There have been many attempts to assemble an ultimate list of great travel movies. I did a Google search, got some ideas, and elaborated on them. The result is a list of 20 great travel movies, highly subjective of course.
What am I looking for?
I came to realise that many of the movies I have been watching and enjoying over the years, have been about travelling and meeting other cultures. Certainly not all, but at least a fair amount of them.
A travel movie may not be a specific genre as such, and there are several sub-genres the travel movies may be divided into. The simple criteria I have used to compile my list are these:
- The plot involves a movement from one place to another, at least for some of the characters in the movie.
- The plot is set somewhere else than a character is familiar with. He or she will be have to be challenged by this fact.
- I must have seen the movie myself and I must have liked it.
I have tried to sort them under a series of headings. You may explore a summary copied from other sources, and a YouTube trailer. The 20 movies are set all over the world.
Romance, humour and self-discovery
This is a sub-genre I created myself. The last word may not be the most accurate, but never mind. Here are four movies:
Under the Tuscan sun (2003)
“Based on the #1 New York Times best-selling book, Under the Tuscan sun follows San Francisco writer Frances Mayes (Lane) to Italy as a good friend offers her a special gift — 10 days in Tuscany. Once there, she is captivated by its beauty and warmth, and impulsively buys an aging, but very charming, villa. Fully embracing new friends and local color, she finds herself immersed in a life-changing adventure filled with enough unexpected surprises, laughter, friendship, and romance to restore her new home — and her belief in second chances.” (Source)
Americans are very intrigued by Tuscany and not least the towns of Florence and Siena. That’s why this film is included on just about every “great travel movies” list I have seen from the US. That’s the reason I had to watch it myself – and it was quite entertaining.
The next two movies are also about Americans coming to Europe. Woody Allen is responsible for both of them, adding a distinct American accent to a European setting, as well as being entertaining on the top level, with more to be enjoyed on the sub-level(s).
Midnight in Paris (2011)
“This is a romantic comedy set in Paris about a family that goes there because of business, and two young people who are engaged to be married in the fall have experiences there that change their lives. It’s about a young man’s great love for a city, Paris, and the illusion people have that a life different from theirs would be much better.” (Source)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
“Vicky and Cristina are two young Americans spending a summer in Spain, who meet a charming Casanova and his beautiful but volatile ex-wife. When they all become romantically entangled, the smoldering sparks begin to fly in hilarious fashion. Critics rave, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is one of Woody Allen’s finest films, with bravura performances from its incredible cast” (Source)
National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985)
Here’s another funny movie about Americans coming to Europe. This is pure entertainment, wild and crazy. Why did I pick so many American movies about Americans coming to Europe?
“In a game show family Griswald wins a trip to Europe. They set out for Britain, France, Germany and Italy, ignorant to the damage they do to other people: In Britain Clark has slight problems to adapt to driving on the left side, runs several people over and accidentally lays down Stone Henge in reverse gear. In Germany they visit the wrong relatives and are chased by angry ‘Schuhplattl’ dancers. Finally in Rome they unknowingly help robbers in a hold-up and then Ellen gets kidnapped… simple jokes, always following the same scheme.” (Source)
Dramatic road movies
Any road movie is a travel movie, in essence. Some are more about roads than others. They are all about more essential issues as well – I mean: I prefer the first two to films like “Smokey and the Bandit” or “Convoy”.
Easy Rider (1969)
“The partners and friends Wyatt and Billy buy drugs in Mexico and deal in Los Angeles, raising money to travel to the Mardi Grass in New Orleans in their bikes. They cross their country disclosing a period of counterculture and intolerance through spectacular landscapes.” (Source)
Thelma & Louise (1991)
“Whilst on a short weekend getaway, Louise shoots a man who had tried to rape Thelma. Due to the incriminating circumstances, they make a run for it but are soon followed closely by the authorities including a local policeman who is sympathetic to their plight. The federal authorities, however, have less compassion and thus a cross country chase ensues for the two fugitives. Along the way, both women rediscover the strength of their friendship and suprising aspects of their personalities and self-strengths in the trying times.” (Source)
Kon Tiki (2012)
This is the first non-American movie in my list. Being Norwegian, it had to be Norwegian.
“Legendary explorer Thor Heyerdal’s epic 4,300-mile crossing of the Pacific on a balsawood raft in 1947, in an effort prove that it was possible for South Americans to settle in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.” (Source)
Action and adventure – pure entertainment
This is a genre with a lot of movies, many of them have been hugely successful resulting in several sequels.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
“The year is 1936. A professor who studies archeology named Indiana Jones is venturing in the jungles in South America searching for a golden statue. Unfortunately, he sets off a deadly trap doing so, miraculously, he escapes. Then, Jones hears from a museum curator named Marcus Brody about a biblical artifact called The Ark of the Covenant, which can hold the key to humanly existence. Jones has to venture to vast places such as Nepal and Egypt to find this artifact. However, he will have to fight his enemy Renee Belloq and a band of Nazis in order to reach it.” (Source)
This is the first of four Indiana Jones movies.
Dr. No (1962)
James Bond is employed by Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He is involved in numerous adventures in multiple settings throughout the world. Dr. No was the first of a very long series and may represent all.
“Bond’s mission takes him to the steamy island of Jamaica, where mysterious energy waves are interfering with U.S. missile launches. As he unravels the astonishing truth, 007 must fight deadly assassins, sexy femme fatales and even a poisonous tarantula. With the help of crack CIA agent Felix Leiter and the beautiful Honey Ryder, he searches for the headquarters of Dr. No, a fanatical scientist who is implementing an evil plan of world domination. Only James Bond, with his combination of wit, charm and skill, can confront the madman and save the human race from a horrible fate.” (Source)
Lara Croft Tomb Raider (2001)
The featured photo of this article is from the famous “Angelina Jolie tree” in Angkor, Cambodia.
“Based on the popular video game series, Tomb Raider features the adventures of Lara Croft an antiquities hunter-for-hire. She travels to exotic locales in search of treasures and artifacts in the catacombs of ancient tombs and ruins remaining from age-old empires. A female Indiana Jones, Croft’s expeditions are always chock full of action, danger, intrigue, suspense and her omnipresent knack for defying death in tight outfits.” (Source)
Action and adventure: The intellectually challenging movies
Here’s a group of films with a heavier intellectual foundation. The movies, and the books they may be based upon, can be interpreted on several layers. This is the case with the river and jungle movies. I recall that my Freudian professor of literature used to relate them to the female womb.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
“Vietnam, 1969. Burnt out Special Forces officer Captain Willard is sent into the jungle with top-secret orders to find and kill renegade Colonel Kurtz who has set up his own army within the jungle. As Willard descends into the jungle, he is slowly over taken by the jungle’s mesmerizing powers and battles the insanity which surrounds him. His boat crew succumbs to drugs and is slowly killed off one by one. As Willard continues his journey he becomes more and more like the man he was sent to kill.” (Source)
The African Queen (1951)
“At the start of World War 1 German imperial troops burn down Reverend Samuel Sayer’s mission in Africa. He is overtaken with disappointment and passes away. Shortly after his well-educated snooty sister Rose Sayer (Hepburn) buries her brother she must leave on the only available transport a tired river steamboat ‘The African Queen’ manned by the ill-mannered bachelor Charlie Allnut (Bogart). Together they embark on a long difficult journey without any comfort. Rose grows determined to assist in the British war effort and presses Charlie until he finally agrees and together they steam up the Ulana encountering an enemy fort raging rapids bloodthirsty parasites and endlessly branching stream which always seem to lead them to what appear to be impenetrable swamps. Despite opposing personalities the two grow closer to each other and ultimately carry out their plan to take out a German warship.” (Source)
The Beach (2000)
“Garland’s novel centers on a young nicotine-addicted traveler named Richard, an avid pop-culture buff with a particular love for video games and Vietnam War movies. While at a hotel in Bangkok, he finds a map left by his strange, whacked-out neighbor, who just committed suicide. The map supposedly leads to a legendary island paradise where some other wayward souls have settled.” (Source)
I suppose some would consider this the ultimate backpacker traveller movie.
Seven Years in Tibet (1997)
“Heinrich Harrer journeys to the Himalayas to climb mountains, leaving his wife behind in Austria. War breaks out while he’s gone and he is placed in a prisoner-of-war camp. Harrer escapes to Tibet where he befriends the childhood Dalai Lama and witnesses the Tibetan/Chinese confrontation escalate.” (Source)
A rosy-red depiction of the Buddhist heaven on Earth, a culture-shock in a way, and grossly under-communicating the backward feudal society that Tibet was before the Chinese invasion.
Out of Africa (1985)
“Karen Blixen, a Danish woman, marries a friend for the title of Baroness and they move to Africa and start a coffee plantation. Things unfold when her husband begins cheating on her and is away on business often, so she’s at home alone, working on the farm and bonding with two men she met in her first day in Africa. She eventually falls in love with the one, Denys Finch-Hatton and goes on safari and whatnot with him. Later, she begins to want more from him than the simple friendship/relationship they have and pushes marriage, but Denys still wants his freedom. By the end, she’s gained a much better understanding and respect for the African culture than when she came.” (Source)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
“An inordinately complex man who has been labeled everything from hero, to charlatan, to sadist, Thomas Edward Lawrence blazed his way to glory in the Arabian desert, then sought anonymity as a common soldier under an assumed name. The story opens with the death of Lawrence in a motorcycle accident in Dorset at the age of 46, then flashbacks to recount his adventures: as a young intelligence officer in Cairo in 1916, he is given leave to investigate the progress of the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I. In the desert, he organizes a guerrilla army and–for two years–leads the Arabs in harassing the Turks with desert raids, train-wrecking and camel attacks. Eventually, he leads his army northward and helps a British General destroy the power of the Ottoman Empire.” (Source)
The Piano (1993)
“It is the mid-nineteenth century. Ada is a mute who has a young daughter, Flora. In an arranged marriage she leaves her native Scotland accompanied by her daughter and her beloved piano. Life in the rugged forests of New Zealand’s South Island is not all she may have imagined and nor is her relationship with her new husband Stewart. She suffers torment and loss when Stewart sells her piano to a neighbour, George. Ada learns from George that she may earn back her piano by giving him piano lessons, but only with certain other conditions attached. At first Ada despises George but slowly their relationship is transformed and this propels them into a dire situation.” (Source)
The Mission (1986)
“Father Gabriel ascends the mountains of Brazil to bring christianity to the natives. He is successful and brings about a golden age among them. Mendoza, a slaver, kills his brother in a fit of rage, and only Fr. Gabriel’s guidance prevents his suicide. Gabriel brings Mendoza to work at his mission with the natives, and Mendoza finds peace and asks to become a priest. The church , under pressure, cedes the land to the Portuguese which will allow slavers in again. Mendoza breaks his vows and organizes the natives to resist while Gabriel warns him to help them as a priest.” (Source)
Sci-Fi travel movies
Sure, a journey does not have to be about moving somewhere on Planet Earth, it does not have to be realistic at all. Here are two Science Fiction movies I remember was worth seeing.
2001 A Space Oddysey (1968)
“”2001″ is a story of evolution. Sometime in the distant past, someone or something nudged evolution by placing a monolith on Earth (presumably elsewhere throughout the universe as well). Evolution then enabled humankind to reach the moon’s surface, where yet another monolith is found, one that signals the monolith placers that humankind has evolved that far. Now a race begins between computers (HAL) and human (Bowman) to reach the monolith placers. The winner will achieve the next step in evolution, whatever that may be.” (Source)
Planet of the Apes (1968)
“In the year 3978 A.D. a spaceship with a crew of 4 crashes down on a distant planet. One of the crew members had died in space and the other 3 head out to explore the planet. They soon learn that the planet is much like their own. They then find the planet is inhabited by intelligent apes. One of the men is shot and killed and the others are taken to the apes’ city. There, one undergoes brain surgery and is put into a state of living death. The other befriends some of the apes but is feared by most. After being put through ape trial he escapes with a female human native to the planet. After helping his ape friends escape a religious heresy trial he escapes out into the wilderness with the female. There he learns the planet might not be so distant after all…” (Source)
After I published this article with 20 movies, I have come up with even more compelling travel movies. To reduce the burden on reading I split the next 20 into three articles, summing all 40 up in the last.
All articles in this series of great travel movies:
- Great Travel Movies (THIS)
- Lone man or woman off to discover the world and him-/herself
- Two or more people off to discover the world and themselves
- Travel movies set in one location, with existential consequences
- The ultimate list of great travel movies