Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Jacob Horner (Stacy Keach) walks out of his graduation ceremony and is found in a catatonic
state on a railway station platform. He is taken into care by Doctor D (James Earl Jones),
who runs a bizarre mental institution where patients are encouraged to live out their fantasies.
Once 'cured', Jacob takes a job teaching English and becomes involved with his colleague Joe
Morgan (Harris Yulin) and his wife Rennie (Dorothy Tristan). Jacob begins an affair with
Rennie, with devastating results.
The number of films made every year is vast: many find an audience straight away; others build one over a course of time. Others still sink into obscurity, whether deserved or not. However, some films simply become invisible. They may be 'known', in the sense that they were made for the commercial cinema, and you've heard of the cast and the principal crew... but for one reason or another they are almost impossible to see. Films in this category vary from country to country, and the reasons include litigation or problems with music rights (a major reason for the no-shows on video and/ or DVD of a lot of films from the 1970s and late 1960s, though this should not preclude TV showings).
However, with some the reasons are less clear-cut. End Of The Road, directed in 1969 (its copyright date) by Aram Avakian, and adapted from a novel by John Barth, is one of these. It's known in that it appears in reference books and that its two leading actors, Stacy Keach and James Earl Jones, are certainly famous. It was the first film for one of the greatest American cinematographers, Gordon Willis, and another distinguished DP, Michael Chapman, worked as the camera operator. Released in February 1970, it was a flop, hobbled by generally dismissive reviews and a MPAA 'X' rating, of which more later. However, some reviewers were more appreciative: Maltin's Film Guide gives the film three stars, while Danny Peary includes it in a list of "additional must-see films" in Guide For The Film Fanatic. Since then, End Of The Road seems to have built up a small cult following on video, though even that has been hard to obtain. (I first saw the film that way in 1999: my copy had taken six months to arrive, after the second attempt at ordering it.) The most recent public screening I am aware of was in 1999 at the Denver Film Festival.
End Of The Road has never had a British video or DVD release, or any TV showing. It appears to have had a limited release in 1970, as reviews exist from Time Out and Monthly Film Bulletin. There is no listing on the BBFC database, which means that the film was almost certainly distributed without a certificate, for fear that the censor would cut the film. (Not without reason.) One person who may well have seen the film at the time is Nicolas Roeg, as you can see a brief scene from the film on one of David Bowie's television sets in The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Barth's novel is The End Of The Road: the film drops the first definite article, making the distinction in its opening credits. Published in 1958, it was his second novel, following the previous year's The Floating Opera. Barth is dismissive of these two early works, remarking that, "they didn't know they were novels." Certainly, The End Of The Road is much shorter (about 65,000 words) and far closer to a conventional novel than the sprawling, meta-fictive works that made his name, such as Giles Goat-Boy and The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading The End Of The Road, you can sense some strain with traditional realism: although the characters are convincing enough, there's a sense that they as much embody ideas as flesh and blood. Barth is a major figure in American literature, but The End Of The Road remains the only one of his novels to be filmed. (Steven Soderbergh had The Sot-Weed Factor in development in the late 1990s, but nothing seems to have come of this.)
Barth is on record as disliking End Of The Road, pointing to changes that the three screenwriters (Dennis McGuire, Terry Southern and Aram Avakian) made to his novel. He disapproved of the playing of Doctor D's nurse/ assistant Mrs Dockey, described as mannish in the novel, by an actual man (Ray Brock, who has just two words of dialogue in the film) in nurse's uniform. In particular he disliked Joel Oppenheimer's brief but notorious scene as the Chicken Man (of which more later), which has no equivalent in the book. However, watching the film again after reading the novel, I'm struck by how (generally) faithful it is to it, even down to certain lines of dialogue. Apart from the above, the major change is a structural one: Barth begins with Doctor D sending Jacob (who narrates the novel in first person, a device dropped for the film) out into the world, flashing back several chapters later to his breakdown and treatment. The screenplay reorganises this into chronological order, beginning with the catatonia (while Billie Holliday's Don't Worry 'Bout Me plays on the soundtrack, and director Avakian fills the screen with a montage of photographs of war and atrocities). Both film and novel pose the question: what place do rules have in society? If you take them away, would life be better? - a question answered firmly in the negative.
End Of The Road earned its X rating for the chicken scene, a gruelling abortion scene, and possibly Jones one use of 'motherfucker'. (M*A*S*H, released a month earlier, was not the first American film to include the word 'fuck' as some believe, but was the first to have the word allowed in an R-rated film.) The last two would certainly not earn the film a NC-17 (the direct equivalent of the old X) nowadays, but the chicken scene very likely would. I don't know who Joel Oppenheimer is or was (this appears to be his only film), but in his short scene he makes a little piece of film history: as Doctor D shows Jacob around the institute, he opens a door to see one patient living out his fantasy, namely having sex with a chicken. End Of The Road (along with the independent film Futz, a dire comedy-musical made the same year, about a man in love with a pig) introduced bestiality to the commercial American cinema. To justify this scene you have to put it in context. The X rating, at the time, was a respectable adults-only indicator: Midnight Cowboy had just won the 'best picture' Oscar, and the majors were releasing such films as Beyond The Valley of the Dolls, Myra Breckinridge, Performance, A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango In Paris. Not all of these were successful, commercially or critically, but all were serious films. However, the content of some of them provoked the ire of moralists. The emerging hardcore porn industry was soon to take up the X rating, giving it (and the NC-17 which followed it) a stigma that still remains. However, in 1970 that was not the case. With the ratings system, established in 1968, many filmmakers were testing the boundaries of what was permissible, and in some cases pushed them further than they would nowadays. Certainly, bestiality is not a theme filmmakers have returned to in later years, with occasional comic exceptions such as the Gene Wilder episode of Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex and a brief gag involving a gorilla in Trading Places... though nothing is depicted on screen. (This does happen occasionally in foreign films, such as the Cannes winners Padre Padrone and The Ballad Of Narayama.) And it should be added that, for its time, Barth's novel was explicit: the abortion theme itself was controversial, Doctor D's therapy includes licensed homosexual activity and it is certainly surprising to see the word 'fuck' unexpurgated in a 1950s' novel.
Born in 1926, Aram Avakian was primarily an editor, on Arthur Penn's Lilith and Mickey One and Francis Coppola's You're A Big Boy Now, amongst others. He had co-directed two films, the classic 1960 documentary Jazz On A Summer's Day and the family film Lad: A Dog in 1962, but End Of The Road was his first solo directing credit. As well as co-writing the script, he made two brief appearances in the film, as the Pig Man, and as Jacob's landlord. However, the film's failure derailed his career, and he made two more features (Cops And Robbers in 1973, and the caper comedy 11 Harrowhouse in 1974) before returning to editing. After performing this function on 1980's Honeysuckle Rose, Avakian turned to teaching in film school (one of his pupils was Hal Hartley), but he died in 1987. Some of Avakian and Gordon Willis' flourishes are of their time, notably the multiple dissolves and superimpositions during the sequence where Jacob falls for Rennie, while she teaches him to ride a horse. It's also fair to say that the film is a little confused, its satirical targets a little scattershot, fuelled by a late-1960s' counter-cultural anger. (The recurring images of the American flag and of guns are very likely Terry Southern's contribution.) On the other hand, the acting is good; with Jones' flamboyance just this side of over the top, and Keach and Tristan (Avakian's wife) underplaying what must have been difficult roles. For all its flaws, End Of The Road does stay with you, and it's a film of considerable interest for many reasons. It's just a pity it's almost impossible to see, at least in the UK. What would we have done without the Internet?
The DVD release available from Allied Artists Classics is the kind of release that gives 'public domain' a bad name: it's a 4:3 video master (open-matte from an intended ratio of 1.85:1) copied onto a DVD-R. At the present time, Warner own the catalogue of Allied Artists (the now defunct studio which made the film) and lets hope for a properly restored DVD release at some point.
Thanks to Des Lewis for the loan of the novel.