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Road movies: fresh look at a not-so-bygone tradition

By David Sterritt / June 12, 1980

New York

Francois Truffaut once remarked that some of his favorite films are about traveling. He is often deeply moved by a voyage in a movie, he said, because he knows that the journey on-screen is paralleled by the passage of the film itself through the projector. When both these trips culminate together, the result is enormously satisfying.

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Since the beginning of cinema, when the Lumiere Brothers caused a sensation with their film of a train pulling into a station, moviemakers have been fascinated with the processes and appurtenances of travel. Cowboys rode into the sunset, speeding locomotives raced against time, and Chaplin tottered toward the horizon down a dusty highway.

The trend reached a kind of pop epitome with the "road movie" craze that followed "Easy Rider" in the early 1970s. Since then, sharks and spaceships and spooks have inherited top position at the box office, but The Road remains a resonant subject at the movies. Current examples include the brand-new "Carny," with Gary Busey and Robbie Robertson, and the coming "Honky Tonk Freeway," now being filmed by John Schlesinger. Even the "Star Wars" movies are, in part, snappy travelogues on an intergalactic scale.

Now an enterprising company of film exhibitors -- aptly called Roadmovies Inc. -- has decided to pay a lightearted summer tribute to this worthy genre. Through July 7 the Harold Clurman Theater in Manhattan will come alive with road movies of all shapes and sizes, from the classic and the colossal to the corny and the crazy. To be sure, a road is a road is a road. But a glance at the Roadmovies schedule indicates the tremendous diversity of ways in which filmmakers have been inspired by the idea of moving on.

For example, Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider" is prominently on hand, as is Richard C. Sarafian's "Vanishing Point." We're in pop-art country here, surrounded by speed and noise and the pursuit of hipness. Not far away is Monte Hellman's "Two-Lane Blacktop," which has developed a strong cult reputation, and Paul Bartel's "Death Race 2000," which has been hailed as an example of pop iconography.

Lest one think that road movies and youth movies are identical phenomena, however, we don't have to look far to find Federico Fellini, who used the road of "La Strada" as a metaphor for a profoundly moving psychological journey. Another great Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, used his own road motif in "The Passenger," which also correlated an inner voyage with an outer voyage.

Among American filmmakers, none stand higher than Alfred Hitchcock, whose "North by Northwest" might be the ultimate travelogue -- alternately hilarious and hair-raising, and barely survived by the hapless Cary Grant. John Ford, another Old Master of Hollywood, used Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" as the core of one of his most celebrated films, in which desperate Okie migrations dramatize the passage of America through the great depression. Ford is also represented by "Two Rode Together," one of his last and darkest pictures, with James Stewart as a cynical lawman who penetrates Indian territory while probing the cultural and emotional abyss separating red men and white men on the Western frontier.