12 Movies to Inspire a Journey


Movies shape how we see the world. Movies also shape the world we expect to see when we go out into it. Few things inspire us to travel like a well chosen backdrop. It paints romantic visions in our heads, visions that often linger for years.

Sometimes the reality of a place matches or exceeds our vision, and sometimes it falters. In the end, anything that inspires us to travel, to break the bonds of the everyday, is a force for positive change.

Here are a few films, old and new, that have inspired me to travel or that kept me sane between journeys. I hope they do the same for you.

moscoast.jpgThe Mosquito Coast

Based on the bestselling novel by Paul Theroux. Disgruntled inventor Harrison Ford takes his family to the jungles of Central America to found a town and goes insane in the process. Filmed in the lush, steamy jungles of southern Belize, the film and the book inspired me to travel to Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast back in 2000.



weepingcamel.jpgThe Story of the Weeping Camel

The most accurate film I’ve ever seen on Mongolia’s south Gobi region. Apart from a few minor scenes, the film was shot by following the day to day lives of a family of nomads. As luck would have it, the filmmakers arrived during the camel birthing season. A natural drama ensued when a mother camel rejected its calf, endangering the life of the newborn creature. The reconciliation between the two camels, brought about by a traditional shamanic ceremony, is one of the most moving scenes ever set to film. I visited this same region in 2002, and I’m sure I spent a night in the town where the family searches out the shaman — that building they enter contains a small shop where I bought supplies.


tempest.jpgThe Tempest

A little-known film by John Cassavettes, starring a very young Molly Ringwald, Susan Sarandon, and Raul Julia. The Tempest is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, filmed on a stunning Greek island in the Ionian Sea. I first saw this back when cable TV was new, during a free weekend preview of the movie channel. It had me dreaming Mediterranean dreams long before I was old enough to know where the Mediterranean was. “The Tempest” is also my favourite Bill Shakespeare play.


mountainsmoon.jpgMountains of the Moon

Based on the life of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. Burton spoke some 29 languages and dialects, was a prolific writer and translator, and one of the greatest explorers and travelers of all time. He was the first European to enter the Ethiopian city of Harare, was co-discoverer of the source of the Nile, and was one of the few foreigners ever to make the pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise. Burton was also a master of the sword. On one expedition he fought off an attack by Somali tribesman that saw him wounded through the mouth by a spear, the scars of which are visible in all his later photographs. Whenever I begin to feel like I’ve accomplished something, Burton’s example puts me to shame. He remains one of my personal heroes.

before-sunrise.jpgBefore Sunrise
/ Before Sunset (1995/2004)

The quintessential traveler’s films, Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset perfectly capture the feeling of the all-consuming road romance. They go further in considering what would happen if we said ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’ at that one crucial juncture that could change the course of our lives. Set in Vienna and Paris (respectively), both films are steeped in Old Europe’s streets, and they capture those rambling traveler’s conversations better than any other film I know.


SummerLovers.jpgSummer Lovers

Every guy’s Mediterranean dream — a summer-long threesome on a beautiful Greek island. It’s a film about freedom, individualism, charting your own course and creating your own personal morality. It explores what it’s like to completely let go of the preconceived, immersing yourself totally in the present. Stunning scenery and an absence of tan lines make this classic a winner in my books.



HighRoadToChina.jpgHigh Road to China

A little known and vastly underrated film by Tom Selleck (if you grew up in the 80’s like me, you know him as Magnum, P.I). This film captures the spirit of high adventure and stubborn independence, and includes jaw-drop footage of Central Asia and the Himalayas. Plus, it’s got biplanes in it. Who wouldn’t want to rip around the world in one of those? High Road to China made me wish I was born in those wildly optimistic pre-war years of the 1920’s, when the world was a much larger place. I later traveled to Xinjiang and Tibet to soak up some of those landscapes for myself.


thelover.jpgThe Lover

Lush scenery of French colonial era Vietnam circa 1929: crumbling moss-eaten architecture, exotic street scenes, slow lazy ceiling fans, and lines of afternoon light casting rectangles of shadow through slatted wooden blinds. The film reminds us that sometimes those blinds also conceal illicit pleasures. You can almost feel the heat and humidity steam through the lens. And the heat between the main characters doesn’t hurt either… The Lover perfectly captures the feeling of old Hanoi.


dreamers.jpgThe Dreamers

A shocking coming of age story set in Paris in the turbulent summer of 1968. A young American exchange student goes to the decadent City of Lights to study French, where he falls into a bizarre love triangle with a brother and sister and is drawn into their strange, sheltered world. Though controversial when it was released, the film is oddly enchanting rather than lewd, and it conveys a vivid sense of what Paris must have felt like during that turbulent summer of riots when social norms were shattered.


lost_in_translation.jpgLost in Translation

This film portrays the dazzling disorientation of Tokyo and the loneliness and exhaustion of culture shock better than any I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of the many times I’ve been cast adrift on a hostile shore, and it brought back so many vivid memories of everything that’s surreal about Tokyo, where I lived for two years from 2000.


motorcycle_diaries.jpgThe Motorcycle Diaries

Based on the posthumously published diary of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the film chronicles his coming of age journey through South America. Shot on location in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Peru. I read the original book of Guevara’s travel journals years ago, and feared the film would be an overblown foreshadowing of the world figure he would later become. That wasn’t the case. The movie stayed true to the road trip lark of the book, complete with the sort of South American scenery that’ll have you lacing up your hiking boots before the credits begin to roll.


englishpatient.jpgThe English Patient

Romance and archaeology in the Sahara desert in an age when high adventure was still a possibility, and when parts of the globe remained undiscovered. The film contains stunning desert footage, and was based on the real-life search for the lost city of Zezura. Yes, it’s a bit of a chick flick, but if you love the desert you only have to switch off the sound and feast on the imagery.



So that’s it. Twelve picks off the top of my head to inspire wanderlust and Vagabond Dreams.

What are your special travel films? I’d love to hear about them. Please share them with me in the comment section below.




About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • Since I just saw it the other day, The Razor’s Edge with Bill Murray. From uppity Lake Forest, Illinois to countryside France to Paris and then Nepal (actually filmed in the beautiful Kashmir). Spiritual journey via travel.
    Reds (Warren Beatty) film of traveling journalist Jack Reed is not only a splendid, multiple award-winning film, it covers a great distance of the globe.
    I agree with others choice of Dr. Zhivago which covers a large part of Russia (11 times zones that country has; 11!).
    Out of Africa. When I saw that film, I wanted to go to Africa. That’s one journey!
    All the Pretty Horses. Despite the violent south of the border scenes (especially at the prison), this one a classic horseback trail ride into the hinterlands.
    Then on that note, Lonesome Dove, one of my favorite films period (Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones) includes a long, arduous cattle drive across a number of states along the Continental Divide. I’ve hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, parts of the Appalachian, but not the Continental. I always wanted to hike that same cattle run.
    Under the Tuscon Sun. Beautiful countryside, beautiful actress in Dianne Lane. Loved it, a visual feast.
    Amelie. Why not? I love Paris, an awesome, one of a kind cities of the world. Great spiritual creature in Amelie.
    French Kiss also makes one want to head back to Paris.
    Never Cry Wolf made me
    want to explore the far north of Canada.
    That’s a start for you.

  • Best Travel Movies of all time are:
    1. Planes, Trains & Automobiles (John Candy/Steve Martin)
    2. Vacation (Chevy Chase)
    3. Tommy Boy (Chris Farley)

  • Kevin – Great choices! I’m familiar with several of these, but not all. I’ll check them out. (Very cool re: the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails – i’ve always wanted to hike both.)
    John – I’ll give you “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” just for the line that begins “Train don’t run outta Wichita…. Train runs outta Stuuuuuuub-ville.”

  • The English Patient an Lost in Translation are right up there for me too. (And never miss Planes, Trains and Automobiles when it’s on TV…)
    My pick: Roeg’s Don’t Look Now with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland showing how creepy Venice can be.
    And Two for the Road with Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn as the trendy 60’s couple driving from London to the South of France and recalling all the other times they made the journey. Wonderfully of its time, and perhaps not quite as great on new DVD as I remembered, but maybe that’s the mark of how good it is on another level.

  • Out of Africa is an obvious one. The film is rather slow-paced, but the scenery is magnificent and still makes one want to see and experience this incredibly unique and exotic place in the world.
    Henry & June – explores the relationship between two literary icons – Henry Miller and Anais Nin. Set in 1930’s Paris, the film really captures the aura and the romance of the city and stirs feelings about strolling down some narrow, cobble-stoned street lined with beautiful ancient architecture while sipping a cappuccino.
    One Week – A new Canadian film about a man with terminal cancer who decides to take one last road trip across Canada. The film makes one realize the wonder and diversity of our own vast and beautiful land. There is a sense of freedom that permeates the film and makes one want to break the bonds of our own commitments and responsibilities and hit the road.
    The Remains of the Day – a film adaptation of Japanese-British author Kazou Ishiguro’s novel and one of the few adaptations that I feel measure up superbly to the book, made me want to go out and explore the British countryside and immerse myself temporarily in the age-old customs and traditions of the motherland.
    The Searchers – an oldy but a goody. A John Ford Western shot in 1956 and starring John Wayne as a civil war veteran who spends years looking for his abducted niece. Maybe it was the beautiful cinematography or the masterful way in which the shots encompassed the strange rock formations and wide open skies that really made me want to see Monument Valley, Utah up close.

  • Heath – you forgot Fitzcaraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God – two great jungle films. Strangely enough, I’ve never seen Fata Morgana. Do you have it? Re: Grizzly Man, that creeped me out – probably because you made me watch it before that NWT expedition, which was crawling with grizzly!
    Deborah – thanks! You’ve given me a couple new ones to check out. 🙂
    Rob – I’d forgotten about Henry and June. Another good one – i read the collection of letters the film was based on. What ever happened to Fred Ward? Good call re: The Searchers. I like me a little John Wayne, and the US Southwest is where i first fell in love with the desert.

  • Ryan – great idea
    I share many of your choices especially The Dreamers; Lost in Translation and High Road to China.
    I would add The Moderns (1988) – Keith Carradine & Linda Fiorentino set in Paris in 1926 great atmosphere
    Any Bond movie, all those exotic locations fueled my childhood dreams of travel
    Another one from Sophia Coppola who directed Lost in Translation would be Marie Antoinette (2006) a flawed movie but with unrivaled access to the Palace of Versailles and the surrounding parkland
    Chasing Liberty (2004) – a bit of a chick flick but lot’s of good European locations
    For fun how about an anti-travel movie my vote would be for The Hitcher (1986), the original one with Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell – sick and twisted, certainly makes you re-think a road trip 😉

  • Red Dog based on the legendary true story in Western Australia of the red dog who united a disparate local community while roaming the australian outback in search of his long lost master, and
    Rabbit Proof Fence based on the true story of 3 aboriginal girls escape after being plucked from their homes to be trained as domestic staff and they set off on a trek across the outback, they walk for 9 weeks along 1,500 miles ( 2,400kms) of the australian rabbit-proof fence to return to their community at Jigalong. Both these films inspire me to see more of WA and the outback. The beautiful colours in the outback, the red dirt, miles of open spaces, kangaroos, heat, wild flowers, gum trees, and more

    • Thanks Wendy, I will add these to my list. I’m hoping to spend a couple months in Australia later this year.

  • The Way Back – Gulag escapees fell Siberia on a two year trek to India through the Gobi Desert and Tibet.
    Seven Years In Tibet
    and my all time favorite cult movie ‘The Naked prey’ 1965 – Cornel Wilde. This movie may be unknown to a younger person like you. It is the unique story of a Safari guide who takes a bunch of rude englishmen on an elephant hunt where they insult the local tribe, are taken prisoner and variously killed diabolically except for the Safari guide who is respectful, speaks the african languages and abides by tribal customs. they give his the ‘Chance of the lion’ whereby he returns to civilization by outfoxing his hunters, killing them off and returning. Mel Gibson did a similiar movie on this Archtypal hero journey called Acapolypto also a favorite of mine

    • I know the book The Long Walk, on which The Way Back was based, but haven’t seen the film. I will check that out, thank you.

      I did see The Naked Prey several years ago. I can’t remember how I came across it, maybe while researching a story on Namibia? That’s really worth tracking down. Thanks very much for sharing your favourites, Hank.


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