End of The Road?: A Great Lost Film of 1968

By Lee Hill

end-of-the-road-aram-avakian.jpgEnd of the Road, 1970

One of the dilemmas facing filmmakers caught up in the heat of their times is how to document that sound and fury without ending up with work that signifies nothing. End of The Road, adapted from John Barth’s 1958 novel, tried to solve that problem in a go-for-broke fashion that probably sealed its status as a ’60s curio. Shot in the summer and fall of 1968 in the dappled sunlight of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, End was the directorial debut of Aram Avakian, the editor of several Arthur Penn films and Jazz on A Summer's Day. He co-wrote and co-produced the film with Terry Southern, the cult writer behind Candy and Dr. Strangelove.

In the novel John Hopkins graduate Jacob Horner is found by Doctor D on a train platform in a near catatonic state. D takes Horner to his Remobilisation Farm to rebuild his personality from the ground up. Following D’s therapy, Horner moves to a college town to teach remedial English to freshmen. He forms an odd friendship with an older professor, Joe Morgan, and embarks on a tragic affair with Morgan’s wife, Rennie.

The book focused on a silent Fifties generation weary of Old Left orthodoxies and the philistinism of McCarthyism. By contrast, Avakian and Southern, reeling from the first six months of 1968 – with the Tet Offensive, Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia, the Paris riots and near chaos at home – were keen to use the adaptation as a way to exorcise the political demons of the present. In a bravura opening montage, edited to Billie Holliday’s Don’t Worry ’Bout Me, Horner’s train platform breakdown is intercut with images of America’s post-war boom, its hideous racism and poverty, the space race, the squalor of the Korean War and Vietnam, the cold war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the backlash against New Deal and Great Society notions of a more equitable republic.

Doctor D, as played by James Earl Jones, is every radical Sixties guru and politico – imagine Arthur Janov mixed with Wilhelm Reich and Eldridge Cleaver and then some – wrapped in one. Horner, interpreted with a creepy drollness by Stacey Keach, embodies the bad faith that would derail the counterculture as personal liberation took precedence over larger notions of social justice.

This is one of many bleak subtexts in End of The Road, arguably the most Godardian American feature of its time. Its cold, elliptical style is mitigated by Gordon Willis’ cinematography and by the sublime cast. Harris Yulin is eerily convincing as a career academic, while Dorothy Tristan brings dignity and compassion to the role of Rennie, the woman who literally becomes the sacrifice that keeps the delusions of the men around her aloft.

After a year and half of editing, Road was released in January, 1970, but it received an X rating for a harrowing abortion sequence. The film has a following in the oddest places. Coppola quotes its final shot in the killing of Fredo in The Godfather Part II and it is also referenced in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Steven Soderbergh is one of the film’s many champions and his meta-comedies like Full Frontal and Schizopolis share similar concerns. Road deserves a wider audience if only to demonstrate that some acts of rebellion are even too far out for the rebels themselves.

End of the Road plays at London’s Curzon Soho on 8th June. It will be introduced by Lee Hill, who is the author of a biography of Terry Southern.