“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” – Jean-Luc Godard
Art has the power to transport people to unexplored territories, ranging from the fantasy worlds of sci-fi works to the unexplored corners of our own planet. Since cinema is a visual medium, it might be argued that films can do this much better than other art forms. Films about travel offer the audience an invaluable opportunity to explore the universe without moving an inch, taking the viewers on a spiritual journey instead of a physical one.
While speaking about road films, one of the finest practitioners of the genre – Wim Wenders said: “Frankly, I didn’t know the genre existed. I must have seen some movies, I think I saw Detour (1945), but I didn’t recognise it as a genre. Of course I knew a lot of westerns, if there was any precursor to those movies it was the western. But I didn’t know you could make movies while travelling.”
Adding: “I didn’t know you could actually get in a car, start a story, and the itinerary and story would become the same. While we made Alice in the Cities, I found out. I felt like a fish in the water. This was the kind of filmmaking I was born for.”
We have curated a list of 10 essential travel films that might serve as an interesting point of entry for viewers to explore the genre, featuring masters of cinema like Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard among others. See the full list below.
The 10 best travel films of all time:
La Strada (Federico Fellini – 1954)
Starring Giulietta Masina as a simple young woman who is sold by her poor mother to a circus strongman and forced to take to the road, La Strada is one of Federico Fellini’s most popular films. It is not just a film that represents her physical journey through varying landscapes but it is Fellini’s attempt to come to terms with himself through cinema. The film won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1957.
Fellini recalled, “At the beginning I had only a confused feeling, a kind of tone that lurked, which made me melancholy and gave me a diffused sense of guilt, like a shadow hanging over me. This feeling suggested two people who stay together, although it will be fatal, and they don’t know why. But once this feeling crystallised, the story came easily, as if it had been there waiting to be found.”
Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman – 1957)
A brilliant character study of an elderly medical professor (Victor Sjöström) in his final screen performance on his automobile trip to receive an honorary degree, Wild Strawberries is a reflection on human existence. As the professor inches toward his final destination, his mind travels in different directions and he is forced to confront his own dreams and nightmares.
Bergman revealed,”It struck me: supposing I make a film of someone coming along, perfectly realistically, and suddenly opening a door and walking into his childhood? And then opening another door and walking out into reality again? And then walking round the corner of the street and coming into some other period of his life, and everything still alive and going on as before? That was the real starting point of Wild Strawberries.”
Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard – 1965)
Pierrot le Fou is undoubtedly one of Godard’s early masterpieces, featuring a crazy world where fiction and fantasy keep colliding until the two are indistinguishable. Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina as a pair of complicated lovers, the film follows them on their misadventures as they travel from Paris to the Mediterranean Sea.
Godard said, “People pigeonhole adventure. ‘We’re off on holiday,’ they say. ‘The adventure will begin as soon as we are at the seaside.’ They don’t think of themselves as living the adventure when they buy their train tickets, whereas in the film everything is on the same level: buying train tickets is as exciting as swimming in the sea.”
Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper – 1969)
One of the definitive works of the road film genre, this 1969 counter-culture classic presents a modern American odyssey that is fuelled by drugs and faith in the hippie culture. Easy Rider had a vastly influential impact on the New Hollywood movement and captured the essence of what it means to be on the road, escaping from the shackles of society.
In an interview with the Rolling Stone, Hopper commented: “The new generation doesn’t know anything about me except for what they saw in Easy Rider. Society loves to put bubbles up there and pop them, and I resent it. I’d rather expose myself myself. I’m really tired of Hollywood images — the big virile star who’s really a homosexual, the goody-two-shoes who fucks everybody in dark bedrooms at parties. I wanted to be vulnerable because I thought it would be something different. But I don’t sleep with cameras, so this film is not the real Dennis Hopper.”
Badlands (Terrence Malick – 1973)
This 1973 neo-noir crime drama was Terrence Malick’s brilliant directorial debut. Loosely based on the real-life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend in 1958, the film introduced the entire world to Malick’s unique aesthetic sensibilities. Badlands stars Martin Sheen as a troubled greaser and Korean War veteran who shoots his lover’s father, urging her to undertake a remarkable journey through the Midwest to the Badlands of Montana.
“At the end of my second year in Los Angeles, I began work on Badlands,” Malick said. “My influences were books like The Hardy Boys, Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, all involving an innocent in a drama over his or her head. I wanted the picture to be set up like a fairy tale, outside time, like Treasure Island.”
Stroszek (Werner Herzog – 1977)
Werner Herzog’s 1977 tragicomedy tells the story of a Berlin street musician who leaves Germany after getting out of prison. In the elusive search for a better life, he finds himself in Wisconsin as the ideal of the American Dream quickly transforms into something else altogether.
In an interview with Roger Ebert, Herzog revealed: “I don’t know how and why; the strange thing is that with both the crabs and the dancing chicken at the end of Stroszek, the crew couldn’t take it, they hated it, they were a loyal group and in case of Stroszek they hated it so badly that I had to operate the camera myself because the cinematographer who was very good and dedicated, hated it so much that he didn’t want to shoot it. He said, ‘I’ve never seen anything as dumb as that.’ And I tried to say, ‘You know there’s something so big about it.’ But they couldn’t see it.”
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola – 1979)
Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s famous 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus imagines the same spiritual journey into the depths of the human condition in the context of the Vietnam War. In what is undoubtedly his most ambitious project, Coppola launches a powerful commentary on colonialism, violence and the human capacity for destruction.
“What is considered avant-garde in one moment, 20 years later is used for wallpaper and becomes part of the culture. It seemed that’s what had happened with [Apocalypse Now],” Coppola said. “When I was making this, I didn’t carry a script around. I carried a green Penguin paperback copy of Heart of Darkness with all my underlining in it. I made the movie from that.”
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders – 1984)
Paris, Texas is the crowning achievement of Wim Wenders’ illustrious filmography. Investigating the meaning of family and the fundamental isolation of humans, the film stars Harry Dean Stanton on a heartbreaking quest to pick up the fragments of his family. Despite the vast landscapes, the film manages to focus on the intimate elements of the human psyche.
In an interview, Wenders said, “From our first one-page outline, we knew the movie was Travis and Jane, and we had to take Travis to that point, and ourselves to that point, and face a story neither of us had told before. We had to get there slowly. I don’t think there’s a break; at some point in the middle, the movie turns and starts walking on new territory, like in a blank space in the landscape. At least my landscape.”
Landscape in the Mist (Theo Angelopoulos – 1988)
Landscape in the Mist is Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos’ powerful portrayal of lost innocence is considered by many to be one of the best cinematic masterpieces of the last century. It features two young siblings on a search for their imaginary father, desperately trying to cross the border into Germany but finding themselves in perilous situations.
Angelopoulos explained: “Beyond incorporating within the framework of the film an archetypal element loaded with implications of primordial conflicts and existential vanity, the presence of myth in my films forms the basis of the unquestionably materialistic relationship with tradition. The key to this relationship is not the mechanical reproduction of myth and its external embodiment in the fabric of a modern tale for the purpose of affirming its eternal and unchanging nature. Quite the contrary, it is its critical abolition by confining it within a purely fictitious narrative without the fundamental implication of necessity.
“We live in a culture that has inherited these myths and we must destroy them at all costs and give them a human dimension. I don’t accept destiny or the idea of fate. By entering the historical reality myth becomes a real story with a different dimension. It is not interpretation: I give it a human dimension, because it is man who makes history and not myth.”
Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano – 1993)
Takeshi Kitano’s 1993 cult-classic is one of the best yakuza films of all time. Instead of descending to the world of gratuitous violence, Kitano approaches the on-screen brutality with the detachment of a philosopher. It tells the story of a group of gangsters who take refuge on the beaches of Okinawa, hiding from the world and from their inner selves.
The filmmaker lamented, “My films have been notorious amongst the Japanese public for their constant commercial failures; from my second one, Boiling Point (3-4x Ju-gatsu) up to Getting Any?, which, by the way, was my least commercially successful film to date. For instance, Sonatine is now considered to be some sort of a masterpiece amongst many people but when it was released in Japan, it disappeared within two weeks!”