Cinema is the ultimate form of escapism. Watching a film means enjoying a brief break from reality and, for a moment, engaging with another set of experiences from an entirely different time and place. Of course, the pinnacle of this ideal is found in the travel film, which, in its most successful incarnations throughout history, can take both the protagonist and the viewing audience on a journey. One of the genre’s most recent offerings, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – an adaptation of the 1939 short story by James Thurber – is centred firmly on this principle of escaping, as day-dreamer Walter embarks on a global quest for adventure and excitement. With these grandiose ideas in mind, it is unsurprising to note that travel films have provided some of the most memorable landscapes, moments and experiences in cinematic history.
The release of Roman Holiday in 1953, the quintessential travel film, was a Hollywood watershed. Not only did it provide an early star-making performance from Audrey Hepburn, but it inspired a generation of Americans to travel overseas and embark on a journey of their own. Largely considered to be the first American production filmed and processed in Italy, Roman Holiday catches the sense of Rome’s time and place with great authenticity. As a result, the film provided its Hollywood audience with an insight into the possibilities and experiences available abroad; a landmark achievement, given that vacationing overseas was still a relatively rare practice at the time.
However, this sense of motivation and encouragement still remains a prominent feature of the travel genre, as demonstrated in films such as The Beach, which was based on an Alex Garland novel. The film was not a critical success, but its use of the vast, beautiful coastlines and beaches of Phuket and Phi Phi Leh has made for some incredibly enduring images and, consequently, has provided much inspiration to young British tourists since its release in 2000, in spite of the darker aspects of the work.
While the sentiment of inspiration is, undoubtedly, a contributing factor to the enduring popularity of travel films, it is the cinematography that provides the genre’s most awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping and memorable moments. An early demonstration of this can be seen in the much-revered 1951 classic, The African Queen. Although some scenes were deemed too dangerous to be shot on location, vast amounts of the film’s production took place in Uganda and the Congo – which, while providing rich and wonderfully realised landscapes, proved to be an arduous and difficult task with early Technicolor cameras.
More recently, the majority of praise directed towards The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was centred on the look of the film, particularly in regards to Walter’s experiences in Iceland and the Himalayas. This practice is also present on a much smaller scale within travel films, as seen in Alexander Payne’s 2013 film, Nebraska. While this film did not take our protagonists quite as far afield as Walter Mitty, the film-makers used the unique mountains and landscapes visible on the cross-country journey from Lincoln to Nebraska to extraordinary effect. No easy task, given that the entire film was presented in black and white.
In scaling previously uncharted landscapes, travel films are able to introduce these new sights to audiences watching at home. However, such films can also introduce their audience to another culture, and actually allow them to experience it vicariously. This explains the popularity of foreign cinema in English-speaking countries, in that it often depicts cultures distinct from our own. There is no clearer cinematic demonstration of this practice than in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. The film stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as Americans visiting Tokyo, where they are both faced with differing struggles caused by the language and cultural barriers between themselves and those around them. In one particularly engaging scene, Charlotte (Johansson) observes a traditional Japanese wedding in Kyoto and the audience, in turn, watches and experiences the events as if they were alongside her.
Nevertheless, while the travel genre is defined by expeditions across land and sea, it is seemingly a genre centred on self-discovery. Films like Up and Into the Wild are built around this theme and, in both cases, the characters’ physical journeys are mere vehicles for something more metaphorical. However, it is the sense of inspiration, the depiction of new cultures, and the stunning cinematography that has provided the travel genre with its unique ability to endure throughout history, and take the audience on a journey that continues long after the credits have rolled.