In the same year that screenwriter and novelist, Terry Southern, was putting the finishing touches on a script called Easy Rider, he was also at work on a far more personal and experimental project. Written and shot in 1968, End of The Road is a great lost film of the period.

Dismissed by critics during its brief New York run in January, 1970, End of The Road was burdened with an X rating due to a harrowing abortion sequence. Allied Artists, the film's distributor, didn't go to bat for it and as a result, the film never got the kind of promotion Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy enjoyed. Perhaps it wouldn't have helped much anyway since End of The Road is an uncompromising study of alienation and political despair. Its director, Aram Avakian, came closer to emulating the Brechtian outrage of Jean Luc Godard than any other American director of the time surpassing in many respects the work of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn.

Adapted from John Barth's first novel, The End of The Road, published in 1958, the film is faithful to the book's distanced narrative. Jacob Horner (Stacy Keach), a recent graduate of John Hopkins, is found in a state of catatonia on a rail station platform by Doctor D (James Earl Jones). Doctor D takes him to his Remobilization Farm, a combination mental hospital, commune and experimental lab. Imagine Esalen meets A Clockwork Orange. In his examination room, Doctor D bombards Horner with a variety of stimuli from shouting abuse and shifting roles to flashing slides of sex, pop art and Vietnam, and introducing Horner to the other patients, a motley crew of psychopaths, obsessives and fetishists. These unorthodox methods bring Horner back to something resembling consciousness. In order to complete his recovery, Horner is instructed to get a normal job and avoid personal and political engagement. Horner is hired by a small college to teach prescriptive English grammar. He becomes friends with a senior professor, Joe Morgan (Harris Yulin) and his wife, Rennie Morgan (Dorothy Tristan). Joe is a cold, analytical tyrant who humiliates and starves Rennie of real affection and friendship. In response, Horner, as if preprogrammed, embarks on an affair with Rennie. When she becomes pregnant, she decides she doesn't want to have the baby or leave her husband. Horner, with little conviction, arranges an abortion conducted by Doctor D. To say this triangle ends badly is an understatement. All the characters, not just the aimless Horner, find there are indeed limits to the politics of self.

End of The Road was one of the few truly independent feature films of the sixties. Avakian was a talented editor (The Miracle Worker, You're A Big Girl Now), whose only other film as director, Lad: A Dog, convinced him that the studio system was no place for personal filmmaking. Southern, a friend of Avakian's from his Paris days, was looking for more creative control over his scripts. They optioned Barth's novel and reworked an earlier treatment by Dennis McGuire. Max Raab, a garment manufacturer in Greenwich Village, raised the meager half a million dollar budget. Shooting started in an abandoned button factory in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and the surrounding countryside in the late summer and early fall of 1968. Fueled by the bitter passions of the times, Southern and Avakian encouraged cast and crew to collaborate and improvise.

Barth's novel was informed by the apolitical conformity of fifties college life when McCarthyism kept liberal academics in a state of paranoid silence and retreat. By contrast, Avakian and Southern underscore Horner's nervous breakdown with images of the social and political meltdown of 1968. In a brilliant opening montage of still photos and newsreel footage, the sideshow of post-war history is unveiled culminating in the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, riots and protests, the resurgence of law and order Republicans like Nixon and Agnew, and of course, the Vietnam War. Horner's catatonia is a direct response to the madness of LBJ's Great Society. Whereas the Doctor's race was not significant in the novel, the film's casting of James Earl Jones is central to Avakian and Southern's adaptation. Jones' balance of outrage and insight acts as a counterpoint to the ineffectual liberalism of the white characters.

Southern and Avakian also found a corollary to Barth's arch, self-referential prose. The editing combines scenes of seamless, flowing cuts with others that are disassociative and allusive. The dialogue is simultaneously banal and charged with menace and foreboding.

"We tried to give the film a full-on sixties flavor - student unrest and so on - which seemed inherent in the book . A very good book, and, I like to believe, a most faithful adaptation, with a little something extra in the form of Doctor D's theories," Southern told me.

The acting is deliberately mannered with the characters as archetypes wearing irony all too visibily on their sleeve. Harris Yulin is especially noteworthy in his definitive portrait of a jaded, manipulative career academic.

The visual and aural strategy of End of The Road adds to the film's unsettling atmosphere. Making his debut as a feature film cinematographer, Gordon Willis' chiaroscuro approach equals that of his work with Francis Coppola and Woody Allen.

Despite a big advance story in Life, the film was met with either indifference or incomprehension. In a typical review, Molly Haskell wrote "the apocalyptic vision is an excuse for blackwashing moral distinctions." Judith Crist dismissed it as tasteless and superficial. With no hot young stars (but fine actors) or groovy rock score (but Bach, Billie Holliday and Teo Macero), Road was a film that fell between the cracks of youth culture, the New Hollywood and the traditional art house audience. And John Barth didn't like the film to boot.

End of The Road was a turning point for Southern and Avakian. After 1970, Southern found it increasingly difficult to get his unique brand of satire financed. A promising adaptation of A Cool Million by Nathanael West was one of the first projects to get stalled in development hell. Avakian went back to the mainstream to make the elegant but empty 11 Harrowhouse and Cops n' Robbers. He had more success as a teacher at Purchase College, where one of his students was Hal Hartley.

End of The Road was forgotten, but it has slowly built up a, dare I say it, sub-cult reputation thanks to video. Nicholas Roeg paid homage to the film in The Man Who Fell To Earth. When Thomas Newton watches his bank of multiple TV sets, one of them shows James Earl Jones taunting Stacy Keach. Roeg probably identified with Avakian's outlaw approach to feature film storytelling.

I know this is a minority view, but I think End of The Road is some kind of masterpiece, a tattered signpost pointing to a road not taken by American cinema. The New Hollywood of the late sixties and early seventies, like most new waves, promised more than it could deliver. As great as the work of Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg was in the seventies, their politics was often safely couched in genre or pyrotechnical display. If Road had been even a modest success, Avakian might have joined Robert Altman or John Cassavettes in creating a more rigorous brand of new American cinema.

For Southern, Road was the closest he came to directing and reveals that there was more to his work than the cool hipster suggested by Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider. Like all great satirists, Southern is a man of great seriousness, insight and feeling. He was no doubt attracted to Road because it highlights one of his major themes: the chaos that results when language, thought and feeling are cut off from each other.

In his memoir, Once Upon A Time, John Barth calls the film "vulgar", but actually the film extends the ideas of his novel. It pushes the consequences of the book's nihilism further and stresses the links between the personal and political. End of The Road is a raw cry of anguish over the death of sixties idealism filmed in a year when hope and fear were starkly felt by millions around the world. Like Two Lane Backtop and Performance, End of The Road is an elegy for a decade that we are still coming to terms with.

NOTE: End of the Road was selected by Denver Post film critic Steve Rosen for a CRITIC'S CHOICE award at the Denver International Film Festival. Click here for more on the event. Follow this link to order a videocassette copy of this historic film.

More about End of the Road:

Steve Rosen's Denver Int'l Film Festival Critic's Choice
End of the Road (more)

(c) Lee Hill; all rights reserved.