Route 66 in Movies and Television

Updated April 4, 2023

Route 66 – the mere mention of this iconic highway spanning over 2,400 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, evokes the spirit of freedom, adventure, and rebellion that has captured the imagination of filmmakers for decades. This legendary road itself is a character, a symbol of the classic American road trip, which has played a significant role in popular culture. Let’s take a look at some of the most memorable depictions of Route 66 in movies and TV, and how they have shaped the American psyche.

"Easy Rider" (1969)

One of the most famous films to feature Route 66 is "Easy Rider." Directed by Dennis Hopper, the film captures the spirit of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Peter Fonda and Hopper play two bikers on a quest for freedom, riding choppers from Los Angeles to New Orleans. Along the way, they encounter a variety of characters and situations, including a commune, a drug deal gone bad, and a trip to Mardi Gras. With a soundtrack that included the classic song "Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf, this film became a symbol of the counterculture movement of the 1960s.

"Cars" (2006)

Pixar's "Cars" is a much more family-friendly depiction of Route 66, which follows the adventures of Lightning McQueen, a hotshot racecar who finds himself stranded in the small town of Radiator Springs on Route 66. The animated film is a love letter to the classic American road trip and features a cast of colorful characters, including Mater the tow truck and Sally the Porsche. “Cars” is very much a celebration of friendship, community, and the joy of discovering new places.

"The Grapes of Wrath" (1940)

Based on the novel by John Steinbeck, "The Grapes of Wrath" tells the story of the Joad family as they travel from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression. The film is a powerful depiction of the struggles faced by many during this time period and features stunning shots of the desert landscapes of Route 66.

"Route 66" (1960-1964)

"Route 66," a TV show that aired from 1960-1964, was named after the highway itself and followed the adventures of two young men as they traveled the country in a Corvette. The show was unique in that it was filmed on location, with the characters visiting a different town each week, allowing it to showcase a wide variety of American landscapes and cultures. It’s worth noting however that the show was frequently set in locations far from The Mother Road. Route 66 passes through only eight states, while the series was filmed in 25 American states plus Vermont in Canada!

"Thelma & Louise" (1991)

While not exclusively set on The Mother Road, "Thelma & Louise" features a memorable scene on Route 66, where the titular characters embark on a road trip to escape their mundane lives. Along the way, they encounter a variety of characters, including a young Brad Pitt as a hitchhiker. The film is a feminist classic and features a powerful ending that has become part of pop culture history.

“Bagdad Café” )1987)

Last but not least, there's "Bagdad Café," a quirky and heartwarming portrayal of the people and places that make Route 66 so special. Set in the desert landscape, this film captures the unique charm of the route, and the characters are unforgettable. The film's memorable soundtrack, including the song "Calling You," was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and it's no surprise that this film has become a cult classic and a defining film of the independent cinema movement of the 1980s.

Route 66 is an American icon that has left an indelible mark on popular culture. Whether it's the freedom and rebellion of "Easy Rider" or the small-town charm of "Cars," this legendary highway has captured the imaginations of filmmakers and audiences alike. It's a symbol of Americana, of adventure, and of the open road, which continues to inspire generations.

As you embark on your own journey on Route 66, take a moment to appreciate the stunning landscapes, diverse communities, and sense of adventure that have made this iconic highway a part of American history!

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