HWY: An American Pastoral is a short film by Jim Morrison, Frank Lisciandro, Paul Ferrara, and Babe Hill and stars Morrison as a hitchhiker. It is a 50-minute experimental film in Direct Cinema style. It was shot during the spring and summer of 1969 in the Mojave Desert and in Los Angeles.
In the informal 1971 interview Morrison gave to Ben Fong Torres, Morrison states the film “was more of an exercise for me and a warm-up for something bigger.”
In 2009, restored and re-mastered excerpts from HWY were featured in Tom DiCillo‘s documentary When You’re Strange. However, the complete film was not included in the Special Features on the When You’re Strange DVD, and there have been no further announcements regarding a DVD release for the film. Bootleg copies of the film (with a visible timecode at the bottom of the screen) can be found on the internet.
The opening sequence shows a hitchhiker (Jim Morrison) coming out of a pond, and putting his clothes on. He proceeds to walk up the mountain from the pond and starts walking down the highway. Meanwhile, a voice-over of Jim Morrison talks about a childhood incident in which he claims to have seen Native Americans injured in a traffic accident. He is shown emerging from a car stuck in the sand and successfully tries to pull a car over. Later, the hitchhiker is looking for a book with the car parked outside a gas station (visible through the window); he is shown back on the highway together with two other people and a police officer, and after he communicates with them, he gets into the car and drives off. He looks for directions on a map at night. Numerous cars are shown driving into the sunset.
Finally, the hitchhiker makes a phone call to American poet Michael McClure and reveals with disimpassioned voice that he killed the original driver, explaining the reason why he was not with him for majority of the journey. The final shots show the hitchhiker at the Whiskey A Go Go on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
The original, barely structured HWY screenplay, published in 1990, contained many differences to the actual 1969 film version. The film was based on Morrison’s experiences as a hitchhiker during his student days. As a college student Morrison had regularly been commuting as a hitchhiker from Tallahassee 280 miles to meet his then girlfriend Mary Werbelow in Clearwater. Morrison financed the low-budget film project through his company “HiWay Productions”. The production of HWY was supported by Morrison’s friends Paul Ferrara, Frank Lisciandro and Babe Hill.
Parts of the movie were meant to be used for fundraising purposes in order to complete the whole project. As soon as October 1969 the film story was outpaced, though, by the Tate-Labianca murders which were carried out by members of the Manson Family in Los Angeles and shattered the American public. Morrison showed HWY during his second stay in Paris in early 1971. The film was publicly shown only once in Vancouver in 1970 and again in Paris in 1993. An audio sequence from the film was published on the Doors‘ spoken word albumAn American Prayer in 1978.
It has been suggested that the inspiration for the Protagonist in the film, played by Morrison, with the script name ‘Billy’ was inspired by the very real Hitchhiker serial killer Billy Cook who murdered six people on a 22-day rampage between Missouri and California in 1950–51. Morrison himself acknowledged this in a 1970 interview with The Village Voice, citing Cook as an influence on the movie.