What Is a Road Movie? Elements and Examples of the Genre

Thelma and Louise
Scene from Thelma & Louise.

(Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

A road movie is any film that centers on a road trip (often, but not exclusively, via automobile). In road movies, one or more characters travel great distances to fulfill a goal. Along the way, the characters usually face conflict with each other and their unfamiliar surroundings while experiencing growth and development.

Key Takeaways: Road Movies

  • The term "road movie" refers to any film that centers on long-distance travel (typically, but not always, a road trip).
  • Road movies have been produced in numerous genres, including comedies, dramas, and horror movies.
  • Notable examples of road movies include It Happened One Night; Easy Rider; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; and Thelma & Louise.

Origins of the Road Movie

Travel has been a foundational narrative device since the time of ancient storytellers, as evidenced by Homer's The Odyssey. The medium of cinema allows filmmakers to depict transportation visually (even if visual effects like rear projection are utilized to simulate movement). As a result, filmmakers have often used road movies to place characters in unfamiliar settings that challenge their beliefs and values—known as a "fish out of water" plot.

Gags about traveling appeared in many silent films, but one of the earliest examples of a true road movie is Frank Capra's comedy It Happened One Night (1934). The popularity of the genre grew in the 1950s and 1960s as car travel became more common in American life. Road movies have also involved other forms of transportation, including railroad, bus and airline travel, sometimes taking the "road movie" off-road.

Road movies have been produced around the world, from the 1957 Swedish film Wild Strawberries to the 2005 Australian film Wolf Creek. However, the road movie is strongly identified with American film, likely because of the influence on the automobile on American culture.

Types of Road Movies

Because of the potential for mishaps in traveling in unfamiliar territory, road movies lend themselves to comedic stories. Absurd transportation issues and confrontations between dissimilar characters forced to travel together have been featured in classic comedies like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963); National Lampoon's Vacation (1983); Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985); Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987); Midnight Run (1988), and Dumb & Dumber (1994).

The narrative arc of the road movie can also be used to develop relationships between characters and create dramatic situations, as in Rain Man (1988) and Green Book (2018).

Other genres that have crossed over with road movies include action (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015), horror (Joy Ride, 2001), film noir (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953), and superhero (Logan, 2017). Though they don't involve modern transportation, Westerns like Stagecoach (1939) and fantasy movies like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies also feature elements of road movies as they depict character-changing journeys.

Top Road Movies

The following list contains a selection of top road movies across a variety of genres.

It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night
Clark Gable sits on a bench with Claudette Colbert in a scene from the film 'It Happened One Night', 1934. Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

One of the earliest examples of a road movie, It Happened One Night features a recently-married high-society woman (Claudette Colbert) on the run from her disapproving father. She is tracked down by a recently-fired reporter (Clark Gable) who sees her as the story he needs to get back on his feet. The pair end up traveling together in what is arguably the first screwball comedy. It Happened One Night won five Oscars, including Best Picture.

Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider
American actors Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda ride through the Desert on motorcycles in a scene from the film 'Easy Rider', directed by Hopper, 1969. Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Director-star Dennis Hopper created the ultimate motorcycle film about two drifters (Peter Fonda and Hopper) who travel across America and experience 1960s counterculture. Easy Rider is one of the most successful independent films of all time. It is also celebrated for its classic soundtrack that features one of the ultimate driving songs, Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild."

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

Planes Trains and Automobiles
Steve Martin and John Candy sit in a destroyed car in a scene from the film 'Planes, Trains & Automobiles', 1987. Paramount/Getty Images

Neil Page (Steve Martin) is a businessman who just wants to get home in time to spend Thanksgiving with his family. When a major snowstorm derails his plans, he finds himself forced to travel the highways with shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy). Writer-director John Hughes' hilarious road comedy has since become a holiday classic.

Thelma & Louise (1991)

Thelma and Louise
Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon sitting in their convertible with squad cars behind them in a scene from the film 'Thelma & Louise', 1991. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Two women (Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis) set out on a weekend getaway but soon wind up on the run from the law after Thelma kills a man who attempted to rape her. The two women travel across the country in an attempt to escape authorities in a film that has been dubbed a feminist revenge fantasy. Thelma & Louise won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road. Jasin Boland - © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. 

In Max Max: Fury Road, the fourth film in George Miller's post-apocalyptic Mad Max series, Max (Tom Hardy) accompanies several women escaping a vicious dictator who has enslaved them. The group hits the road in a hot pursuit that lasts nearly the entire length of the film. Mad Max: Fury Road won six Oscars.