On this day in 1991, the critically acclaimed road movie “Thelma and Louise” debuts in theaters, stunning audiences with a climactic scene in which its two heroines drive off a cliff into the Grand Canyon, in a vintage 1966 green Ford Thunderbird convertible.
The road movie genre, which traces its roots as far back as Homer’s “Odyssey,” always involves a journey of some kind, in which the hero–almost invariably male–is confronted by challenges and learns something essential about himself along the way. Though the road movie historically didn’t have to involve an actual road, the increase in the production of road movies in the mid- to late-20th century suggests the impact of the growing automobile industry and the public’s fascination with the freedom inherent in a car. Two now-classic examples, “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and “Easy Rider” (1969), helped define and popularize the road movie genre for a new generation of viewers.
“Thelma and Louise,” directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Callie Khouri, reworked the road movie genre by replacing the typically male leads with two women.
In this version, Thelma, played by Geena Davis, is a housewife repressed by her temperamental husband, while Louise (Susan Sarandon) is a steely waitress hiding a trauma in her past. Soon after the two friends set off in Louise’s T-Bird convertible for a weekend vacation in a fishing cabin, events take a violent turn, and they are forced to go on the run. They drive towards Mexico, taking ever more desperate actions to elude capture along the way, culminating in their suicidal yet oddly triumphant dive into the Grand Canyon.
The iconic Thunderbird, first produced in 1955, was Ford’s attempt to create a sports car that would also provide an element of luxury. From the beginning, T-Birds became highly collectible cars, and new and limited edition models were introduced each year to keep up with the growing competition. 1966 was in fact the final year in which Ford manufactured T-Bird convertibles; sales were slow, and their marketing department decided the line’s luxury image was intact without the drop-top model. In addition to its co-starring role in “Thelma and Louise,” the 1966 Thunderbird has made prominent appearances in several other films, including Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 teen drama “The Outsiders” and David Lynch’s quirky, violent road movie “Wild at Heart” (1990).