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America, and most of the world, were having an identity crisis, trying to find a sense of purpose. This yearning was reflected in the soul-searching road movies of the era: be it coming-of-age travelogue (‘American Graffiti’, ‘Badlands’), pedal to the medal thriller (‘The Getaway’), or highway horror film (‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’).
With that in mind, let’s look at some underrated good road movies that all die-hard fans of 70s cinema should investigate, featuring a wide variety of themes and sub-genres.
“This radio station was named Kowalski, in honour of the last American hero to whom speed means freedom of the soul.”
Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a man of mystery: a decorated Vietnam vet turned delivery driver with an amphetamine habit.
Tasked with delivering a car from Colorado to California, he makes a bet that he can get there ahead of schedule, eschewing sleep and speed limits.
But his white-knuckle antics result in a high-speed chase with the police. Emboldened by the risk, Kowalski becomes a folk hero championed by a local radio DJ, who calls him “the last American hero.” But will his adrenaline junkie ways lead to self-destruction?
‘Vanishing Point’ is a travelogue ripe with drug-fueled imagery and an anti-establishment message. It also has an ambiguous, open-ended finale designed to spark debate. You’ve never seen anything quite like it.
“Exactly the same story from all of them. Two motorcyclists jabbing at his tyre with a knife.”
In this hallucinatory British biker film, Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) is the leader of a delinquent motorcycle gang. Always on the search for thrills (he worships his pet frog, no less), Tom attends a séance, and gains immortality through a satanic pact.
Soon, his fellow bikers follow in his footsteps. But to gain eternal life, they must first commit suicide, which they do, in ghoulish fashion. They then become an undead horde, terrorizing locals in their small British town.
‘Psychomania’ is one bizarre film, buoyed by eerie imagery and the bikers’ edgy fashion sense, which influenced punk bands like The Damned and The Misfits (just check out those skull-painted helmets).
Part outlaw biker film, part horror movie and part crazy counterculture fallout flick, it’s as hard to categorize as it is to forget.
“We’re in real trouble.”
Fresh off the heels of his acclaimed car chase television movie ‘Duel’, Spielberg crafted this road-bound film, featuring a married couple on the run from authorities in rural Texas.
Clovis Poplin (William Atherton) and Lou-Jean (Goldie Hawn) play husband and wife duo, who lost their young son to the state. In a daring move, they kidnap him from his foster home and hold a highway patrolman hostage as they speed down the interstate.
The duo soon become local folk heroes a la Bonnie and Clyde, but law enforcement sets out to end their joy ride, once and for all.
One of Spielberg’s earliest films, ‘Sugarland’ gives an early glimpse at his talent for wedding gentle humor with thrilling suspense. It’s faded from prominence in respect to his blockbuster hits, but is well worth seeking out.
“A whole town living off car crashes. My brother George is dead and buried in Paris, but I can drive again. You win some, you lose some, right?”
A rural Australian village hides a dark secret: a criminal contingent that intentionally cause traffic accidents to harvest car parts and valuables, while hapless passengers are lobotomized and used for medical experiments.
The latest victims are brothers Arthur and George Waldo, attacked during a road trip.
Only Arthur survives, taken in by the kindly town mayor to convalesce. But this tranquility is short-lived when Arthur is caught in a culture war between the violent vehicle-wielding juvenile delinquents and the older generation, sick of being terrorized.
‘Paris’ was directed by Peter Weir, best known for ‘Dead Poets Society’ and ‘The Truman Show.’ It stands in stark contrast to those genteel dramas with its horror comedy plotline and sinister visuals, which would strongly influence two other classic 70s road films: ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Death Race 2000.’
“There ain’t nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man that’s in it. Or you. Or me.”
Peckinpah followed up his 1971 neo-noir road film, ‘The Getaway’, with the similarly themed ‘Garcia’, starring Warren Oates as Bennie, an American ex-pat lout running a bar in Mexico.
Bennie discovers his saloon was recently visited by Alfredo Garcia, a gangster on the run from a ruthless crime lord after impregnating his daughter.
After learning there’s a million dollar bounty for Garcia, he decides to snag the bounty himself, having inside info that the gangster died in a car accident. But the journey to collect the cash (with the gangster’s head in tow) threatens lives, leading to a bloody finale.
‘Garcia’ was a critical and commercial disaster upon its release, panned for its gratuitous violence and quirky narrative. But it’s these very elements that make it a compelling treat for the adventurous viewer.
The road movies of the 70s showed a growth in scope and emotion for a genre known mostly for screwball comedies in earlier decades.
There’s something about a journey on a stretch of road captured in film that sparks philosophy and reflection, as well as the threat of violence and random thrills. So stick around, as I’ll be covering good road movies from 1975-1980 in my next installment.
Until then, be sure to tell me what 70s road movies you’d include on this list in the comments!
And for even more great films that take place on highways and back roads, check out my list of honorable mentions below.
Honorable Mentions: ‘Scarecrow’, ‘Slither,’ ‘Duel,’ ‘Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry,’ ‘Death Race 2000’, ‘American Graffiti’, ‘The Last Detail’, ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’, ‘The Last Run,’ ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’, ‘The Getaway,’ ‘Two-Lane Blacktop,’ ‘Paper Moon’, ‘5 Easy Pieces’, ‘Badlands’, ‘Electra Glide in Blue.’