Looking for a little inspiration to help you plan for your American road trip? Why not turn to the movies? The classic American Road Trip movie has become a genre in its own right, covering the subject from every angle, be it comedy, thriller, self-discovery or drama. Whichever highways and byways you’re planning to drive in your American road trip, the chances are that Hollywood has driven them before you, so why not pop down to your local DVD rental store, grab yourself some popcorn and take a look at some or all of my recommendations for the 10 best American Road Trip Movies?
1. It Happened One Night
Viewed by many as the father of American road trip movies, Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning 1934 film tells the tale of heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), torn from her husband by her overbearing millionaire father who has secretly annulled Ellie’s marriage to gold-digging aviator King Westley. Escaping the family yacht in Miami by jumping overboard, Ellie begins a road trip to New York to find her estranged husband, meeting out-of-work journalist Peter Warne (Clark Gable) en route. As the journey progresses and the pair bus, drive and hitchhike towards New York Ellie just can’t help herself falling in love with Peter, leading toward a ‘will-she-won’t-she?’ ending as she finally catches up with her husband again.
2. Easy Rider
Cocaine-smuggling hippies Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) embark on an epic road trip, motor biking their way from Los Angeles to New Orleans in the hope of arriving in time for Mardi Gras. Along the way this classic American road trip movie explores society’s attitudes to the contentious issues of the times such as drug use, communal living and prejudice. As our anti-heroes travel the rural deep-south of America, they discover that the freedom they seek from ‘the establishment’ does not come without its own high price to pay.
3. Planes, Trains and Automobiles
All uptight businessman Neal Page (Steve Martin) wants to do is fly home from New York to Chicago for Thanksgiving dinner with his family. But in John Hughes’ 1987 comedy a simple two-hour flight becomes a farcical three-day American road trip when Page’s plane is diverted two Wichita, Kansas by a snowstorm. Unwittingly ‘befriending’ irritating shower-curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (one of John Candy’s best performances) the bickering and hapless duo must rely upon their limited wits and any available mode of transport to get them home to Chicago.
4. Midnight Run
Framed former cop turned bounty hunter Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) succeeds where the FBI failed in capturing Mafia accountant and embezzler Jonathan ‘the Duke’ Mardukas (Charles Grodin). Walsh has just five days to transport Mardukas from New York to Los Angeles. Mardukas protests that he has problems with flying, leaving a road trip across America as the only alternative. But in this entertaining 1988 action movie the trip to L.A. is anything but straightforward as the Mafia and a rival bounty hunter plan to ensure that the bounty hunter and his charge don’t reach their destination.
In this bittersweet 2004 comedy wine-loving failed writer Miles (Paul Giamatti) decides to take his best friend Jack, a semi-famous actor (Thomas Haden Church) on a week-long road trip through the wine country of Santa Barbara, California. Miles’ goal for the trip is to relax and enjoy the lifestyle, whilst Jack – one week away from his wedding – is looking for one last pre-marital fling. As they journey through the Californian vineyards Jack embarks on an affair with a waitress whilst Miles attempts to achieve similar success with her friend. The consequences force Miles and Jack to consider their own morality and maturity, and what began as an American road trip becomes an emotional journey.
6. Two Lane Blacktop
A true American ‘road’ movie, Two Lane Blacktop (1971) centres on the exploits of The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) who, heading east on the iconic Route 66, drift from town to town in their beloved and heavily customised 1955 Chevy, challenging locals to drag races. In New Mexico they meet the driver of a 1970 Pontiac GTO (Warren Oates) and challenge him to a race, cross country, to Washington D.C. with the winner taking the loser’s car as his prize. Whilst the ensuing American road trip takes in California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee the outcome of Two Lane Blacktop’s fateful race may never be revealed.
7. National Lampoon’s Vacation
Regarded by some as Chevy Chase’s finest comedic hour, National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) charts the Griswold family’s American crazy road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles’ greatest theme park ‘Walley World’. Driving an obscenely vulgar station-wagon across the USA the Griswolds court mayhem and misadventure in Missouri, Kansas, Arizona and the Grand Canyon and overcome increasingly lunatic situations as their determination to reach the (thankfully fictional) Walley World grows ever-stronger.
8. Vanishing Point
In another American road trip race against time, former cop and Vietnam veteran Kowalski (Barry Newman) is employed as a car delivery driver. Despite nearing exhaustion following a long drive to Denver, Colorado, Kowalski insists on making a return journey to San Francisco to deliver a Dodge Challenger. Stopping to buy some speed to prop him up for the journey he bets with his dealer that he can deliver the car within fifteen hours. Thus begins a high octane chase across America, as Kowalski evades police pursuit through Colorado, Nevada, Utah and California, encouraged by the blind small-town local radio DJ (Cleavon Little) to whom Kowalski’s radio is tuned. Kowalski’s fateful compulsion to drive remains ambiguous, and the ending of 1971’s Vanishing Point remains open to debate.
9. Little Miss Sunshine
As the youngest member of the thoroughly dysfunctional Hoover family, little Olive has a dream. Having obtained entry by an unexpected default, she wants to participate in California’s ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ pageant. The problem is, Olive lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Over dinner Olive’s family agrees that they will make the journey to California in their unreliable Volkswagen minibus. But with a suicidal uncle, chain-smoking mother, unmotivated father, junkie grandfather and non-speaking brother on board, coping with the eventful American road trip portrayed in this 2006 tragi-comic movie will be more of a challenge for Olive than any pageant contest.
10. Thelma and Louise
Proving that it’s possible to take ‘girl power’ just a little too far, what begins as an innocent fishing trip for friends Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) turns into a flight from the law when Louise shoots and kills a potential rapist. Taking a road trip west with the intention of reaching New Mexico the friends, now fugitives, rediscover the true strength of their relationship as they jointly tackle challenges and difficult situations at every stage of their journey until they reach the Grand Canyon and the climactic and emotional finale of this 1991 American road trip movie.