Movies shape how we see the world. Movies also shape the world we expect to see when we go out into it. Few things inspire us to travel like a well chosen backdrop. It paints romantic visions in our heads, visions that often linger for years.
Sometimes the reality of a place matches or exceeds our vision, and sometimes it falters. In the end, anything that inspires us to travel, to break the bonds of the everyday, is a force for positive change.
Here are a few films, old and new, that have inspired me to travel or that kept me sane between journeys. I hope they do the same for you.
The Mosquito Coast (1986) – Based on the bestselling novel by Paul Theroux. Disgruntled inventor Harrison Ford takes his family to the jungles of Central America to found a town and goes insane in the process. Filmed in the lush, steamy jungles of southern Belize, the film and the book inspired me to travel to Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast back in 2000.
The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) – The most accurate film I’ve ever seen on Mongolia’s south Gobi region. Apart from a few minor scenes, the film was shot by following the day to day lives of a family of nomads. As luck would have it, the filmmakers arrived during the camel birthing season. A natural drama ensued when a mother camel rejected its calf, endangering the life of the newborn creature. The reconciliation between the two camels, brought about by a traditional shamanic ceremony, is one of the most moving scenes ever set to film.
The Tempest (1982) – A little-known film by John Cassavettes, starring a very young Molly Ringwald, Susan Sarandon, and Raul Julia. The Tempest is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, filmed on a stunning Greek island in the Ionian Sea. I first saw this back when cable TV was new, during a free weekend preview of the movie channel. It had me dreaming Mediterranean dreams long before I was old enough to know where the Mediterranean was.
Mountains of the Moon (1990) – Based on the life of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. Burton spoke some 29 languages and dialects, was a prolific writer and translator, and one of the greatest explorers and travelers of all time. He was the first European to enter the Ethiopian city of Harare, was co-discoverer of the source of the Nile, and was one of the few foreigners ever to make the pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise. Burton was also a master of the sword. On one expedition he fought off an attack by Somali tribesman that saw him wounded through the mouth by a spear, the scars of which are visible in all his later photographs. Whenever I begin to feel like I’ve accomplished something, Burton’s example puts me to shame.
Before Sunrise / Before Sunset (1995/2004) – The quintessential traveler’s films, Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset perfectly capture the feeling of the all-consuming road romance. They go further in considering what would happen if we said ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’ at that one crucial juncture that could change the course of our lives. Set in Vienna and Paris (respectively), both films are steeped in Old Europe’s streets, and they capture those rambling traveler’s conversations better than any other film I know.
Summer Lovers (1982) – Every guy’s Mediterranean dream – a summer-long threesome on a beautiful Greek island. It’s a film about freedom, individualism, charting your own course and creating your own personal morality. It explores what it’s like to completely let go of the preconceived, immersing yourself totally in the present. Stunning scenery and an absence of tan lines make this classic a winner.
High Road to China (1983) – A little known and vastly underrated film by Tom Selleck. This film captures the spirit of high adventure and stubborn independence, and includes jaw-drop footage of Central Asia and the Himalayas. Plus, it’s got biplanes in it. Who wouldn’t want to rip around the world in one of those?
The Lover (1992) – Lush scenery of French colonial era Vietnam circa 1929: crumbling moss-eaten architecture, exotic street scenes, slow lazy ceiling fans, and lines of afternoon light casting rectangles of shadow through slatted wooden blinds. The film reminds us that sometimes those blinds also conceal illicit pleasures. You can almost feel the heat and humidity steam through the lens. And the heat between the main characters doesn’t hurt either… The Lover perfectly captures the feeling of old Hanoi.
The Dreamers (2003) – A shocking coming of age story set in Paris in the turbulent summer of 1968. A young American exchange student goes to the decadent City of Lights to study French, where he falls into a bizarre love triangle with a brother and sister and is drawn into their strange, sheltered world. Though controversial when it was released, the film is oddly enchanting rather than lewd, and it conveys a vivid sense of what Paris must have felt like during that turbulent summer of riots when social norms were shattered.
Lost in Translation (2003) – This film portrays the dazzling disorientation of Tokyo and the loneliness and exhaustion of culture shock better than any I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of the many times I’ve been cast adrift on a hostile shore, and it brought back so many vivid memories of everything that’s surreal about Tokyo, where.
The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) – Based on the posthumously published diary of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the film chronicles his coming of age journey through South America. Shot on location in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Peru. I read the original book of Guevara’s travel journals years ago, and feared the film would be an overblown foreshadowing of the world figure he would later become. That wasn’t the case. The movie stayed true to the road trip lark of the book, complete with the sort of South American scenery that’ll have you lacing up your hiking boots before the credits begin to roll.
The English Patient (1996) – Romance and archaeology in the Sahara desert in an age when high adventure was still a possibility, and when parts of the globe remained undiscovered. The film contains stunning desert footage, and was based on the real-life search for the lost city of Zezura. Yes, it’s a bit of a chick flick, but if you love the desert you only have to switch off the sound and feast on the imagery.
So that’s it. Twelve picks to inspire wanderlust and Vagabond Dreams.
What are your special travel films? I’d love to hear about them.