Thumb Tripping (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hitchhiking across the country.

Gary (Michael Burns) is a college kid from a good family who decides he’s not ready to settle down just yet and wants to ‘drop-out’ for awhile by taking part in the hitchhiking scene that was popular in the early 70’s with the counter-culture. While accepting rides he meets up with fellow hitchhiker Chay (Meg Foster) and the two immediately hit-if-off. They decide to accept every ride that comes along, which gets them into trouble when they get into a car driven by two violent men (Bruce Dern, Larry Hankin) and then later when they hop into a truck driven by Diesel (Michael Conrad) who seems kindly at first, but ultimately sets his sights on having sex with Chay, who willingly accepts his invitation, much to the consternation of Gary.

This film never really clicked with the public and much of the problem stemmed from the inability of knowing how to effectively market it, or even what genre it belonged in. Leonard Maltin, in his review, describes the film as being ‘amusing’ even though there is nothing in it that is funny or light-hearted. I remember in the 80’s going to my local video store where this film was put into the horror section and played-up like it was a thriller with Bruce Dern listed as the star even though his segment happens early on, is quickly forgotten, and only lasts for about 5 minutes.

If anything it works as a period piece at seeing how different and more free-spirited things were back then where accepting rides from strangers was considered fun and adventurous and not something to fear. It’s based loosely on the real-life experiences of Don Mitchell, a self-described hippie in the late 60’s who eventually moved to Vermont and became a sheep farmer. He wrote the story first as a novel before getting commissioned into turning it into a screenplay. For the most part it has an authentic feel particularly the segment showing the young people of the day hitch-hiking at various locations making it seem like it was an informal community all to its own.

What’s fascinating is seeing how the ‘responsible’ people that give the hitchhikers rides are usually just as unhappy with societal demands as the hippies, but with no idea or confidence on how to get out of their situations. The segment with Michael Conrad is the best as at first he’s the family man doing long over-the-road hauls to feed his wife and kids and yet his commitment to them takes an immediate backseat the second he becomes sexual aroused by Chay when he sees her dancing at a bar revealing that middle-aged men never become fully ‘domesticated’ no matter how hard they may try to play the part.

The two leads though are not fleshed-out enough. There’s a brief voice-over segment dealing with Burns’ conversation with his mother describing why he wants to drop-out and travel, which helps to give him some backstory, but we never get the same treatment with Foster. She’s this elusive enigma we want to know more about, but never understand. She’s far more compelling than Burns and should’ve been made the star and having her hitchhike alone would’ve  improved the movie.

Despite a few interesting moments it never comes together as a whole. The scenes are too loosely tied together and the story never feels like it’s progressing or has any momentum. The ending leaves everything wide-open particularly the fate of Chay who was the only intriguing element in it, which makes the viewer feel cheated when it’s over.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 28, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 34 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Quentin Masters

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: VHS

2 responses to “Thumb Tripping (1972)

  1. As a blog writer myself, the one advantage that writing online has over print is that comments can randomly float in from the internet from people who have randomly discovered your work. I’ve taken a break from writing my own review of Thumb Tripping – a film I discovered from Tarantino and watched this morning at 6am. Your comments have informed me that there was some uncertainty how to market the film which led to disappointment. For me, that reflects worse on the industry and the limited perspectives of audiences rather than the film.
    We have all seen the slasher version of this story a million times; this however had a far more subtle type of horror. It seemed to carry the message that in trying to get the ultimate freedom, you can lose yourself entirely, by being sucked into the drama and strong wills of those who you encounter, who will always have power over you as they are doing you a favour. By the end of the film, the two characters are so adrift from each other and the romance they seemed to be engulfed in.
    He has grown as a character and learned that thumb-tripping lifestyle actually provides a complete loss of control. She on the other hand has lost herself to the road, she stands for nothing, she will go with anyone’s flow entirely unquestioning and she has no idea of the level of betrayal she has committed against him and is left totally lost and directionless by the end.
    I felt this was a massively misunderstood film, and was all the better for not going down the usual road this genre takes and had something worthwhile to say about the psychological implications of giving yourself up entirely to the road could cause. I’ve followed you, as I am also interested in films from this era. Checkout my blog.

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