The 30 Best American Road Movies of The 1970s

21. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – Michael Cimino – 1974

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

Michael Cimino will always be remembered for his two pivotal contributions to the New Hollywood era. The Deer Hunter provided the era with one of its late masterpieces, whilst the unfairly maligned Heaven’s Gate is seen as the film which abruptly curtailed the era.

Before all that, he debuted as a director with this road movie/buddy caper hybrid. Clint Eastwood is Thunderbolt, a notorious safecracker on the run from former associates who think he has double crossed them. Fate leads him to team up with Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) a young drifter keen to learn the tricks of Thunderbolt’s trade. Eventually Thunderbolt’s pursuers (George Kennedy & Geoffrey Lewis) catch up with the pair and force them to take part in one last big heist job.

The film balances a perfectly judged chalk and cheese partnership with our anti-heroes, a young Jeff Bridges’ manic enthusiasm clashing humorously with Eastwood’s tough guy stoicism. Film theorists of the period have read into this, as with many ‘buddy’ flicks, a discernible subtext of the pairings relationship extending beyond mere homosociality, but it is no more than symbolically hinted at.


22. Death Race 2000 – Paul Bartel – 1975

Class of 1984

Roger Corman was never reticent about jumping aboard a bandwagon, and once it became apparent that the car chase movie was beginning to have its moment in the sun, he hopped right into the production saddle with this wild cross country race flick meets Rollerball social satire meets proto Mad Max dystopia.

The film shows an America addicted to the ultraviolent transcontinental road race/reality show in which extra points are earned for hit and runs. Taking place in the titular year, the country is now a fascistic totalitarian state in which the President has been elevated to the status of a deity addressing the nation from a studio mock up of heaven. These dire straits had apparently arisen from a ‘world crash’ (a not particularly subtle allusion to the rescission gripping America by this time).

David Carradine is our protagonist ‘Frankenstein’, who in an acerbic stab at the increasing cult of the celebrity, is a cloned product created by the government to give the nation a ‘hero’ to root for. The film views sporting events as the opiate of the masses, blinding them to the misery that surrounds them.

Roger Corman produced films which were at their best when camp black humour was allowed to rule the day, such is the case here. The film’s biting satire is decorated with the typical grindhouse accoutrements of the time, car crashes, casual nudity and gore is provided in abundance. B-movie cinema at its best, with a charm completely lost in the recent (in name only) remake and sequels.


23. Race with the Devil – Jack Starrett – 1975

Race with the Devil

Another genre going through its cultural apex in the 1970s was the demonic cult/possession niche. Having found critical and commercial success with films such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, the B-movie merchants had caught the scent and forgettable tripe such as The Devil’s Rain and Beyond the Door were legion. Race with the Devil considerably upped the stakes however by throwing everything into the mix to create this devil worship-road movie-action flick hybrid.

We join Roger and Frank (road movie stalwarts Peter Fonda and Warren Oates) who along with their wives Kelly and Alice (Lara Parker and Loretta Swit) are heading from Texas to a holiday in Colorado, travelling in that classic American symbol of stylish automotive comfort, the er… RV.

Unfortunately, somewhere in deepest Texas they witness a good ole’ satanic ritual murder. As was de-rigour in post-Watergate America the authorities cannot be trusted and the local’s southern hospitality is all a facade. A wildly entertaining 90 minute chase flick ensues. If you like your movie vehicles to explode the second they begin to fall off a bridge, this one is for you.


24. Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins – Dick Richards – 1975

Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins

A late entry from the wilder reaches of road movie country, by this time the studios were seeking to recondition the genre – Raffery and the Gold Dust Twins harks back to the earlier part of the decade and is all the better for it.

Alan Arkin maintains his 70s form for developing magnificent angry misfits. Here he plays Rafferty, a former gunnery sergeant now slumming it as an unenthusiastic driving instructor. His mundane existence is ruptured when he is kidnapped by Mac (Sally Kellerman) and Frisbee (Mackenzie Phillips) and forced into a series of misadventures across the American south-west.

The film taps into the sense of rootlessness so successfully mined earlier in the decade. Our trio are all struggling to find a sense of identity, out of step with a country hurtling towards a future that frowns upon the outsider. Not that the film gets dragged down into an existential quagmire, this is an energetic pic with strong turns from all the players, featuring cameos from some of the great character actors of the period such as Alex Rocco and Harry Dean Stanton.


25. The Gumball Rally – Chuck Bail – 1976

THE GUMBALL RALLY, Michael Sarrazin, Nicholas Pryor, 1976

In 1971, automotive journalist Brock Yates, caught up in the spirit of the times, decided to create in his own words “A balls-out, shoot-the-moon, fuck-the-establishment rumble from New York to Los Angeles”. This was to be christened the ‘Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash Run’ and would be run again several more times during the decade.

By the mid seventies the cult of the Cannonball had already become legend and a picture based on the exploits were being talked up. But whilst it sat in production limbo, Yates was beaten to the punch by two 1976 pictures, the Paul Bartel (of Death Race 2000 fame) directed/Corman produced Cannonball! and this, the far superior Gumball Rally. An angry Yates being informed that alas, you cannot copyright the concept of a road race across the nation.

Lip service is paid during the film to some of the more politicised elements that powered Yates’ concept, that is, a resentment towards a different kind of authority, those who sought to neuter sports cars and force homogeneity upon drivers, towards energy conservation and the 55mph speed limit arising from a worldwide oil crisis. This was all perceived, rightly or wrongly, as restricting personal freedom.

The film does not risk losing the viewer by lingering on such arguments though, and it is the best of the Cannonball aping movies successfully maintaining a balance of car action and personable characterisations amongst the racers. Something the lower-budgeted Bartel film failed at, as did the eventual Yates endorsed Cannonball Run films, in which the actual car racing played a distinct second fiddle to drink and drug addled pranksterism.


26. Jackson County Jail – Michael Miller – 1976

Jackson County Jail

We are in Roger Corman territory again. This time his New World Pictures outfit looked to get in on the burgeoning vigilante justice/rape and revenge genres, which had been gaining traction since the successes of The Last House on the Left and Death Wish.

Here we join Dinah (Yvette Mimieux) who, having been cheated on by her partner, decides to drive from LA to New York to start a new life. Alas, her pastoral road trip is quickly cut short when she is attacked by hitchhikers before being beaten and raped by a local jailer. To say rural America got a short shift in post-Deliverance 70’s cinema would be understating it somewhat. She manages to kill the jailer, and with the aid of local truck hijacker Coley (a young Tommy Lee Jones) has to escape the vengeance seeking local police force.

Despite the lurid, 42nd Street nature of the subject, the film is proves to be an intense thriller with Mimieux and Jones both giving performances that belie the films origins, a minor grindhouse classic.


27. Grand Theft Auto – Ron Howard – 1977

Grand Theft Auto

Long before the ‘live out your darkest fantasies’ computer game series – Grand Theft Auto was yet another chase flick from the Roger Corman stable. Though this one proved to be more than just an historic footnote being the debut directorial effort of one of the biggest box office raking directors of the 80’s and 90’s, former Happy Days star Ron Howard.

In order to tempt Howard into starring in the previous year’s dire Eat my Dust (yes, another chase flick), Corman offered him just over half a million dollars to direct his own entry into the genre. The resulting film is significantly better than Eat my Dust, another coast to coast racer, but imbued with charm and character. Howard was clearly a talent behind the camera, and the tight, well paced editing was undertaken by another young man destined for bigger things, future Gremlins director Joe Dante.


28. Night Drive – E.W. Swackhamer – 1977

Night Drive

Probably the most obscure picture in this list. Night Drive (aka Night Terror) was originally a TV movie broadcast in 1977. In the spirit of TV movie precursor Duel, Night Drive belies its impoverished home media roots and the result is a fine exercise in sustained intensity.

Valerie Harper plays a housewife taking a lone trip across desert highways who witnesses the murder of a highway patrolman. ‘The Killer’ (Richard Romanus) then gives chase over 70 brisk and unnerving minutes.

This is a road that is no longer a place to discover oneself but instead harks back to the films of the 40’s and 50’s where the road is a conduit for travelling killers seen in films such Detour and The Hitch-Hiker, and would be seen again in larger scale thrillers during the 80’s and 90’s, such as Robert Harmon’s road terror masterpiece The Hitcher.


29. Smokey and the Bandit – Hal Needham – 1977

Smokey and the Bandit

Hal Needham’s classic zenith of the ‘hixploitation’ genre follows the infamous braggadocio and daredevil ‘The Bandit’ (Burt Reynolds), who when offered a vague money earner concerning the bootlegging of beer from Texas to Georgia within a set time limit, accepts with aplomb.

This results in a police chase across the south-eastern United States, as The Bandit and his partner-in-crime Cledus (Jerry Reed) are pursued by Sheriff Buford T. Justice (a very drunk and very wonderful Jackie Gleason) the titular ‘Smokey’ of the picture. The waters are further muddied when The Bandit is accused of kidnapping Justice’s prospective daughter-in-law, the runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field).

Despite opening the same week as a little sci-fi picture called Star Wars, Smokey took $126 million and ended up as the year’s second biggest film behind the aforementioned space-opera. These box office receipts confirmed the evolution of the genre. The road for the foreseeable was to be, for better or ill, the home of slapstick spectacle.

To be fair, Smokey and the Bandit fully earned its public plaudits. The film is a funny, action packed, well paced and completely charming slice of southern chase cinema that stands up to many re-viewings – a feat that would not be repeated in the subpar cash-in sequels or any of the myriad Needham/Reynolds collaborations that would follow.


30. The Driver – Walter Hill – 1978

The Driver (1978)

Debatable road movie credentials (we never leave Los Angeles after all) but this picture is a wonderfully brooding car movie with which to conclude a brief overview of the decade.

Walter Hill’s chase flick subverts the stereotypical action movie cop vs. robber template, replacing the usual uber-masculine battle of wits with moody existentialism. Ryan O’Neal plays ‘The Driver’ as a stoic empty shell of a man living only for his Jean-Pierre Melville aping samurai lite code of morals. He is assisted by ‘The Player’, Isabelle Adjani set up as a femme fatale but playing the role with an equal blankness.

Bruce Dern mugs it up as ‘The Detective’ (no one is named) playing him as an unsympathetic egotist looking to bag the driver for his own self satisfaction rather than any sense of legal justice.

The monosyllabic character study is countered by some classic Hill action sequences, the chases through night time LA bristling with unparalleled neo noir cool. The Driver makes a fine film to draw this list to a close as its reputation and influence have only increased in recent years, with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive being one of the most clearly indebted.

Authur Bio: Lee Teasdale is from the Lake District in England but is currently paying his dues down in London. A film graduate in a former life, he is currently working on books about 1970’s road movies and violence in the road movie, but alas at the speed of continental drift, so it may be while. He occasionally spouts inane crap at He loves roads and cars and movies.