One Saturday some thirty years ago, I saw a triple feature at a cinema in Lower Manhattan. That day, the white screen in the dark room was filled with three unforgettable road movies: The Searchers, Stalker, and Kings of the Road. I had never thought much about the road movie, and after that day, I realized that not only did this genre touch me deeply, but I understood what that type of film was saying. These three great movies all tell stories of people on the road, searching for home. And that’s what the road movie is all about.
Ever since I had first seen Kings of the Road, sometime in the late 1970s, I had been fascinated by this minimalist story of two men wandering in the gray German landscape. I had probably seen it a half-dozen times by then, but, back in the pre-DVD days, it was hard to see foreign films. You could only catch them occasionally at one of the handful of movie theaters in Manhattan that showed foreign films.
So I jumped at the chance to see it again, at a retrospective of Wim Wenders’ movies at the Film Forum in Greenwich Village in July, 1982. The director had chosen a program of movies that influenced him, or that were important to him, along with his own films and others he had produced. Kings of the Road was shown alongside two other road movies, introduced by Wenders himself.
On the Road Again
The three movies that day were radically different in setting and story line, yet they shared common traits. The 1956 John Ford western The Searchers shows John Wayne as a civil war veteran hunting for his niece who had been kidnapped by Comanches. Stalker, the 1979 science-fiction film by Andrei Tarkovsky, involves two men guided by a Stalker, trying to reach The Room, where their deepest wishes would be granted. And Wenders’ 1976 Kings of the Road features two men driving around the western side of the East-German border. One is a projector repairman, going from cinema to cinema, and the other a man who has just broken up with his wife and is wandering, trying to figure out what to do next.
On the surface, road movies are about seeing new things, but they’re really more about discovering new ways of seeing the world. As Marcel Proust said, "The only true journey, the only fountain of youth, would not be to visit new lands but to have different eyes, to view the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is."
Road movies are the cinematic equivalent of such literary classics as Homer’s Odyssey, Joyce’s Ulysses, or Kerouac’s On the Road. Some of the best known road movies are Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Almost Famous and The Wizard of Oz. These movies are often about outsiders; people who don’t fit in. The protagonists rarely have nine-to-five jobs, and criminals or outcasts are often the main characters. These people often meet up with their opposites: working men and women, those with families, with roots. But they don’t set down their own roots; they can’t. They need to make a journey to understand where to go.
It’s not surprising that road movies mostly feature men. A woman – or a pair of women – face far more danger and uncertainty on the road than one or two men. Many road movies feature couples on the run – Bonnie and Clyde, for example – but only a handful focus on one or two women (Thelma and Louise is one such film.)
Some movies start out as road movies, then twist. For example, in Hitchcock’s Psycho, Marion Crane embezzles money from her employer, then sets out on the road. But Hitchcock shows just how unsafe it is for a woman to travel alone; Crane meets her fate in her very first night at the Bates Motel.
Going Down the Road Feeling Bad
Director Walter Salles, in an article for the New York Times, sums up what road movies are about. "They are about experiencing, above all. They are about the journey. They are about what can be learned from the other, from those who are different."
For Salles, road movies are about unpredictability. Characters set out to go from point A to point B, but take a circuitous route to get there. The Stalker says, "In the Zone […] the straight way is not the shortest," and this is the case for every road movie. Some have characters in pursuit of others; some have people in pursuit of goals; and some have people pursuing happiness. But none of them ever has a straight line.
Even shooting Kings of the Road was a road movie, for Wim Wenders. "There was no script when we started the film. There was just the itinerary and the starting point – how they [the two main characters] both meet." But this was too exhausting, and Wenders set about writing as they went on.
John Ford’s The Searchers is as much about a search as it is about a homecoming. "Texas 1868," the screen displays, in huge white letters, just before the camera fades in on the iconic shot of Martha Coy, the sister-in-law of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), opening the door of her frontier house to show the vast landscape of Monument Valley. The camera follows her outside to show Edwards riding toward the house. The vista is grandiose; here is a frontier family living miles from anyone else, in the heart of the desert, eking out a living raising cattle. "Welcome home, Ethan," says Martha, leading him into their house, where he meets Debbie, the girl who, after being kidnapped by the Comanches, he’ll hunt for five years.
In Kings of the Road, one of the first scenes where we see Robert Lander is in his Volkswagen Beetle as he speeds down a road heading nowhere. He looks at a photo of his house and tears it up. He’s severed the link to his home, and he’s now rootless.
Just like every other movie, the road movie has to end, but you know that the end is really the beginning of something new. At the end of The Searchers, the door closes on John Wayne as he walks away from the house. He has completed his journey, and he no longer has a home. But he’s setting out on the road again.
In Tarkovsky’s film, the Stalker realizes that the people he leads to the Zone believe in nothing, unlike him. They may not even believe that the Zone has the powers the Stalker knows about. The film ends with his daughter, Monkey, moving a glass along a table with telekinesis; a power that she developed, no doubt, because of the Stalker’s presence in the Zone.
And in Kings of the Road, Bruno Winter sits in the cab of his truck, in front of yet another cinema, the Weisse Wand (White Screen), where he’s repaired a projector. He picks up his itinerary and tears it up, perhaps realizing that he has paid whatever penance had set him on the road. The camera pans up and to the side to show the neon sign, missing letters, that spells out WW E ND; the director’s initials, and the word END.
Road movies aren’t about getting anywhere; they’re about the journey. Characters always learn something at the end of these films, something important that can’t be put into words. They learn about their deepest desires, their fears, their hopes. And then they can go home. As Dorothy says at the end of The Wizard of Oz, "there’s no place like home." The road movie helps characters find where their true homes are; often right where they started out.
Like other films, the road movie is a form of escapism. It can make you dream of what it would be like to eschew all of your responsibilities; to slough off your day job, pack a bag, and go off on a quest. To meet new people, see new lands, have new experiences. It’s not just about a road trip, or a journey; it’s a goalless journey that, in the end, brings the protagonist to understand something about him or herself.
As for me, I write these words sitting in an old stone house in England, thousands of miles from where I grew up. Could these road movies have tempted me to set out on my own journey? I don’t know, but I know that home, for me, is where I am now.
- This was before German filmmaker Wim Wenders became well-known for his award-winning film Paris, Texas, and shortly before the release of his disastrous first American movie, Hammett. ↩
- Im Lauf der Zeit, or In the Course of Time. The US title, Kings of the Road, was chosen because of the song by Roger Miller, which features in the film when the projector repairman, Bruno Winter, listens to it. Kings of the Road was the third of Wenders’ "road movie trilogy," which began with Alice in the Cities and Wrong Movement. (Alice in den Städten and Falsche Bewegung. The latter is also called Wrong Move.) Wenders liked this genre so much that in 1977, after releasing Kings of the Road, he named his film production company Road Movies Filmproduktion. ↩
- "Le seul véritable voyage, le seul bain de Jouvence, ce ne serait pas d’aller vers de nouveaux paysages, mais d’avoir d’autres yeux, de voir l’univers avec les yeux d’un autre, de cent autres, de voir les cent univers que chacun d’eux voit, que chacun d’eux est." La Prisonnière ↩
- The University of California, Berkley, has an extensive list of road movies, though I would contest that some of them don’t actually meet the criteria. Metacritic has another such list of 20 road movies. ↩
- Notes for a Theory of the Road Movie ↩
- “_At Home on the Road_” — Wim Wenders Interviewed ↩