up and get serious. In film, Hollywood was about to embark on a new road – the road of the American New Wave, where directors would take control of their own creative destinies and literally abandon the studios and constructed sets of tinseltown. Inspired by the events of the world around them, a flurry of talented young pretenders such as Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, who all reached adulthood amidst the mind-fuck of the 1960s, gradually took over the film establishment in the 1970s via a series of brow-raising and largely independent movie projects.

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Beatty and Dunaway as Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

One of the figures from the older establishment, Arthur Penn, may well have been the person who sowed the seeds for the creative up-and-comers with his landmark crime drama Bonnie and Clyde (1967) (a film that turns 50 this summer, jeesh!!). The film offered up Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and Gene Hackman (as well as Gene Wilder) as future stars of the New Wave, and it also marked a change in the traditional ‘road feature’ format for the rest of eternity. It was a remarkable film for the time as it painted a somewhat sympathetic picture of two notorious criminals who stole, desecrated, killed and, brace yourself, made love outside of wedlock in a mindless spree across the country in the 1920s. It was a highly produced and highly successful film that titillated and shocked audiences the world over. In many ways, it paved the way for Dennis Hopper, and Peter Fonda to embark further down this road of new expression in American cinema with their own ‘road feature’ project – Easy Rider (1969).

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Hopper, Fonda and Nicholson riding through Monument Valley in Easy Rider (1969)

There is no doubt that Hopper, Fonda and screenwriter Terry Southern had implied that the hippie culture of the 60s was well and truly dead with this offering, the final fatalistic scene providing solid evidence of this. The journey that Fonda and Hopper take in this movie is not one that appears as triumphant or exciting as the posters had implicated or indeed as their characters had intended. It is a journey to the depths of hell – ‘bad trips’, jail, brutal beatings and an admission by Hopper at the end that they had ‘blew it’. It quickly became a parable about the 60s counterculture and basically chastised the lack of direction of the hippie generation. On reflection, this is very interesting given that Hopper and Fonda themselves were well and truly embellished in it prior to the film’s release. They had both had worked with Jack Nicholson previously on The Trip (1967), which in itself was seen as an embrace of the ‘stoner movement’ and the first film to popularise LSD. Fonda, being the son of Hollywood legend Henry Fonda, seemingly abandoned his father’s shadow by becoming a sort of icon of the counterculture with his portrayal of a renegade biker in The Wild Angels (1966), while Hopper at the time was a deeply troubled person who abused alcohol and drugs and by all accounts was violent to his many partners – he was overlooked for many roles because of this. Hopper also tried to claim all the credit for the movie even though it was clear that Fonda and Southern had a major impact on the script. Southern, in particular, was from the Beat generation and was a very talented writer evidenced in his previous screenplays for Dr. Strangelove and The Cincinnati Kid.

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Hitting the road in Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider can also be seen as a tribute to the Western – the 60s as a new-age Wild West and instead of cowboys and horses, you have long haired hippies on Harley Davidsons driving across the country, and instead of searching for El Dorado, they are in search of the hippie nirvana. Also, the beautiful backdrops of Monument Valley between Arizona and Utah is a homage to the many John Ford’s Westerns that were set there. However, in the world of Easy Rider there are no heroes like John Wayne and there is very little conservatism or moralising towards the audience. Here, there are marijuana joints, acid trips, orgies and Mardi Gras. There could not have been more of a juxtaposition of the Western traditions really. Easy Rider was a raw, mainstream Hollywood film which marked the changeover at the box office from regular breast-thumping, patriotic, stuck-in-the-past movies to more expressive and artistic outlooks on America. But in that too, the film also marked a bough in the road for the counterculture movement. There was a cautionary tale being expressed – the road leads to the protagonists collective doom, not their paradise. It was a remarkable statement to make for the time but with the Manson murders having gripped Hollywood during the months after the film’s release, a huge change was in progress. People wanted, and needed, to sober up. A new road needed to be embarked upon…

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A couple of years later came Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), which can be seen as a more intelligent, existential take on the downfall of hippies in the late 1960s. Certainly something deep permeates this film, but what that is, is quite elusive. It is a film born straight out of the disillusionment that went with the end of the 60s – it is almost as if the characters are all suffering a hangover from that time and they have all taken to the road to escape or find some solace out on the ‘blacktop’. Hellman had no doubt envisioned his soul-searching masterpiece out of his experiences working on films during the prime of his life in California with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Roger Corman. He collaborated here with screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer on a script about a cross country road race in the southwest that was based on an earlier novel by Will Corry. There was little dialogue and unlike Easy Rider, there was a lack of any true excitement, no great production feats and the performances really do not turn out to be anything special. It is, however, deliberately slow-paced so as to contrast with the speed-driven, car-crazy story that you would have been led to believe. In this way, it is quite clever.

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Oates, Wilson, Bird and Taylor taking a pit-stop in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

The plot centres more on the relationship between two young nonchalant hipsters (played by musicians Dennis Wilson and James Taylor), a middle-aged crisis-point man called GTO (the brilliant Warren Oates) and a young vagabond girl, who encapsulates the three men’s attention throughout (played by Laurie Bird). The solution to these characters’ problems never offers itself in any presentable manner…just as it would if you happened to be in these characters shoes at that time in America. Blacktop is an enigmatic road movie that will plug away in your thoughts for a long time afterwards. The girl utters the words ‘no good’ to the three men near the end of the movie as she hops on another motorcycle with a stranger leaving them all behind and I guess this symbolises a great deal about a lot of things, particularly the declining hippie lifestyle of young Americans at the time.

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Dennis Weaver looking paranoid in Duel (1971)

In the same year, a young upstart from Ohio called Steven Spielberg directed his first stand-alone feature film. It was called Duel (1971) and was written by the prolific author Richard Matheson (I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man) from his own short story. The thriller was actually initially released as a television movie for the ABC network but with an obvious quality on show, it was released worldwide in 1972 as a full-length feature film. It is a stone cold cult classic about a man who is driving across the Sierra Highway in California for work only to realise that he is being pursued and toyed with by a huge black tanker truck. It can safely be said that it made Spielberg’s name in the movie business – you can clearly see the bearded man’s trademarks for high speed drama, car chases and deep adventurous tension in this early offering. While Spielberg may take much of the credit for this road movie, it would be foolish to overlook the creative influence of Matheson who inserted into the script the prominent themes of American society at the time such as paranoia and the over-mechanisation of the workforce.

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Weaver stands off against the tanker in Duel (1971)

It is a terrifying psychological thriller that is set almost exclusively on the open road, which in itself can be described as another character – the mountains, the tunnels, the railway stops, the cafes and the sun drenched Californian weather all provide an outstanding backdrop. Dennis Weaver as the lead character, David Mann, is brilliant – he is a cocky but increasingly paranoid galoot who really is too straight forward for his own good. A sort of antithesis of the long-haired marijuana-smoking hippie common from the counterculture period. It never appeared that Spielberg was all that smart enough for antitheses or metaphors – he went on to be regraded more for his special effects, hi-octane action and unnecessary schmaltz – but Duel is an anomaly in his back catalogue and thanks to Matheson, you can draw these very reverent conclusions. It is understated and truly gripping. The tanker, whose driver you never see, may well represent the new world of America where the future is beset by machines and the human position is weakened and in question. Whatever the case, the road out of the counterculture was now thwarted with ever more dangerous obstacles.

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Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek camping out in Badlands (1973)

Another son of the American New Wave, Terrence Malick, hit the scene as a kid with a creative talent for storytelling and an eye for spellbinding cinematography. He was a protégé of Arthur Penn and it is therefore without surprise that in his first film he would pay homage to his master and the film that ultimately inspired him most, Bonnie and Clyde. When Badlands (1973) was first shown at the New York Film Festival, Malick blew the industry away. The pitch was not dissimilar to Bonnie and Clyde – two young Americans embark upon a killing spree across the country. The difference here however was that Malick, as has become his trademark, developed his story amidst a feeling of poetic moodiness. The breathtaking wide shots just engulf the viewer and when the order of the day is mindless shotgun killings, which is never shown in any great detail, it is with a deep ambiguity that one must digest this. Sissy Spacek as the hapless 15 year old girl who is entranced by the violent, handsome and older Martin Sheen, provides a pithy but meaningful narration to the film.

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The horizon looks distant for Martin Sheen in Badlands (1973)

The dusty roads around Colorado run lazily along for the fox-eyed Kit (Sheen) and the pixie-like Holly (Spacek) just like the days would pass by in life for people their age. It almost plays out like a fairy tale – an innocent wonder takes hold of the viewer as we move along with the children of the Badlands into the unknown, into a potential tragic ending. The blame of Kit’s violence and carnage could indeed lay at the feet of American society (parents, family, the workplace, capitalism) but then again any such indication by the Dreamweaver Malick here is never really clear – is he just interested in sharing a perplexing story of crime via the medium of amazing natural visuals? Alternatively, you can say that the 1960s had a profound effect on the young Malick, who like Spielberg, grew up in the mid-west (Illinois) and no doubt would have witnessed the effect of the counterculture. Perhaps the failures of humanity as shown in Badlands, in some way represented the false dawns of the 1960s movement in countering mainstream political conservatism and the years of Nixon, who knows?

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Bridges and Eastwood chill on the road in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

After spending some years as a Hollywood screenwriter, New Yorker Micheal Cimino made his directorial debut with the road movie Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). Cimino would go on to dazzle audiences with his Vietnam War masterpiece The Deer Hunter in 1978 but only a few years later he would find himself cast to the wilderness with the major flop Heaven’s Gate. Thunderbolt was an understated classic though and it had superstar Clint Eastwood and the young up-and-comer Jeff Bridges in the lead roles. Their chemistry as an on-the-road crime duo was pivotal to the success of the film. Eastwood, who had always been keen to do a road movie ever since the success of Easy Rider, played a bank robber called ‘the Thunderbolt’ who disguises as a preacher when by chance he meets up with a young would-be hoodlum called ‘Lightfoot’ played by Bridges. It was not expected of Eastwood at the time to play this type of character as was evidenced by his roles as a no-nonsense hard man in Westerns of the 1960s and as the ‘no-fucks-given’ detective in Dirty Harry and Magnum Force in the early 1970s. Not exactly conforming to the ‘right’ side of the law here, Eastwood’s character developed somewhat of a counterculture reflection on the world and with Bridges flaunting a natural flair for acting, the film nicely sums up a relevant theme of misplaced masculinity in a world that was now overfull with regiment and order. In many ways, and particularly in Bridges’ semi-stoned demeanor, Cimino’s film is casting an eye towards the heady days of The Wild Angels and Easy Rider. Unfortunately for ‘The Thunderbolt’ and ‘Lightfoot’, as is the familiar fate of the lead characters in all of these road movies, the journey is never quite fruitful in the end. Although there is sympathy expressed in the mind of the director and by the audiences, the consequences of their criminal actions lead to tragedy and the roads in and around the Big Sky Country of Montana, just like in Arizona, California and Colorado before, just run out of tarmac in the end.

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Simone Griffeth and David Carridine salute the crowd in Death Race 2000 (1975)

Roger Corman brought many crazy ideas to the movies from the 1950s right through into the 1970s (including The Wild Angels and The Trip) and even beyond that (he has produced many modern-day ‘creature features’ such as Dinocroc and Supergator). He became a leader in producing independent or b-movies, leading to his label now as the ‘Pope of Pop Cinema’. Death Race 2000 (1975) was not exactly a b-movie in that it had a decent budget and could attract the likes of Kung Fu star David Carradine to the front but it was still marketed as a low-grade adult exploitation movie, which I guess was meant to be ironic. Corman installed Paul Bartel as director with himself as producer on the film. His idea was essentially to cash in on the success of the dystopic sports action movie Rollerball, released earlier that year, by offering something similar but far more controversial: an American future where people gleefully spectate a cross-country road race in which the objective is to kill as many people as possible, including each other. Even worse, the drivers in the race were encouraged to score more points by mowing down the most vulnerable people in society such as the elderly and babies. The premise was all a bit preposterous and definitely not to be taken seriously. Like with many of Corman’s outings, Death Race was a vehicle for showing nudity, unnecessary violence and wild stunts, which had become the norm in the movie business by the mid-70s, but it also provided a neat twist of satirical comment on the state of the nation at the time. By then, the hippies had certainly moved on and the concerns of young Americans were now more focused on the rising world of materialism and wealth. Death Race was a reaction to that. There is a resistance group in the film who want to sabotage the race on the basis that it is representative of the repressive regime of the American government. But in the end, the overarching appetite of the populace remains to be for entertainment and carnage as opposed to any meaningful concern for sustainability and peace.

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The Resistance attempts to kill David Carradine in Death Race 2000 (1975)

With the likes of Corman, there was a prevailing and acute sense of how times had changed and how indeed the drugs and all that had left their indelible mark on everything and everyone in the country. Death Race was a signal of the height of American independent film making, where mad thoughts and ideas were now being entertained by the studio execs. Apocalypse Now was being made in Cambodia and the Philippines at the time and Francis Ford Coppola and co were over there slowly losing their mind on the excesses that the studios were affording them with. These were the heady days indeed. A more recent account of these times may be best reflected upon in Terry Gilliam’s perfectly judged adaptation of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s road trip to Las Vegas in the early 70s in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Johnny Depp ably steps into Thompson’s shoes as the deeply psychotic Raoul Duke while Benico Del Toro plays his equally deranged acquaintance, Dr. Gonzo. Possibly the definitive American road movie, it showcases the extreme hypocrisy of America, its vulgar undertones, its insatiable appetite for excess and its obsession with an unattainable dream. The troubled face of the unfortunate hitchhiker picked up by Duke and Gonzo in the Nevada desert (played by my good friend Tobey Maguire) sums it all up I think: ‘Where am I and how do I get out of here?’ his face appears to be saying…

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