Bridges in Film
Celluloid Connections: The Bridge in Cinema
By Chale Nafus
Introduction (Part 1)
A woman stands on a Parisian bridge drawn to the dark nighttime waters below. A man casts his wallet and identity into the river flowing beneath a Louisiana bridge. Opposing armies fight a long, deadly battle over a vital bridge in Holland. A gigantic sea monster, spawn of nuclear radiation, dismantles a landmark bridge. Two strangers meet on a bridge and begin a lifelong romance. A car crashes through the railing of a bridge, destroying a politician’s career as his young friend drowns. Bridges have served cinema well for the past century by providing dramatic settings for poignant moments.
Rarely does a movie character just cross a bridge to get to the other side. Instead, the passage over a bridge often signifies some kind of change—a transition into a new phase of life, connection with a new person, or confrontation with danger or even death. On a grander scale bridges have been used in films to represent the expansion of empires or conflicts over territory during wartime. In a few films building bridges has been shown to be a type of dangerous, exciting work or a means of amassing a fortune. Socio-economic themes have been explored in films by depicting characters who live near, under, or even, in one case, on a bridge. In several films bridges have served as cultural barriers which characters feel incapable of breaking through. And then of course many bridges appear in movies just because they can be so beautiful in varying weather, night or day.
Throughout world cultures and history, the bridge has served as a useful metaphor for the rites of passage: birth, puberty, marriage, governance, mystical ecstasy, and death. Folktales and rituals sometimes incorporate the motif of the bridge, which is defined as a dangerous passageway, similar to the necessary terrors of rites of passage. But such a death is meant to be a destruction of the previous, less enlightened self. To cross the bridge, the initiate must break with the past in order to move on to the next stage of his/her journey. Once on “the other side” of the ritual, the initiate is “born again.” (Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion.) Thus, the image of the bridge is an essential element in the human psyche and consequently has appeared in a wide variety of films.
A list of nearly 300 films, mainly narrative feature movies, but including some documentaries, has been compiled for this study. This essay is based on viewing many of those films available on video/DVD or the Library of Congress website of early documentaries. For those unavailable in either video or DVD format, I have relied on the descriptions written by other viewers, mainly found on the Internet Movie Database. This is not intended to be an exhaustive study of the topic of bridges in the cinema, but it hopefully will serve as a provocation for further exploration, thought, and disagreement. I have classified the films under the major headings that emerged as I watched the films and began to see both similarities and differences in the ways that bridges were employed in the stories. Each major heading has a number of subheadings. There are doubtlessly other ways of grouping the films. Occasionally the use of bridges in a particular film was so varied that I have discussed different elements in the storyline under several headings.
Bridge as a Transition to a New Life (Part 2)
Bridges have become associated with danger, death, or evil across the history of cinema. Psychologically the walkway or road over empty space fills us with dread and uncertainty. Long ago, there must have been some trepidation in bypassing the gods and closing a natural gap over a river or valley. Except for those natural bridges of fallen trees or a perfect series of stepping-stones in a brook, a bridge is “unnatural” and perhaps hateful in the eyes of the gods. However, there is a concurrent tradition of the metaphorical “crossing a bridge,” bringing positive or hopeful change into one’s life. Several films have exploited this more optimistic view of bridges as transitions to a new way of being.
In The Apostle (US, 1997) Euliss “Sonny” Dewey, a hell-fire evangelist from Texas, walks across a rusty steel bridge over a Louisiana bayou and tosses his wallet into the water. He needs to escape his previous identity as a successful preacher and the probable murderer of his wife’s lover. Before he steps onto the bridge, he sinks his “big ole Lincoln-Continental” car with its “Sonny” license plates into the bayou. When he crosses the bridge, he humbly places his life and future into the hands of his God. These are his first steps toward becoming “the Apostle E.F.” On the other side of the bridge, he tells a kind-hearted, but wisely suspicious fisherman, “I am on my journey.” That journey leads him into the lives and hearts of several handfuls of economically poor people and grants him a deeper understanding of love and a complete redemption through his creation of a humble but vibrant church.
While The Apostle places its metaphoric bridge scene early in the film, No Looking Back (US, 1998) waits until the very end. Claudia is a waitress in a one-way working class town on the Atlantic coast, most likely New Jersey. The streets are dreary, cold, wet, and depressing. There are two men in Claudia’s life, neither of whom can offer her much. Michael provides love and a home of sorts, while Charlie, who ran away once already, can only dangle hopes of going off somewhere together—Florida, Las Vegas, or Texas most likely. Claudia finally decides to strike out on her own, just like her father long before. The final shot shows her car coming over a bridge, the one leading out of town. Her car veers to left-of-screen and disappears as the final credits begin to roll. Even with this poorly conceived shot—we should have seen the back of the car going over the bridge and away from the town and the two men—it’s obvious that the bridge symbolizes a connection to a new life with unexplored possibilities. We know where Sonny’s bridge led in The Apostle. We can only hope that Claudia’s bridge takes her to a more fulfilling life and better relationships than the ones offered by her hometown.
Crossing one of the many bridges in Sergio Leone’s epic Western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Italy, 1966), Tuco (“The Ugly”) is a man returned from the dead. Left in the desert without water by “The Good” (Clint Eastwood), Tuco manages to survive and stumbles over a swinging rope-and-board bridge above a dry gulch outside a rickety frontier town. He was supposed to die, but now he can pursue his evil life with even more anger, hatred, and ardor. His journey is so different from Sonny’s and will not lead to redemption or love. The best he can hope for are sacks of gold. In short, his transition has been from near-death back to life, but rather than learning from such a profound experience, he continues on his original journey.
Using a bridge to mark a different kind of life transition, director Richard Linklater sends three of his 100+ characters out onto a minor Austin bridge in Slacker (US, 1991). One guy, who has just lost his girlfriend because of her infidelity, is persuaded/forced by a friend to discard the two items that remind him most of the betraying woman. First to be tossed over the side of the bridge into the creek is the tent in which he made love to her. Discarding this mass of green cloth will insure she will never sully his beautiful memory by using the tent for another sexual encounter with someone else. Next comes the typewriter, whose connection to the lover is more tenuous. The betrayed fellow can’t bring himself to waste a “perfectly good typewriter,” so the pushy friend grabs the machine and hurls it over the edge. To finish the exorcism, the “friend” reads a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses about the infidelity of Leopold’s wife. The scene in Slacker makes one wonder if the purging is for the recently betrayed young man or for the “friend,” who lost his girl friend six months before. The implication of this scene is that a new life might be achieved by severing all ties, mental, emotional, and physical, with the once beloved.
Bridge as a Place of Connections Between People (Part 3)
More frequent than scenes in which a relationship is severed on a bridge to make way for a new life are those in which a new connection is forged. Bridges, especially the stone bridges of Europe, can become places for meeting a new love or beginning a new friendship. Bridges that are open to strolling pedestrians and whose design fits the human scale lend themselves most readily to such uses in films. A couple may go to a bridge to get away from prying family eyes. Their embraces and kisses often ignite the wistful fantasies of other passersby. Solitary people on bridges may meet the gaze of another and strike up a conversation. And often, in film at least, an attempted suicide may be thwarted by another lonely soul on the bridge. Bridges thereby become metaphors for new connections between people. Not only are two masses of land connected by a bridge, but so too can a new connection arise between two human souls. The deep and dark abysses of the human heart can be crossed in an instant if the words and looks are just right.
In Waterloo Bridge (US, 1940) a British officer, Roy Cronin, walks out onto the beautiful Waterloo Bridge over the Thames in London. He is about to leave for the Continent to battle with the Nazis. Standing at the stone railings he is reminded of being in that same spot on the eve of World War I. For Cronin, Waterloo Bridge is a place of bittersweet memories, for there he had accidentally met a young, innocent ballerina, Myra, who made him giddy with love. Promising to marry her the next morning, Cronin was suddenly sent to France by his superior officers, with no time left to inform the young girl. Thinking he had lied to her about marriage, she sinks into depression. Her already precarious financial situation worsens once she is cast out of the ballet troupe for staying out late and falling in love. When she later reads in the newspaper that Cronin has been killed in action, she returns to the bridge—as a prostitute. Her innocence has turned into tough cynicism and the bridge is no longer a place for impetuous love.
At the end of World War I, as Myra wanders through the Waterloo train station near the bridge seeking customers, she is shocked to see Cronin coming towards her—very much alive and ecstatic to see his true love. He is blind to the way she is dressed (suggestively and cheaply) and proclaims that this time they will get married—at his family’s Scottish estate. But the morning of the marriage, knowing that this man could never accept “damaged goods” if she told him of her social descent, she flees Scotland and returns to London—to Waterloo Bridge. As she looks through the fog into the inky abyss of the Thames below, it seems that she is going to hurl herself into the depths. Instead, she turns and begins walking hurriedly along the bridge. She suddenly hurls herself into oblivion under the wheels of a passing Red Cross truck.
In Waterloo Bridge the bridge is first seen as a site of memory. Then it becomes a place for a chance meeting and sudden romance. Once Myra has despaired of love and marriage, the bridge is transformed into the locus of cynical sexual commerce followed by death. The bridge is the silent observer of a soul-filling romance plunged into degradation and tragic self-destruction.
During the classic Hollywood era most films were shot in the studios or on backlots where entire towns could be erected. A master-shot of a real city or countryside would suffice to let the audience know where the film takes place. The rest of the shots would be completed on constructed sets. Thus, except for an occasional overhead shot looking down at the bridge, Waterloo “Bridge” is obviously an MGM set construction with steel beams, carriages, wagons, cars, and pedestrians providing the illusion of a real bridge.
The actual Waterloo Bridge was designed as “an elaborate granite bridge with nine arches and pairs of columns at the piers” and opened in 1817. Eventually, two of the piers “proved dangerous and [the original bridge] was demolished and the present, more streamlined bridge built in its place in 1942.” Those movie viewers swept away by the romance of the film were doomed to wander a different bridge in search of accidental love.
Bridges such as Waterloo had become favorite subjects for artists of the 19th century. John Constable painted the Waterloo Bridge in 1829, as did Thomas Hosmer Shepherd. Claude Monet painted at least two “portraits” of Waterloo Bridge in 1902 and 1903. Corot painted one scene of the Waterloo Bridge in 1902. A note from the Emil G. Bührle Museum explains the interest bridges held for Impressionist artists: “… in the 70s bridges, including modern ones, become one of the classical themes of the Impressionists, to whom they are significant owing to the play of light around them, on their stone parapets, beneath their shadowy arches, in their reflections on the water and in the atmospheric perspective created by the axes of the bridge.” This helps explain the attraction bridges also hold for photographers and filmmakers. An ironic bit of cinematic synchronicity is provided by the location of the British National Film Theatre and the Museum of the Moving Image—the southern end of Waterloo Bridge.
In Shanghai Blues (Shanghai zhi ye, Hong Kong, 1984) future lovers meet under a bridge. It is 1937 and the Japanese military expansionists have begun their invasion of China. First target—Shanghai. Do-Re-Mi, a young professional clown who wants to be a soldier, has quit his job as a nightclub entertainer. During the first wave of Japanese bombardment, he and a stranger take refuge under a graceful bridge built of large, smooth stones. From their vantage point they see much of the city in flames. They cry a bit from fear, and then he gives her some money “just in case.” They vow to meet in the same place under the bridge after the war is over. No need for a specific date or time, for their love will somehow guide them. As they walk up to the street level, he asks her name but an “all clear” signal of the air raid alarm drowns out her reply. And then she is swept away by the crowd. So, this Chinese bridge is meant to serve as a place of reunion for hopeful lovers, but the plot carries the dream downstream.
A description of a Soviet film from 1944 entitled Six P.M. (V shest chasov vechera posle vojny) proves that even a war-ravaged country could still associate bridges with romance. The reviewer, Les Adams, on the Internet Movie Database writes, “Two artillery officers meet an attractive girl in Moscow between battles. One falls in love with her and they vow to meet in Moscow on a bridge at 6:00 pm when the war ends. The war puts them on diverse trails, but the pledge is fulfilled against a setting of Moscow’s famous fireworks displays.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a novel White Nights (1857) that provided the framework for two films involving bridges, love, hope, and loss. In 1957 Luchino Visconti transferred the Russian story to a small town in Italy during the period of recovery from the economic and social devastation of Mussolini’s fascist nightmare. Most of the action, dialogue, and character development of Visconti’s White Nights (Le Notti bianche) center around three footbridges across a canal in an Italian town. Mario, a young office worker, finds himself alone in a town he has only recently moved to. It is night and most of the businesses are closing. He wanders over a footbridge, designed with delicate, fine metalwork. He smokes, shutters close, lights go out. The air is cold. He looks into the water, but there is no apparent suicidal mood. This is simply a man with time on his hands.
The church bells ring eleven times. He passes the “Sport Bar” but crosses another footbridge where he sees a young woman apparently waiting for someone. As he walks by, he hears her crying. Mario hesitatingly asks the young woman if she is contemplating suicide, but she says, “No.”
It is now midnight. The young woman begins to talk. She lets him accompany her over a stone bridge to her house. Mario asks her to meet him in the same place the next night. She agrees to come at ten. Once he has left her doorway, she sneaks back out of her house and crosses the stone bridge. She is evidently expecting someone and was interrupted by Mario’s incessant questioning and chattering.
The next night Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) waits in the Sport Bar and sees the girl rush by, looking right at him before running across the stone bridge. He pursues her as she races alongside the canal. She is flying heedlessly about like a scared chicken. He finally calms her down and she unexpectedly says they can be friends after all. Her name is Natalia (Maria Schell). She lives with her blind grandmother. Her parents and other relatives have all “run away.” Natalia’s life is severely circumscribed, which partially explains her awkwardness in dealing with Mario.
Most of their conversation takes place on or near the bridges. Perhaps the water associated with bridges serves to make one more contemplative and reflective, thereby making it easier to tell one’s life story and even sometimes fall in love. Water’s association with the feminine and the unconscious seems to open the soul to possibilities. As they talk, Natalia keeps looking around. She says she must go stand on the other bridge to wait for some one. Mario is confused; he didn’t realize she was waiting for someone. She will only call this other person “He.”
Finally Natalia explains to Mario that she and her grandmother mend carpets and have very little money, so they rent out one of their rooms. One of those tenants (French actor Jean Marais) gave Natalia books to read. He even took the women to the opera. In short, he became her bridge to culture and a grander world. Inevitably she fell in love with him, but he had to leave the town because of some kind of undefined trouble. He promised to return in exactly one year. They parted on the stone bridge over the canal. Now, as she tells Mario this story, she is waiting for “the tenant” since a year has passed. She knows he has returned to the town but has not yet come to the bridge. She fears he has forgotten his promise.
As she tells the story, she cries and leans into Mario’s arms. Against his own growing feelings of affection and even love, Mario suggests that she should write the man. Mario is offering to be a bridge between Natalia and her beloved. The letter is written on one of the bridges. She thanks Mario, and with words that deaden a man’s heart and quench his passion, Natalia says that she now thinks of Mario as an older brother. Then she leaves Mario alone.
As the fog rolls in, over and under the bridges, the lonely man sits on the wall near one of the bridges. The prostitute walks over the bridge and begins flirting with him by asking for a light. But Mario’s bridges are for love, not sex. He walks away from the prostitute and leans over the water. He takes out Natalia’s letter and tears it into tiny pieces which he sprinkles over the water. The whore stares at him. He looks back, considers the possibility, and then walks away.
On the third night, Mario decides to enjoy himself and forget about Natalia. He eats on the street and watches people. Significantly, he stays away from the bridges, which are now associated with emotional love. When he sees Natalia, this time it is he who turns away. She catches up with him and he begrudgingly talks to her. Beautiful women flirt with him behind her back. Opportunities abound the farther he is from the bridges. He lies about having an appointment, but then feels guilty about not delivering her letter, so he decides to spend some more time with Natalia.
Betraying his own better instincts, Mario finds himself revealing his love, but Natalia orders him to go away because “he” won’t come if “he” sees her with Mario. She is hysterical and walks away. In anger and hurt, Mario summons the prostitute. They cross a very simple wooden footbridge in search of a place for his momentary sexual release. After a very cruel scene in which he abandons the prostitute, Mario returns to the bridges and finds Natalia, who has decided to try to forget the man. But it is obvious she doesn’t really love Mario. As he says he will “wait for her to love him,” he begins descending into the position she has occupied in waiting for her man.
Mario and Natalia borrow a rowboat to find a quieter place, but they fail, for homeless people are sleeping on the ledges along the canal under and near other bridges. Miraculously it begins to snow as they sit in the boat under a stone bridge. They decide to walk back to their neighborhood. Along the way they play in the snow and seem to be in love. But just as they reach their three bridges, she spies HIM pacing back and forth on one of the footbridges. She runs to him yelling with joy as Mario stands haplessly in the foreground, cold and lonely. Natalia runs back and hugs Mario as she asks for his forgiveness. He cries. With the camera position changed, the MAN stands on the bridge looking unyielding and forbidding in the foreground of the frame. He must be thinking she has been with this man waiting in the background. Natalia then returns to the MAN and walks up behind him so hesitantly. At first he stands like a stone but then embraces her. As the camera pulls back, the two lovers kiss on the icy, snow-covered metal footbridge while Mario walks away into the white night. For Mario the three bridges have been the place of loneliness and love gained and lost. For Natalia they have provided the setting for love lost and regained.
French director Robert Bresson adapted the same novel by Dostoevsky to explore the mythic power of bridges in human lives. In his 1971 French film, Four Nights of a Dreamer (Quatre nuits d’un rêveur), Bresson put his camera on Jacques, a lonely young artist, who one night finds himself on a bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf, the oldest surviving bridge over the Seine. A sign says “Pont Neuf” and a title is superimposed over the scene: “First Night,” providing a hint of the structure of the film. Jacques stands on the bridge as cars pass, echoing the lights of the streetlamps. He sees a woman bent over. He stares at her. She looks up at him and then away. He walks on a few steps farther and then looks back. She removes her shoes and places them by a book on the stone wall. She pulls herself over the ledge and stands on the other side, balanced above the river. Jacques runs over to her side.
She tells Jacques, “Leave me alone.” A police car stops to see if there is trouble. Jacques grabs her arm and spits out, “Don’t stay there.” He makes her come back to the safe side of the railing. Jacques asks, “What’s wrong?” but she doesn’t explain. He says, “Give me your hand, I’ll take you home.” They walk over the bridge to the other side of the Seine. At her door, he says, “I’ll be there tomorrow night, same time, same place. I can’t help it.” She disappears into her building. For this first night the bridge has been a place of near-suicide and then a place of a new connection, but no one can know at this point if the relationship will evolve.
2nd night on the Pont Neuf. Jacques is waiting at the appointed hour even though the young woman didn’t even agree to meet him. A glass-enclosed cruise boat passes underneath the arches of the bridge. With its explosion of lights and music, the boat is mysterious, even ethereal. Jacques looks up from the beautiful phantasm and spots the woman approaching him. She asks, “Do you know why I came back?” She instructs him to sit down and tell her his story. At first he says, “I have none.” But then he relents. The film’s imagery leaves the bridge at night and shifts to scenes from his life before the encounter on the bridge. Jacques spends his days following women who attract him on the street. He never speaks to them, just stares and follows them until they meet a man or get on a bus and leave his sight. He evidently prefers to maintain an ideal in his imagination rather than risk it with a real encounter.
Returning to the present on the bridge, the film has Marthe tell her story. She lives with her mother. They must be very frugal with the little money they have. Her mother warns her about men who use women and drop them. A boarder lives in one of their rooms. When he is about to leave for America, Marthe bursts into his room and asks him to take her along. The boarder kisses Marthe and undresses her. There is no mention of love. This is a French film, after all, and Four Nights of a Dreamer was made fourteen years after White Nights, during which time the depiction of social morés in the cinema had profoundly shifted.
Before the boarder leaves town, Marthe walks with him on the Pont Neuf. He promises to look for her on the bridge when he returns to Paris exactly one year from now.
After relating her sad love story, Marthe tells Jacques that three days have passed since the anniversary and she has not seen the young student. So, the real reason she has returned to the bridge is to find her original lover, not to see Jacques. Even so, Jacques offers to take a letter to mutual friends of Marthe and the man.
3rd night on Pont Neuf. Again, Jacques waits for her. When she arrives, he tells her he delivered her letter. She is glad and says that today she loves him—Jacques—because he is not in love with her. She is oblivious to his deep love. Marthe promises that they will be like brother and sister as soon as her real love returns. Then she unexpectedly changes her story and admits that she loves Jacques almost as much as the other guy. Once more the tour boat passes underneath their bridge, and Jacques and Marthe are entranced. Again, the boat with its sensual music presents a truly beautiful sight with lights and glass reflections gliding under the arches of the bridges on the Seine. Lights also play across the young people’s faces and the waves of the river. Bresson’s romantic film is almost a musical at times. But then Marthe and Jacques are returned to a darkness barely softened by dim bridge lights. 11 pm arrives and the man has not appeared.
4th night, Pont Neuf. Tonight Marthe is already on the bridge by the time Jacques arrives. She has become resigned to the fact that her first lover will never return. Saying she doesn’t give a damn, she rushes down the stairs to the sidewalk by the river, where Jacques soon finds her. Marthe rambles through a variety of emotional outbursts as she tries to understand why the man hasn’t come as promised. As she goes on talking, Jacques walks away. She finds him on the bridge and asks, “What’s the matter?” His reply: “I love you. That’s the matter.” They embrace. He touches her back, her breasts. She caresses his neck. They walk along the bridge locked in a warm embrace. He explains his feelings, “You were the first to talk of love. You’re guilty.” He admits that he would have loved her secretly even if she had gone on loving the other guy, much the way he has fantasized about the women he followed on the street.
And then they leave the bridge, which turns out to be a dreadful mistake for Jacques. On the bustling street, Marthe spies her first lover, who calls out her name. She runs to him and kisses him fervently and then runs back to kiss Jacques just as passionately. But she leaves Jacques and returns to the arms of her lover. If love were just, this would be called a foul. It was on the bridge that Jacques and Marthe met and on the bridge that they fell in love. The lover did not return to the bridge, as promised, and so in a fair and logical world he should have forfeited his rights to Marthe’s heart, but fate decided otherwise. Marthe goes off with her lover, leaving Jacques alone, just as at the beginning of the film, but now his emptiness will inevitably be far more severe.
Pont Neuf has provided a location for a series of emotions, discoveries, and revelations, but disappointment is left for the busy Parisian streets. The tone of Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer is cooler and more distanced than Visconti’s heart-breaking romance. Still, one might guess that Mario will leave the bridges and eventually find a new love, but Jacques seems headed for a life of continued emptiness until he seeks release. He may very well return to the bridge for a final, fatal time. In both films a bridge brings two strangers together and offers two men hope of a new love before the euphoria dies horribly in the arms of previous lovers. Neither film remains romantic or optimistic in the slightest way.
Other directors have examined the bittersweet effects of love gained and love lost on or near bridges. Clint Eastwood’s classic adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County (US, 1995) lets us into the life of a middle-aged Iowa farmwife, Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep), as she realizes she is falling in love with a photographer from National Geographic magazine. Robert Kincaid (Eastwood) has come to Madison County to photograph its wooden covered bridges during the summer of 1965. He drives up to the Johnson house seeking directions to Rosamunde Bridge in particular. With her husband and two teenage children gone for four days to the Iowa State Fair, Francesca offers to ride with Kincaid to the bridge since directions are too complicated and too “country” for the cosmopolitan man (“after you pass a house with a mean yellow dog, turn right”). Taking a cue from films in which crossing a bridge can signify major life changes, Eastwood, as director, shows Kincaid and Francesca first crossing a small open bridge and then a larger open bridge before reaching the third bridge, Rosamunde (“Rose of the World”?), the covered bridge. During their drive, she has already become intrigued with his stories of travels in Italy, especially the one about getting off the train to stay in a little village simply because it looked pretty. Coincidentally it was her hometown, but she is primarily amazed by his spontaneous reaction to beauty. There is little beauty in her plain farm life but for the opera on the radio which she can hear only when her rock ‘n’ roll children leave the house. Robert is apparently a sensitive man very unlike her loving, but dull husband and her thoughtless self-centered children.
As Kincaid sets about photographing the Rosamunde Bridge from below, Francesca walks into the darker areas under the wooden roof. She sees lovers’ names carved in hearts on the weathered plank walls. She spies on Robert through cracks in the wall. The heat of the summer afternoon is joined by the heat from her own unexpected passion and she begins to sweat. He moves in closer with the camera. Soon they are very close indeed but neither dares give words to these unforeseen feelings, and so he returns her to the farmhouse.
During the night she decides she must see him again. In the darkness she drives to Rosamunde and leaves a message for him since she knows he will finish his photographic work there before going on to Hollywell Bridge. The next morning, as he works his way around the bridge with the sunlight falling just as he had hoped, he sees the piece of white paper through his lens but stuffs it in his pocket because it is “ruining” the look of the picture. Only later does he read her message and call her.
They agree to meet the next day at the Hollywell Bridge. On that third day begins a love affair of great intensity and passion. The bridges have brought them together, but she finally realizes that she cannot leave her husband and children for an unknown, but potentially far more satisfying life. She will remain in the county with the beautiful, poignant bridges. He will take his photos of the bridges and turn them in to the magazine for which he works. The bridges brought them together but they cannot keep them together.
Through letters and journals Francesca informs her grown children, after her death, of her great love. She requests that she be cremated and that her ashes be thrown off Rosamunde Bridge to “join” those of Robert, who had died in 1982 and had received a secret funeral at the bridge. Although the physical love affair lasted only four days, the remains of the lovers would be mingled for eternity. At first horrified that their mother had experienced an adulterous affair, the brother and sister finally come to respect Francesca’s wishes and sprinkle the ashes of their mother off the bridge.
Other lovers brought together because of a bridge are found in the French film The Bridge (Un Pont entre deux rives, 1999). Europe’s “longest bridge” is to be built in Normandy in the early 1960s. Men from the surrounding area eagerly seek jobs on the construction site. One is Georges, a hard-working man with a wife, Mina, and teenage son. Before Georges secures the job, his wife has already begun working on the country estate of a wealthy woman. Fate brings Matthias, the chief construction engineer for the bridge, to that home and into Mina’s life. Mina is very pretty and vivacious, Matthias is handsome and younger than Georges, so a passionate love affair is virtually unavoidable. With his ability to give Mina a beautiful home, Matthias persuades her to leave her husband and son and move in with him, even though he has left a wife behind in Nice. Georges is completely devastated at being abandoned by his wife.
The bridge that is being built over the Norman landscape is never really seen in the film. We see only a drawing of the proposed bridge and the foundations being laid. This serves as a perfect metaphor for the growing affair between Matthias and Mina. While the bridge between Georges and Mina collapses during the course of the film, we see only the early construction of the bridge between Mina and her lover. We don’t really know how the finished bridge will look or if it will survive.
The connection between bridges and romance is so strong that sometimes the bridge need only be nearby for us to assume passions will be ignited. Spike Lee’s multi-layered romantic film Mo’ Better Blues (US, 1990) provides multiple glimpses of the Brooklyn Bridge throughout. Love affairs blossom, wither, and renew themselves in clear view of the majestic bridge. Jazz musician Bleek Gilliam lives in a comfortable neighborhood in Brooklyn near the bridge. Torn between an intelligent, sensitive Indigo and a beautiful, demanding Clarke, Bleek is most of all in love with his trumpet. As he alternates between the two women, faithful to neither, the bridge is often glimpsed through the windows of his apartment by night and by day. It serves as a reminder of the lofty achievements of the human mind and body, a metaphor for the wonderful music Bleek has begun to create.
At one point, abandoned by both Indigo and Clarke, Bleek is seen playing his trumpet on the upper level of the Brooklyn Bridge at night. His misery creates a moody, romantic, mournful piece. Here, the Brooklyn Bridge provides a perfect place to leave behind the confusion of relationships and the millions of chattering, frenetic people. Bleek is in transition, not thinking of suicide, but needing to be completely alone and separated from both Manhattan and Brooklyn. Here, the bridge isn’t a connection but a place of isolation.
Later, after Bleek and his girlfriend Indigo have gotten back together, they stand at one of the windows of his apartment and embrace, the Brooklyn Bridge clearly visible in the background. During their outdoor wedding, the huge bridge looms over the ceremony. In Lee’s movie the bridge has thus become one of the principal characters, an essential element in the lives of these creative young people. It is always present whether they are in love or in pain. For a while it represents separation but finally signifies reconciliation and reconnection. It is a powerful metaphor uniquely used in Lee’s film.
Young men or boys can also be brought together by bridges. Whether balancing on the railing of a bridge high above a river or plunging down into the waters, young men have used bridges to test their bravery (foolishness, for the unlucky) and to cement friendships between the worthy and the fearless. Youth is a time to defy Death. The successful bridge balancer or diver shows that it is not yet “his time” and that he is indestructible. Such acts make the testosterone rise and the adrenalin flow. A successful challenger always feels much more alive after the test. The dead loser posthumously testifies to human limits. Physically active boys often base their friendships on evidence of power, strength, and daring. A bridge can become a perfect testing ground to prove one’s own bravery and to evaluate the fearlessness of other candidates for friendship. This connection between bridges and tests of manhood is quite old. In a legend of the Middle Ages, Lancelot has to cross “barefoot and with bare hands” a bridge “sharper than a scythe.” It is one of the tests of his heroism and his faith. (Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion.)
Such will be the use of a bridge in another Brooklyn-based movie, Saturday Night Fever (US, 1977). The film opens with a shot of a gray, uninviting, but powerful Brooklyn Bridge, followed by a view of the long, sweeping Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Tony Manero and his friends live in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and see no reason to go into an intimidating Manhattan, since the women they date, the jobs they hold, the discos they frequent, and the dreams they have are all in Brooklyn. But they often go to the Verrazano Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to a non-threatening Staten Island, to impress each other with their death-defying balancing acts.
After having sex with a young woman he doesn’t love, Tony and his friends take off for their bridge playground. A low-angle shot looks up at the imposing bridge. Joey, Double J, and Tony get out of Bobby C’s car and begin balancing on the rails and showing off for each other. One pretends to fall but really just jumps down to a lower level. They even leap into the air and catch on to cables. Tony, the best disco dancer of the group, moves along a ledge like Gene Kelly. These young men, just barely out of their teens, obviously know the bridge quite well. Bobby C, who appears to be the youngest of the four, stays in the car and mutters about what jerks they are. Just as he is afraid to test his manhood through dangerous acts on the bridge, he also seems to be afraid to pursue women as relentlessly as his friends. He is the outsider and is allowed to hang out with the guys strictly because he has a car.
Near the climax of the film, the four guys drive to the Verrazano Bridge for more fun and games. Annette, the young woman who loves an uncaring Tony, gives up her virginity to Double J in the back seat of the car while Bobby C drives. At the bridge Joey gets out of the car and balances on his hands on the railing. Double J gets off Annette and onto a rail with his pants down around his legs. Tony sits in the car and curses Annette for “putting out.” The scene is getting very ugly. Annette gets out of the car and races about the walkway, threatening to jump off the bridge, but Tony grabs her.
Finally overcoming his fear and perhaps hoping to forge a friendship with Tony, Bobby C climbs up some cables and holds on with only one hand. His need to show off his fearlessness escalates. He jumps along the ledge and keeps yelling to Tony, “Look at me, look at me!” Drunk, he becomes increasingly hysterical as he stands on his head and then dances on a beam. Showing the real depths of his unrequited love and agony, he starts crying, “How come you never called me?” Before Tony can get to him, Bobby falls into the river far below, never getting the love that he so desperately needed. His plunge reminds us of the association between bridges and death in many films. Not only can bridges bring people together in love or friendship, they can also propel characters out of this world into “the next” or into oblivion.
However, that fatal step may not always be necessary or inevitable even if someone is purposely, rather than carelessly, putting him/herself in danger of plunging into the arms of death. Many bridge-related films have begun with a scene in which one character is intent on severing all connections with humanity and life. The optimistic aspect of such openings is that the audience can generally be sure that the “right person” will arrive on the scene to save the jumper and give him/her a new reason to live. Inevitably such film suicides are usually unsuccessful ones, thwarted for dramatic purposes. They serve as “jumping off” points. The intended leap to death must be unsuccessful for there to be a story. Furthermore, such an opening scene tells us something about the painful mental state of the would-be suicide before any dialogue is spoken. The screenwriter and film director are banking on the audience’s desire to know more about that person and what has driven him/her to that situation.
Girl on the Bridge (La Fille sur le ponte, France, 1999) opens with Adele, a 21-year-old woman, standing outside the railing of a beautiful metal bridge over the River Seine in Paris. Boats pass under her. She clasps her coat against her body and inches forward. One hand loosens from the railing. She stares down at the water and gasps for breath and bravery. A man’s off-camera voice utters an existential remark: “You look like a girl who’s about to make a mistake.” She looks to her right, frowning, “I’m okay, thanks.” He responds, “You’re too young to be sad.” Adele retorts, “No, I’m just short of a little guts.” The camera pulls back and shows the woman and man are only three feet apart, he safely inside the rail, she dangerously outside. She says angrily, “I don’t live on bridges,” a possible reference to an earlier French film, Lovers on the Bridge. Nonchalantly he replies, “I do.” Subsequent dialogue reveals that he is a professional knife thrower who had begun to throw erratically after he reached the age of 40. He despaired of hiring new targets until he realized that bridges were excellent employment agencies where he could find suicidal women just about to give up on life. Voila, instant employee, if he talked them out of their leap.
So, Gabor asks Adele if she would like to have him hurl knives at her rather than hurl herself from the bridge. That way, her life could end accidentally some night as a result of one of his mistakes. She would no longer be a suicide and suffer the Catholic prejudice against taking one’s own life. At first she misinterprets his offer as a perverse pickup line: “You think a sad girl on a bridge is an easy target, yours for the asking.” He answers, “I never sleep with my targets.” But she jumps anyway. Gabor, perhaps intrigued by her or, at a minimum, in desperate need of a new target, dives in and saves her.
In the hospital, Adele, Gabor, and a third man lie in full-size heating bags. The second man asks nonchalantly, “What bridge?” The knifer says, “A footbridge near the Eiffel Tower.” The other man laconically replies, “From Solferino.” The tone of the conversation sounds like a bus stop chat about football or the weather.
After a series of successful nightclub shows and wonderful adventures along the European side of the Mediterranean, Adele and Gabor separate. Alone in Istanbul, Gabor walks over to a bridge. We discover that he was going to jump from the footbridge over the Seine the night he met Adele, but the girl with big sad eyes standing outside the railing gave him a new lease on life. Now, in Istanbul he climbs to the other side of the railing and is about to jump when, inevitably, he hears an echo of his own earlier words, slightly modified, “You look like a man who’s about to make a mistake.” Thus, he is saved a second time by Adele. Their previously Platonic love affair is poised to become complete. In this way, the bridges, intended to provide a transition to death, become a place of new connections to life.
Red Squirrel (La Ardilla Roja, Spain, 1993) also opens with a young person standing on a bridge contemplating a leap into darkness. Jota, a musician, tries to find the courage to jump off a bridge into a rocky stretch of ocean along the Atlantic coast of the Basque region of Spain. Suddenly a motorcycle, pursued by a speeding car, comes racing along a city street and hits the guard railing of the bridge not far from where Jota stands. He sees the motorcycle and its rider fly through the air and crash onto the sandy beach below that portion of the bridge. The car rushes away from the scene. Jota becomes more concerned about saving the life of the motorcyclist than destroying his own. He runs down to the beach to assist the person in the helmet. Soon he discovers that the motorcyclist is a young woman, whom he is able to talk back into consciousness. After the ambulance arrives, Jota accompanies the young woman to the hospital. As the movie progresses, Jota and Sophia/Elisa, a woman with a mysterious past, fall in love. Thus the bridge has served as a site of attempted suicide and attempted homicide, both of which are avoided, and becomes the location for the beginning of a romantic relationship.
One description of an early Austrian sound film, Sonnenstrahl (1933), plants it firmly in this category of bridges bringing together a suicide and a savior. But in this case it’s really two suicides, one attempted, the other contemplated. In Vienna an unemployed young man, Jean Durand, is locked out of his flat by his landlady. Finding himself all alone, he goes to the river to commit suicide. But he isn’t very daring for he decides a leap from the riverbank should suffice. Suddenly a young woman jumps from the bridge above him. Without thinking, he dives into the water and saves her. Then begins their relationship.
Americans have learned to leap and love, also, but with various twists. In If Lucy Fell (US, 1996), Lucy and Joe are simply Brooklyn roommates, each with unsatisfying love lives. They decide to renew an old suicide pact. If neither one finds a meaningful, fulfilling relationship within 28 days, they will hand-in-hand jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.
Halfway to D-Day, they pack a picnic lunch and walk out on the bridge just to get familiar with it. Downtown Manhattan and the World Trade Center loom in the background as Lucy complains of the cold.
Soon they start dating new people and the suicide pact seems null and void. Joe has finally met the woman he has been spying on and painting for months. Lucy meets Bwick, an eccentric artist. But failure is inevitable in both cases. The 28 days are up and Lucy comes home one night to find a painted cartoon of a girl jumping from a bridge accompanied by the scrawled title, “If Lucy Fell.” She rushes to the Brooklyn Bridge. Stuck in a horrible traffic jam, she gets out of the cab and walks along the upper pedestrian passage.
Joe is sitting on the railing and mildly comments that they should jump on “this side” so they will go straight down into the icy water, rather than on “the other side,” where the traffic might break their fall. Inevitably Lucy quips, “I thought you were gonna break my fall.” He looks at her. They sit quietly with the traffic streaming by below them. Finally they both realize they are in love with each other. They kiss, the music rises. An aerial shot of the Brooklyn Bridge provides a stunning exit for a rather awful movie. The bridge, which was to be the site of their final moments, has become the setting for a budding love affair.
Laughing Sinners (US, 1931) tells the story of the spiritual downfall and redemption of Ivy Stevens, a vivacious nightclub performer, who thinks she is loved by a traveling salesman. When he leaves her a farewell note written on a menu, she collapses. The next shot reveals a woman’s feet walking along a sidewalk and then stepping up onto a stone rail. Frogs are heard on the soundtrack to suggest a body of water in this obviously studio-bound film. The stone rail belongs to a bridge and she is about to jump.
A man’s voice is heard saying, “Here, you can’t do that.” He grabs her but we still see only their legs. She says, “What do you know about it?” Camera tilts up to reveal Ivy (Joan Crawford) and a Salvation Army captain (Clark Gable). Inevitably she joins the Salvation Army and sings on the street corners instead of in a dancehall, but she is happy. Despite a momentary downfall with the same traveling salesman, she is reunited with Gable and all is well. This movie may have spawned an inordinate number of attempted suicides in 1931 with great hopes of a surrogate Clark Gable appearing just in time. As silly as it seems, Laughing Sinners was no more unrealistic than many other early talking films.
Friendship, rather than romance, can also be an outcome of an incipient suicide being averted by a stranger on a bridge. Dream with the Fishes (US, 1997) follows a depressed man from a liquor store out onto a suspension bridge, probably the Golden Gate. Terry takes big gulps from his large bottle of liquor to find courage for his intended jump. A smalltime crook, Nick, has trailed him with robbery on his mind. Terry gets up onto the railing but unexpectedly hears a voice asking for his watch since he won’t be needing it. An argument ensues, and Terry is finally enticed down off the railing with Nick’s promise of a bottle of barbiturates which will provide a gentler death than a leap into the bay.
When Nick takes the death-desiring man back to his apartment, Terry is shocked to see that the woman living there is the very one he has been spying on with binoculars. He would sit in his darkened apartment and watch her with binoculars. Unfortunately he didn’t have the artistic outlet that Joe had in If Lucy Fell. Terry has seen her crying many times alone and now deduces that her relationship with Nick must be very painful. The attempted suicide on the bridge could appear to be leading to a relationship Terry has desired for so long.
But this film has a surprise in store. Nick has a terminal illness and wants to travel some more before his death. Nick and Terry go off on a series of adventures, mainly silly or criminal. After Nick dies, Terry returns to the bridge, this time not to jump but to comply with his new, unexpected friend’s last wish—to have his ashes scattered from the bridge. The bridge actually created a friendship and gave Terry a new will to live.
Likewise Finding North (US, 1998). Travis’s lover Bobby has died, so he decides to commit suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. He strips off his clothing to leave this world as he came into it. Rhonda, a bank clerk, is driving across the bridge with her friends when they see the naked man standing on the railing. Without a boy friend or much hope of one, Rhonda jumps out of the car to save the desperate man, but Travis’s patient cabdriver has already persuaded him to forget about taking his life and simply get back in the taxi. All Rhonda finds on the bridge is a large shoe. She thinks the man has gone over the edge into the river. Without thinking, she takes the shoe back to her friend’s car and goes on with her life. Or so she expects.
Since it’s a comedy, fate intrudes and puts Rhonda into contact with Travis, who has simply postponed, not canceled, his suicide. He has one more major thing to do before dying—retrace his lover’s life and relationships in Texas. Through a series of contorted stretches of reality, Rhonda ends up going with Travis to Texas. Despite all odds, they finally become inseparable friends after she realizes he is gay. At the end of the film Travis and Rhonda stand on the Brooklyn Bridge and pour Bobby’s ashes into the river. Both Dream with the Fishes and Finding North begin with pessimistic scenes on bridges and end with their opposite in the same location. The former is motivated by a lack of love in Terry’s life and the latter by a loss of love in Travis’s. Neither Terry nor Travis acquires a replacement love but a new friendship which will sustain them (for a while).
In The Seventh Veil (UK, 1946) a psychologist tries to understand why a world-famous pianist, Francesca Cunningham, would try to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. “Dr. Larsen desperately wants to know the events and persons who drove her to this state and help her. He makes Francesca talk about her past – a past with a controlling guardian, Nicholas, no friends, kept apart from the man she loved and forced to practice the piano 5-6 hours a day.” According to this description, it can be inferred that the new friend, professional helper at the least, may give Francesca a new will to live.
One wouldn’t immediately associate suicide from a bridge with Christmas. Oh, now we would because of greater awareness of holiday stress and angst, but, to be more accurate, we don’t usually associate Christmas in the “good old days” of post-war America with suicide. However, George Bailey (James Stewart) is at the end of his strength and courage in Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life (US, 1946). George has a wonderful wife and a delightful family and is a kind-hearted man with many friends in the idyllic town of Bedford Falls, but through a stupid mistake of his uncle’s, the Bailey Building and Loan Association is about to fail. All his life George has sacrificed for the business which he inherited and became unwillingly attached to. Even as a 12-year-old, he saved his younger brother from drowning in an icy pond but lost his hearing in one ear.
After the evil banker, Mr. Potter, tells George that he is worth more dead than alive, George decides on his action. He gets drunk at a local bar and then walks out onto a bridge over a raging river. As he is mentally preparing to kill himself, his guardian angel, Clarence, jumps first into the swirling waters and allows himself to be “saved” by a once-more humane George. When George explains why he wanted to die and wishes he had never been born, the film turns darker as Clarence escorts George around town to prove what an unpleasant place Bedford Falls would be if George had never been born. Finally convinced of the value of his life and his contributions to the communal welfare, George rushes back to the bridge and proclaims that he wants to live. Instead of being a place where a man takes his life or finds new romance, the bridge in It’s a Wonderful Life becomes a place of physical rescue and moral renewal thanks to the guardian angel. George Bailey is reconnected with his better self and with his family and community, thanks to his momentary but timely “friend,” Clarence.
Sometimes attempted suicide brings undesirable friends. In the case of Luv (US, 1967) it’s the wannabe jumper, a total loser, who becomes a relentless pain in the lives of a married couple. The film opens with Harry Berlin’s sad-sack shuffle out onto Manhattan Bridge to end all his misery with a leap. As he stands on the rail trying to secure the courage, a former friend, Milt Manville, just happens to ride by on his bicycle. Completely unaware of why Harry would be balancing on the railing, Milt strikes up a conversation and invites him back to his house in the suburbs to meet his wife Ellen.
But Milt has an agenda greater than friendship. After drawing Harry and Ellen together, Milt is finally free to be with his true love, Linda. However, near the climax of the film, Ellen and Milt have concluded that they really can’t be happy without each other. They begin plotting how to get Harry out of their lives. Milt’s friends kidnap Harry and dump him onto Manhattan Bridge, where the story began. Milt rushes over to push Harry off the bridge but falls into the water himself. A distraught Ellen asks Harry to prove his love for her by committing suicide. Through a series of slapstick events, all three end up in the water, only to be saved by Linda who just happens to be jogging by. It appears that Ellen and Milt will be back together and Harry and Linda will begin a relationship. This comedy, no matter how silly it gets at times, suggests that saving a friend from suicide may not be entirely wise.
Here the bridge has been the setting for suicide, attempted and foiled. Then it becomes the site for premeditated murder but quickly shifts into being the scene of near-tragedy, heroism, and love, both renewed and brand new.
Eugene Kim wrote a description of Something Wild (US, 1961) that would indicate that the rescuer can become problematic. “Mary Ann Robinson, a young woman living in the Bronx with her neurotic, overbearing mother and kindly but ineffectual stepfather, is raped while walking home one night. Keeping the attack to herself, Mary Ann runs away, seeking to lose herself in Manhattan by renting a seedy flat and taking a job in a dime store. Overwhelmed by people’s hostility and her own despair, Mary Ann tries to jump off the Manhattan Bridge, only to be ‘rescued’ by Mike, a garage mechanic who takes her back to his modest basement apartment nearby. At first appreciative of Mike’s kindness, Mary Ann becomes terrified when he refuses to let her leave. Is Mike really Mary Ann’s rescuer – or is he another rapist?”
Bridge as a Place of Death (Part 4)
Many people feel somewhat fearful when driving across a bridge poised over a body of water. There is something unnatural about being in a place with no safe escape, stretched between two pieces of “solid land.” The traffic behind pushes the driver relentlessly onward or a belligerent driver may push one dangerously close to the rails. Stormy weather or earthquakes can also make bridges very dangerous places, as can faulty construction. Many films have capitalized on fear and danger by placing tragic deaths on bridges. Furthermore, some suicides from cinematic bridges are successful.
This association of death and the dangerous bridge is an ancient one. The Zarathustrian legend of the Chinvat Bridge is a very significant one relating the bridge with the journey of the soul. The soul must attempt to cross this bridge at the dawn of the fourth day after the death of the body. At the entrance to the “Separator Bridge” the soul stands as demons argue with helper-gods about the relative good or evil of this particular person. For the good soul the bridge is the width of nine lances and thus easily crossed. For the evil the bridge becomes the width of a razor blade, thereby casting the wretch down into the deep pit of hell. Those deemed blessed are welcome at the other end of the bridge by a lovely young girl who ushers them into paradise. (Pierre Grimal (ed.), Larousse World Mythology; Mircea Eliade;The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion.) Within early Christianity St. Paul writes about the bridge “narrow as a hair” which leads from our world to Paradise. Islamic writers have discussed the same image of the bridge. In both traditions, the unjust fall into hell from the bridge. In Finnish tradition the bridge crossing over the pits of hell is “covered with needles, nails, and razor blades” and all the dead, as well as shamans in ecstasy, must cross it to reach the other world. (Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion.) Native American stories also use the motif of the bridge in death. A Yokut legend has a man follow his dead wife to the bridge “that arches the river separating the land of the living from the realm of them that have passed away….” (Hartley Burr Alexander, V. 10 of The Mythology of All Races, p. 236.)
Attuned to popular cultural motifs, some filmmakers have mined the rich imagery of bridges associated with death. In a low-rent but atmospheric horror film, Carnival of Souls (US, 1962), teenagers drag-race across the Lecompton Bridge, a steel bridge outside Lawrence, Kansas. It’s the kind of bridge with wooden flooring and only two plank “tracks” for one car to cross at a time. The two cars racing side-by-side are unstable and the boys’ car begins to crowd the other car until the girls are pushed through the railing into the muddy river below, where they die, or so it seems. The rest of the film shows a confused Mary thinking she is alive and trying to avoid the inevitable reunion with other spirits. The DVD-version of the film contains the information that the steel bridge has been replaced by a newer (more boring) concrete bridge. One hopes its destruction wasn’t precipitated by this film.
Susie Q (US, 1996) is another film in which a young woman dies when her car is knocked off a bridge. She, or her spirit, also continues to wander around, but in this case she is trying to give aid and comfort to survivors rather than simply accept her own death, according to one description.
Catch (Steve) Lambert might as well be the spirit of a dead man wandering the earth. In Angel Eyes (US, 2001) he is the disconsolate sole survivor of a fatal car crash on Metro Bridge 46 at Wylebridge Avenue in Chicago. He lost his wife, his son, and his reasons for living. No one goes over the railing but the impact of the collision with a large truck was quite severe. Catch is about to die, also, but the eyes of a police officer, played by J-Lo/Jennifer Lopez, and her soothing, reassuring voice keep bringing him back to consciousness as he lies in the wreckage. For Catch the bridge becomes a place of transition, not to death, but eventually to a new life with the police officer. For his wife and child it is strictly the site of transition to death.
Ambrose Bierce’s short story, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” was turned into a short narrative film, “La Rivière du hibou,” in 1962 in France. The setting remained the American Civil War. The film opens with a close-up of a posted sign: “Any civilian caught interfering with railroad bridges, tunnels or trains will be summarily hanged.” The camera then pulls back to reveal a wooden railroad bridge over a river. A hanging rope with a noose is thrown over the truss work above the roadway. The condemned man is made to stand on a plank of wood hanging out over the edge of the bridge above the river. His legs and ankles are tied together. Surprisingly the prisoner is in civilian clothes. A soldier stands on the other end of the plank, ready to step off and send the man plummeting to his death at the end of the rope. It is brilliant and cruel.
There is no dialogue, just natural sounds of the river, birds, an owl, footsteps, the creaking of wood. Other soldiers stand at attention and watch the proceedings. The sun begins to rise over the horizon. The rope is finally put around his neck. His watch is taken. The prisoner begins to cry. The soldier steps off the safe end of the board, and the man plunges….into the water! He frees his bound hands, swims underwater, gets shot at, and miraculously saves himself. He gets to a distant bank of the river and rushes joyfully and breathlessly through the countryside towards his home. Just as he is about to reach his wife’s open arms and embrace her, he is pulled violently back to his actual reality at the end of a rope. It has all been his imagination, seeming minutes of activity held within a few seconds of falling, breaking his neck, and dying. He has indeed made his fatal meeting with Death on the bridge.
The association of bridges, car accidents, drowning, and political careers has been inevitable since Ted Kennedy drove off Chappaquidick Bridge in 1969, resulting in the death of a young political assistant.
Blow Out (US, 1981) puts a new twist on the subject. A sound recorder for schlock-horror films is out late at night in a Philadelphia park gathering new material. Jack (John Travolta) stands patiently on a footbridge under a much grander bridge with a beautiful large arch. He records the conversation of a couple of lovers and the natural sounds of a frog and an owl. Suddenly through his headphones come the sound of a speeding car, a gun shot, a tire blowing out, and then the crash of the car into the guard rail of the bridge. As he sees the car fall into the water and begin to sink, he throws his equipment down and runs along the graceful arc of the footbridge before diving into the creek to save the young woman passenger, Sally. There’s nothing he can do for the man in the car. Jack’s presence on that bridge will lead to his romance with the young woman, but more importantly to his dangerous involvement in a political conspiracy. As he discovers, the tire was blown out by a rifle shot and the dead man in the car was to be a major candidate for the American presidency. Three lives on the two bridges were irrevocably changed that night.
A bridge in The Contender (US, 2000) is used as a means to further a political career. Or such was the intention. Governor Hathaway, strongly considered as a replacement for the recently deceased Vice-President of the US, is fishing with a journalist. As they sit calmly talking and casting their lines out from the rowboat, a car comes crashing off the bridge into the murky waters nearby. Seemingly without thought or concern for his own safety, the governor plunges into the water and tries to save the woman driver from her watery tomb. But he can’t get the door open in time and she dies. In the eyes of the nation this man is a hero simply for his effort.
However, the President and his advisors don’t like the subtle association with Sen. Edward Kennedy and the accident at Chappaquidick. Incredulous, the governor splutters that he tried to save the young woman rather than leave the scene of the accident. The President says that the public will only remember a bridge, a politician, and a death. Details will fade away. As the movie unfolds, we learn that the President’s gut feeling was correct. Governor Hathaway had paid the young woman to drive her car off the bridge so he could save her. However, the plan failed and she drowned. Neither he nor his wife seems very disturbed by her death; they are more upset about his political trajectory stopping its ascent. When the plot unfolds, the governor is arrested for manslaughter. Rather than being a bridge to higher office, the bridge and the car “accident” provide a transition to his downfall.
A bridge in Keeper of the Flame (US, 1942) is likewise used as a tool, but in this case as a weapon of murder. The film opens on a stormy night as a car races along a muddy road and suddenly over a precipice where a bridge was expected to be. Robert Forrest, wealthy leader of the Forward America Association, is killed in the accident at the washed-out bridge on his own estate. America mourns, especially young boys who had found a leader in Forrest and an ideal in his organization.
Reporters descend on the small town to investigate the death. War correspondent Steven O’Malley wants to discover the real Forrest, but he is thwarted in his research, for the grieving widow refuses to speak with any reporter. Clive Kerndon, Mr. Forrest’s spokesman and secretary, provides reams of information about the great patriot, but O’Malley suspects there is more to the story. The writer gets onto the grounds of the Forrest estate and looks at the wooden bridge. Its middle section has been ripped away by flood waters, but he wonders if the destruction was somehow helped along by someone.
Since O’Malley is played by Spencer Tracey and Christine Forrest is played by Katherine Hepburn, the journalist inevitably find his own way into the mansion and into the presence of the widow. He realizes after a while that she is indeed hiding something. There are various red herrings, including hints that Forrest was not so universally loved by some of the people around him. When O’Malley confronts Ms. Forrest with a horseshoe he discovered underneath the broken bridge, he suggests that she had been at the scene that night and knew the bridge was washed out. He states that she could have warned her husband but did not and is therefore a murderer. She admits to all of this but explains why she let her husband die.
His organization, Forward America Association, was essentially a fascist movement created for the American people. It hadn’t started that way, but as its power grew, Forrest changed and came to see himself as an American fuehrer. The night of the “accident,” Forrest was on his way to give instructions to saboteurs who would start the second American Revolution. Indeed, Ms. Forrest was under the remains of the bridge, but she chose to use the washed-out structure as a weapon in the fight for American freedom. She chose to let her husband’s car crash and thus end the twisted political ideology he had adopted. Instead of writing about Robert Forrest exclusively, O’Malley tells the story of Christine Forrest, the real patriot who allowed the death of her husband in order to save the life of her country. Had Forrest crossed the bridge successfully, the US would have been forever changed. In this case the bridge served a higher political purpose as an instrument of death.
The accident that can cause even greater numbers of deaths is the collapse of a bridge. Building bridges became a science and an art only through trial and error. Human beings suffered for those errors. Wind, earthquakes, poor design can all contribute to this most horrifying form of accidental death. When a bridge collapses, unwilling pedestrians or vehicle passengers are taken to their deaths in the river or rocky depths below, as in the May 2002 collapse of several spans of the bridge at Webbers Falls, Oklahoma. As far as the cinema is concerned, the combination of bridge collapse and death may provide an excuse for the philosophical question: Why did those innocent people die so horribly? Did God (or the gods) punish them or take them to a “better place”? Or, in more recent, less spiritual cinematic efforts, the impending disaster of a collapsing bridge with a train hurtling towards it through the night (it’s always night) provides a good “shaky” foundation for a disaster movie and the dramatic question, “What would you do if you knew you were headed toward a seemingly unavoidable death along with hundreds of people?” September 11th has made this a less academic question.
The Cassandra Crossing (Germany-UK-Italy, 1976) is an intriguing disaster movie with a huge cast of fading actors. Aboard the Geneva-Stockholm express train is a terrorist deliberately spreading a highly infectious and deadly pneumonic plague. 1000 passengers are potential victims. With scheduled stops in Basel, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen before reaching Stockholm, the disease and terror could spread throughout Europe. An American Army intelligence officer, in charge of stopping the potential mega-disaster, orders the train to be diverted into Poland, where the passengers can be isolated until treated (or allowed to die).
The destination for the hapless train is a Nazi concentration camp but the railway tracks lead over the Cassandra Crossing, whose bridge is highly risky. The Polish government questions the stress tolerance of the old cantilevered bridge, unused since 1948. As the American colonel seems to welcome the information, which increases the possibility of containing the disease with a massive train wreck, foreboding shots of the bridge add to the tension. There are stone anchoring piers on each side of the valley with one massive cantilever arch which groans in the wind. As the train rushes on, a doctor-turned-hero (Richard Harris) works feverishly to separate some cars from the long body of the train, so at least some people might be saved from the impending disaster. The locomotive begins hurtling across the bridge, but the stress is too much and the bridge begins to come apart and collapse. Long shots show the sickening sight of railroad cars plunging into the abyss below. Bridge and train become indistinguishable in the twisted mass of steel. Metal beams puncture the cars like knives. As if the fall isn’t horrible enough, an explosion then brings down more of the bridge and destroys more people. The entire cantilevered section with its roadway collapses. Only some of the disconnected cars survive, but they are still on a highly unstable section of the bridge. All must try to exit through the last car of the train.
In The Cassandra Crossing the presentation of an unstable bridge in Poland was perhaps a way of attacking Communism, but the film also portrayed the American general as cold-hearted and ruthless in his desire to contain the disease, truly a Cold War attitude. So, each side gets bad marks in this film. There was no stable bridge at the time to bring the two opponents together and people would unnecessarily die for lack of a political bridge between the two systems.
Survivors inevitably ponder death in disasters, natural and man-made. Some religious beliefs cause people to ask incomprehensibly, “Why did those people die? Did God want them in heaven, were they evil, did their relatives commit sins, is God punishing our society?” Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, captured the American public’s imagination so well that it was made into a film twice (1929 and 1944). Arne Andersen has described the early version as a “straight-forward telling of the intermingled lives of a group of strangers doomed to die in a collapsing bridge accident.” Keith Simanton says of the later version: “Five people die when a rope bridge collapses in Peru. A local priest, perplexed why God chose these five to die, goes to town to investigate who the five were.”
Noah’s Ark (US, 1928) actually saw fit to show the hand of the Christian-Judeo God. It is 1914 near the French border. The Oriental Express is speeding from Paris to Constantinople. A Russian military man on board the train has just “said” to a devout Jewish man, “Faith is food for fools and invalids. If there is a God why doesn’t he show himself.” After that title card with his dialogue, a shot of a stone bridge appears. Lightning strikes and several beautiful arches are instantly shattered. The Jewish man warns, “Peace, brother, lest He show Himself–in wrath!” Just then the train begins to go over the bridge and starts falling into the river valley below. There is much screaming, water pouring in, and railroad cars rolling down the hillside in flames. A German with his book of machinery dies as does a Frenchman with his “girlie magazine.” The Russian survives but nearly gets hit by a falling beam. The Jew carries a baby to safety. A prisoner unlocks his handcuffs from the wrist of a dead guard but stops to help two Americans lift a portion of the bridge off a trapped woman. Even though the bridge has collapsed and killed perhaps hundreds of people, a different sort of bridge is momentarily constructed between different nationalities as they work together to rescue the living. Primarily, though, the director Michael Curtiz wanted to show the train that was Europe heading for the disaster of World War I. The collapsing bridge might forge new relationships while destroying so many lives and cultural systems unnecessarily. He seems to imply that the war would be as much a natural disaster as a man-made one.
Sometimes the attempted suicides from a bridge are all too successful. Many film suicides are aborted so the unhappy person has a new chance in life, but others jump, die, and disappear.
Two films based on Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 popular ballad, “Ode to Billie Joe,” have dealt with the moving tale of young love, religious conflict, uncertain sexuality, and suicide. Ode to Billy Joe (US, 1976) and Ode (US, 1999) both take the viewer to the Tallahatchie Bridge in Mississippi, scene of Billy (Billie?) Joe’s unfortunate youthful suicide, brought on by unrequited love, sexual guilt, or fear of an uncertain sexual orientation. My Brother Tom (2001) is apparently an even more complicated story of young love twisted by sexual abuse. Tom is abused by his father while his friend Jessica is molested by her school teacher. After a relentless series of disasters, Tom “slips or jumps from a bridge in front of a train.”
A six-part French film made in 1965, Six in Paris (Paris vu par….), contains one story about a woman, a man, and a suicide from a bridge. In “Gare du Nord” a young wife complains to her hard-working husband that she is bored with their married life, their small income, their apartment, and their inability to dream and travel. Odile leaves her befuddled husband at home and begins walking to work. A man who nearly runs over her leaves his expensive car in the street and begins walking with her. He lives in Auteuil, an exclusive neighborhood of Paris, one that she dreams about, but complains about the quietness of his home and garden. He represents everything she covets but which bores him. Their conversation carries them onto an old metal bridge over the tracks of Paris’s northern train station. He invites her to drive away with him, to fly with him wherever she dreams of going. He is the answer to her prayers but she “can’t, just can’t.” The man suggests, “Love dies from the lack of mystery.” This is certainly true of her married life. Odile admits that he and his offers are very tempting, but she doesn’t have the will to simply leave everything and everyone behind. He confesses, “This morning I decided to die. Then I met you. You are my last chance. I thought nothing could interest me anymore. Then I saw your smile.” Even with that complete declaration of attraction and love, she turns him down. Oh, well. He climbs up onto the bridge railing. All she can do is yell, “No monsieur, no.” From the look on her face, we know he has jumped. To confirm this, the camera tilts down and shows his body on the tracks below. She lost her chance at impromptu, wild abandon and perhaps joy and took away his last desire to live. This encounter on a bridge did not end happily, unlike so many other French films involving bridges and suicides.
An apparent suicide becomes a lie followed by the successful suicide of two lovers in Suzhou River (Suzhou He, China-Germany, 2000). This complex love story is set in Shanghai, primarily along the Suzhou River with its many bridges, bustling commercial activity, and incredible pollution. The unseen narrator says, “I like to take my camera and drift through Shanghai, east to west, on the Suzhou River. People live here making a living on the river. They live their whole lives there.” The boat he is on passes beneath various bridges, some graceful arched ones, others of concrete or with steel trusses, none higher than necessary for river boats. “The river will show you everything. Once a girl jumped to her death from a bridge outside my window. I saw the bodies of two young lovers being dragged out of the water by the police.”
This unnamed freelance videographer begins an affair with a woman, Meimei, who performs as a mermaid in a large tank in a seedy club. His love is so intense that he only feels complete when he sees her on the bridge on her way to his apartment. But she is less impressed with his affirmation of love than the love shown in a story she tells him: Mardar, a motorbike delivery-boy, fell in love with a young school girl, Moudan. After the gang he worked for involved him in her kidnapping, she escaped and ran to the river. They stood on the steel bridge, coincidentally the one outside the apartment windows of the narrator. Before Mardar could stop her, Moudan yelled out before she jumped that she would come back as a mermaid. Her body was never found. Mardar spent a long time looking for her. When he met Meimei, the mermaid in the club, he was sure she was Moudan, but she continued to deny it.
Eventually Mardar finds the real Moudan, who had not died in the river. Although the film doesn’t contain their actual death, we see their bodies dragged out of the river shortly after their reunion. It can be assumed that they leaped from the same bridge Moudan had jumped from several years before. This time, both she and her lover drown. The first leap from the bridge was simply a means of escape. The second time is real and unites the two lovers in death.
A very peculiar suicide takes place on the Thor Bridge in England in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes: Problem of Thor Bridge (UK, 1990). The Brazilian wife of a wealthy American is found shot to death on the beautiful stone bridge over a lake on their estate. The governess of her children is arrested for the murder. Her motive—jealousy of the married woman’s wealth and position. The wealthy husband is also a suspect for a while, but Holmes proves that the death was actually a clever suicide. The wife tied a revolver to a large stone which would drag the gun over the side of the bridge into the murky lake waters below after she shot herself in the head and relaxed her grip on the gun. This elaborate ruse would, she hoped, cause the arrest and execution of the governess, who was the new love interest of her husband. It was the wife who felt an uncontrollable jealousy. This private bridge also becomes a passageway to death but almost serves as the locus of revenge and injustice. Only Sherlock Holmes can insure that a wrong is not committed against an innocent woman.
Sometimes the leap from a bridge is made for joy, not sorrow. A short film from 1950, “On a Bridge,” focuses on the journey of a “drunken man” as he “walks though Manhattan to the 59th Street Bridge. On the bridge, he looks back at the skyline and is over-awed by the beauty of the city. In an exhilarated state of elation, overcome with happiness, he jumps from the bridge and falls to his death.”
A strange case of a suicide, which may have been simply a means of getting out of a difficult situation, occurs in The Disappearance of Finbar (Ireland-Sweden-Finland, 1996). Gerhard Windecker describes the film: “Finbar and Danny are close childhood friends who live in a depressing neighborhood in an Irish town. Finbar gets the chance to play soccer in an international soccer team abroad but can’t use it and comes back. He went as a hero and came back as loser. Even the relation to Danny gets worse. In an act of desperation he jumps from a bridge and just disappears.” Later Finbar turns up in Sweden and Danny goes in search of his longtime friend. So, the bridge may serve as a secretive portal to a new life elsewhere, unknown by those friends left behind to grieve a death which didn’t happen. The departed disappears into thin air or into muddy waters. Clothes and a note left behind on a beach have served the same purpose for some who wish to start over.
Since bridges can be places of death, many mystery or action/adventure films find a way to place the protagonist and antagonist on a bridge for an often climactic battle. It is a place to which a character has often been driven, a place of final resort, the location of the “last stand.” With the sometimes-raging river below and perhaps both ends of the bridge impassable, the protagonist (sometimes the antagonist) seems to be in a hopeless situation. Visual tension is increased in such a location through the presence of strong diagonal lines of the bridge’s trusses or cables slashing across the background. Either the good guy or the bad guy is doomed to die on the bridge.
The realistic film noir The Naked City (US, 1948) uses the actual Williamsburg Bridge for a powerful climax. Garzah, a burly harmonica-playing wrestler who has committed murder, tries to escape the police by running across the Williamsburg Bridge. The cops are in hot pursuit, some in cars, some on foot. Garzah races along the pedestrian terraces of the bridge, past children jumping rope and women with baby buggies getting some sun. His horizontal escape cut off, he runs up to a higher pedestrian level where he is attacked by a blind man’s dog, which he quickly dispatches with his gun. Now we know he is really evil. Seeing no way out he starts irrationally climbing up the stairs of one of the steel support towers. Finally, after shooting down at the cops (five or more stories below), he is shot and plunges to his death. The film was made on location and there are many visually powerful views of the bridge. The Williamsburg Bridge first appeared in movies during its 1903 inauguration. In this fictional film, the bridge becomes a place of entrapment, misguided hope, and death, which contrast so strongly with the vivid life of the women and children enjoying the same structure.
In Arabesque (US, 1966) the final shoot-out takes place on the Crumlin Rail Viaduct in Wales. It appears to be a steel pier-and-beam bridge with very tall towers underneath. The roadway is unpaved gravel. It is evidently under construction or simply under repair since it has large dangerous gaps between sections. A university professor (Gregory Peck), a beautiful spy (Sophia Loren) and the prime minister of an Arabic country are trapped on the bridge by some very dangerous, evil people in a helicopter. Searching for an escape route or even just a hiding place, the trio climb down to a lower level of the bridge, but they are still vulnerable targets. Not only do they need to worry about bullets, but a misstep could plunge them into the chasm below. The scene provides a very vertiginous feeling. But, of course, Peck and Loren are not going to die. The professor sagely thrusts a ladder into the blades of the helicopter and the bad guys fall to their death, giving the adventurous threesome an opportunity for escape.
Following the more cartoonish aspects of Saturday morning kiddy matinees of the 1940s, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (US, 1984) places Indy (Harrison Ford) and his cohorts on a rope bridge in India at the climax of the film. The sheer height doesn’t provide enough thrills for director Steven Spielberg. He puts alligators in the river, so if the trio survive a fall, they will be quickly and painfully eaten. Religious thuggees are closing in from both sides, so Indiana does the “logical” thing (in an adventure movie)—he cuts the ropes holding the bridge together. Miraculously only sect members fall into the river while the rope bridge, now a rope ladder, hangs from one side of the valley with Jones, Short Round, and Willie struggling with the Indian cult leader. The British troops arrive just after Indiana has dispatched all the bad guys, something like a latter-day Gunga Din, from which Spielberg borrowed a bit. As in Arabesque, there was never any doubt as to who would survive and who would fail, but the use of the rope bridge was clever because Western viewers have an innate fear of such early bridge construction, all too foreign to us now. That swaying and instability disturb us.
The cinematic association of bridges with danger and death is sufficient for Force of Evil (US, 1948). No deaths take place on the [George Washington?] Bridge, but a body is dumped underneath it. A lawyer for the mob in New York City wants to take over the numbers racket and turn it into a well organized, legal, and lucrative lottery. His brother is a numbers banker who doesn’t want to work directly for such an overt criminal organization, so he is killed under the bridge or somewhere else. Wherever, his body joins the garbage and refuse on the riverbank.
Another film which places a corpse near a bridge is Dirty Harry (US, 1971). While various shots of the Golden Gate Bridge serve to position the action within the San Francisco Bay area, the most dramatic use of the bridge involves the discovery of a 12-year-old girl’s body in a hole dug near one end of the Golden Gate Bridge. As the police pull the girl’s naked corpse out of its hiding place, the suspension cables and steel roadway of the bridge loom ominously and yet beautifully over the crime scene. Once again death has caught up with an innocent victim on or near a bridge.
Bridge as a Place of Danger (Part 5)
It’s quite dramatically exciting to place some dangerous action on a bridge even if no one dies. In Get Carter (UK, 1971) Jack Carter, a ruthless gangster, has gone back to his northern English hometown, Newcastle-on-Tyne, to find and murder his brother’s killer. Carter takes a somewhat high-class call girl out on Barras Bridge to extract information one way or another. The bridge over the Tyne River is massive, with many metal supports, beams, and arches and serves as a heart-chilling setting. Carter’s manner implies that he is fully capable of throwing the woman off the bridge if she doesn’t provide information about his brother’s associates. However, she is saved by the arrival of other gangsters. Jack runs away but his brutal search continues. So, the bridge doesn’t become the site of a murder, only several threatened ones. (The new bridge over the River Tyne can be seen in the foreground of this photo, but in the background is the older bridge which appears in the film.)
The fingernail/knuckle-chewing psychological thriller Breakdown (US, 1997) uses a simple concrete bridge as an instrument of torture for the main characters and the audience. Amy Taylor is kidnapped by a ruthless gang of extortionists in Arizona. After a series of terrible dead-ends and near-panic, her husband Jeff traces her to a storage room in a barn. They flee the area with the gang in hot pursuit. When Amy and Jeff reach a bridge, an ominous truck catches up and shoves their pickup truck right to the edge of the concrete bridge with a low guardrail. Subjected to a whole series of pushes and smashes, the pickup breaks through the guardrail and is precariously suspended over the river far below with the couple caught inside. The semi is pushing so hard that its tires are bouncing, almost like a dinosaur gone berserk. Jeff is able to climb out of the cab and onto the metal monster, which has now rolled over the hood of the pickup and is itself defiantly hanging off the bridge. Jeff struggles with the maniacal driver, Red Barr. Vertigo is amply fed with gut-wrenching shots from below. Every few seconds the truck and the pickup seem about to fall over the obliterated guardrail. Finally Jeff knocks the embodiment of evil off onto the distant rocks below. The husband and wife are safely reunited on the roadway of the bridge. When Amy sees that her sadistic captor is still alive in the streambed, she walks over to the cab of the semi and pulls the gear into neutral so the big truck goes smashing down on top of him. As Jeff and Amy embrace once more, the camera pulls back to show them alone on the bridge. One can hope/assume that this experience will provide a transition to a stronger relationship, but there is still the danger of recriminations and separation—”Why didn’t you….? Why did you….?” They were almost shoved right into the maw of death on that lonely bridge in the desolate Southwestern desert. This film is another in a growing list of American films of the 1990s that turned “the wide-open spaces” of the desert Southwest into very dangerous places. Such films could be considered anti-Westerns.
A James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough (UK, 1999), uses bridges in a very exciting, if implausible, manner. In pursuit of a dangerous female assassin escaping in a fast boat, Bond races a turbo-charged boat along the Thames. Both he and his prey pass under various bridges, which cinematically serve as site-markers for London. But the real “bridge danger” appears when a drawbridge is being lowered. The woman just barely gets under it, while Bond’s “boat” becomes a submarine, which allows him to slip deep under the bridge.
In the Laurel and Hardy comedy Swiss Miss (US, 1938) the two bumbling guys have gone off to Switzerland to sell mousetraps. After a series of typical misadventures, they are trapped on a rope bridge with a gorilla high above an Alpine gorge. Here the danger on the bridge is humorous even if wildly incongruous.
One would assume that the only bridges the King of the Apes ever dealt with were made of rope, but in 1942 Tarzan came to New York to follow Boy’s kidnappers, unscrupulous circus owners. Jane tagged along to help him with the culture of city people in Tarzan’s New York Adventure (US). After losing Boy’s custody case in court, Tarzan follows his own laws to get his adopted son back. He hails a cab (a quick study, that ape man) and heads to Long Island to rescue Boy from the evil big-top entrepreneurs. Fortunately for the cinema, his cab is stopped midway across the Brooklyn Bridge. Unafraid of high places, Tarzan climbs up on a railing. Beautiful shots of the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn and then Manhattan are prominent in the black-and-white photography. Tarzan climbs a large cable-holding tube which runs up to a tower, but the police are both behind and before him, so there is no other escape than down below in the East River. As he strips off his double-breasted jacket and shirt, a man is heard saying, “That’s a 200 foot dive. He can’t make it and live.” But he obviously doesn’t know Tarzan. For many the bridge would be a place of danger or death but not for him. The “lord of the jungle” dives into the water and escapes the police to continue his search for boy. Nothing will deter him, not even the unfamiliar concrete and steel jungle.
Both Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur, France, 1953) and its American remake, Sorcerer (1977), place their characters into white-knuckle scenes involving bridges in Latin America. Four men, badly down-and-out on their luck, have taken the agonizingly difficult job of transporting highly volatile nitroglycerine several hundred miles by truck through mountain, desert, and jungle. In the French version, at one point, the trucks must be backed up onto an incomplete wooden bridge in order to make a sharp turn on an inclined road. With rotten wood, buckling timber supports, and snapping guy wires, the second truck barely escapes destruction. In the American version that particular tension shifts to a rope-and-wooden-plank bridge across a raging river. One look at the situation would make any sane person hesitant even to walk across the bridge, much less drive a truck full of explosives across it. Both films redefine the meaning of “bridges as a place of danger.”
In Dirty Harry (US, 1971), the disturbing study of a renegade cop who follows no rules but his own, a maniacal serial killer takes a group of school kids hostage in their yellow bus. As the vehicle makes its way across the Golden Gate Bridge, their fate is unknown. Later, Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), the determined police detective and self-declared nemesis of this dangerous murderer, stands on a train trestle from which he jumps onto the roof of the bus passing beneath. The murderer sees him and realizes a showdown is coming, not on the bridge but somewhere up ahead. Dirty Harry’s figure on the bridge looks like an avenging angel preparing to swoop down to put some serious hurt on a really ugly wrongdoer.
A railroad trestle appears to be a place of danger but actually becomes a place of refuge in Emperor of the North (US, 1973). “Shack” (Ernest Borgnine) is a sadistic railway conductor who will do anything to keep hobos off his train during the Depression. He will beat them mercilessly while smiling broadly. He doesn’t care if they die from his blows or from being cut to pieces as he knocks them down under the wheels of the train. In one scene he senses that there is an unwanted passenger on the train. He stops on a large train trestle over a river and begins to search for the hobo. There are actually two, but one slips off the train and down the wooden supports to safety in the woods. Cigaret (Keith Carradine), the younger, less experienced rail rider, successfully hides among the inelegant mass of timbers holding the trackbed up over the river. The massive beams and support bars hide him in a place that could have witnessed his cruel death.
The danger of bridges can appear in other ways. In Six Bridges to Cross (US, 1955) youthful gangster Jerry Florea doesn’t cross any of Boston’s bridges with the loot from an armored car robbery. Instead he hides the easily spotted vehicle in a warehouse inside Boston and waits to split up the take later. As an island, Boston has six bridges connecting it to the mainland. Even though the police close off all the bridges after the robbery, they won’t catch the robbers that way. One steel bridge with a metal mesh roadway is shown. Elsewhere there are a stone bridge and a drawbridge. But they are irrelevant. Avoiding the bridges, a place of danger and potential capture or death, is the wise gangster’s method.
Another film which pits gangster against bridge is Key Largo (US, 1948). At the opening we see a bus crossing from the mainland onto the Florida Keys via a causeway—a concrete strip, long and close to the water. Ordinarily it provides the connection between the coral islands and the rest of Florida, but when a hurricane hits the area it’s impassable. In this film, as the hurricane rages, the bridge offers false hope and immense danger. Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his gang, holed up in a hotel on Key Largo, have to wait out the storm. They would be fools to try to drive across the causeway. Though we never see the causeway again, its absence is deeply felt and prevents escape for both gangsters and captives.
Bridge as Transition to Danger (Part 6)
Simply crossing a bridge may provide a foreshadowing of danger and potential death. A character may be driven across a bridge to a place of torture and destruction, or he/she may symbolically make the passage from safety to danger without even knowing it.
Easy Rider (US, 1969) tells the story of Wyatt “Captain America” Earp and Billy, two renegade hippie drug dealers who ride their motorcycles from Los Angeles to New Orleans. With one gas tank holding the profits from a drug score, they cross over a multitude of steel bridges in Arizona and New Mexico. No events ever happen on the bridges, but they serve as cultural-industrial markers of the ease with which these 20th century “cowboy-outlaws” can make the trek back East in comparison to their forebears who had to ford rivers, climb mountains, and descend into valleys in their westward move. The bridges represent the changes brought by civilization. And yet these free spirits are still gunned down like Billy the Kid and other outlaws, not for being criminals, but for simply being long-haired hippies on motorcycles. Their freedom of movement, also made easy by the bridges, is resented by a redneck who starts pumping his shotgun and blasting away. The bridges of the early part of the film offered freedom of movement but eventually led them to their death. Wyatt and Billy were unaware that their trip to New Orleans would be only one-way.
In 8mm (US, 1999) a warehouse in Brooklyn becomes the site of creating horrific snuff films. The Brooklyn Bridge is seen in several shots as private investigator Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) goes from the safety of Manhattan to the evil location in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Bridge thus becomes a transitional passageway into the hell of pornography and murder.
Neil Shaw (Wesley Snipes) is an operative for the “UN’s covert dirty-tricks division” in The Art of War (US, 2000). In an aerial shot the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges are shown. Snipes is being taken over to Brooklyn by criminals. Once more, as in 8mm, crossing the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridge out of Manhattan can only mean pain, torture, and perhaps death. The bridges become transitions to death or maiming.
Throughout Nicholas Roeg’s atmospheric thriller, Don’t Look Now (UK, 1973), the sophisticated English couple, John and Laura Baxter, is haunted by the death of their daughter even as they glide through the canals of Venice. Their gondola passes under many bridges. They hear strange cries emanating from behind closed shutters. Their passage is blocked near one bridge where they watch the police dredge a dead woman’s body from the water. As they try to find their way through the labyrinth of Venetian passageways, they cross over many bridges, some of which John seems to remember. Ultimately one bridge will lead John to his horrible death at the hands of a dwarf wrapped in a red raincoat similar to that of his daughter’s. The Bridge of Sighs lives up to its name.
It isn’t always necessary to cross over the bridge to enter another realm. Sometimes passing beneath will suffice. A canoe trip down the Chattooga River in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia becomes a trip into paranoia, terror, and death in Deliverance (US, 1972). Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds) has talked three friends into traveling down the pristine river for the last time before it is dammed for conversion into a lake. No matter how experienced in the outdoors Medlock is, the other three are poorly equipped for this adventure. Within minutes of starting, they pass under a split- log foot-bridge with sapling and rope handrails. The backwoods boy, who had played the banjo so beautifully and exuberantly in the famous duet with one of the four, stands on the bridge alone looking down at them as they pass under. This foot-bridge is a perfect example of probably one of the earliest types of bridges ever made. But symbolically the bridge overhead serves as a portal into hell, much the way that the bridge in Apocalypse Now functions. With birds chirping and the water racing along, the men may think they have entered an untouched paradise, but fate and their own ignorance and stupid reactions are taking them into a devastating experience of rape, murder, dangerous rapids, pain, broken bones, death, and moral uncertainty.
Bridge as a Battleground in Wartime (Part 7)
The use of bridges in war films is entirely realistic and dramatic. To move large quantities of soldiers, supplies, weaponry, and ammunition, both sides in a war need to maintain bridges. Retreating armies often destroy bridges to slow the enemy pace toward victory. Gunfights often take place at bridges, with the opposing forces on either end, thereby providing a clear geographic image of the two military “sides.” With the addition of air power, three elements can be combined in battle scenes: water below, air above, and the man-made “earth” of the bridge in between. Also, many soldiers lose their lives fighting over and on bridges, which become symbols of their passage into “the other world.” Rather than having troops stretched out over roughly parallel lines of foxholes, as in World War I, the battles over bridges turn space into a virtual bottleneck, through which only a few fighters can pass at a time. Logistically, fighting at a bridge is a nightmare.
Folklore has many tales of battles over and on bridges. A Teutonic myth related in the Eddas speaks of Bifrost Bridge (the rainbow) defended by the gods. Fearing that the “Hill-giants” might cross over into their heavenly realm, the gods turned the red of the rainbow into fire to protect them against an invading army. (John Arnott MacCulloch, Eddic, V. 2 of The Mythology of All Races.) In a Japanese legend, Ushiwaka, a young swordsman, crossed over the Gojo bridge to the temple of Kwannon, goddess of mercy, to whom he prayed for “constant protection and guidance” One night a soldier monk Benkei challenged him to a duel, which the boy easily won. Benkei became his faithful follower. (Masaharu Anesaki, V. 8 of The Mythology of All Races, pp. 310-311.)
In the war film Bataan (US, 1943) American troops are in retreat from the Philippine Islands with General McArthur. Some are left behind at Bataan with a specific mission regarding a strategic bridge. A captain explains: “Our orders are to demolish this bridge to prevent a breakthrough. Our job is to keep the Japs from moving their tanks and artillery through here, to stop them anyway we can. The idea is that Gen. McArthur needs time to consolidate and reorganize down below. If the Jap army can pour their artillery through here, the battle of Bataan will be over all too soon. We’re going to blow that bridge up. When the Japs get here, which will be any time now, they’ll try to rebuild it. We’ll keep on blowing it up.”
The bridge he refers to is a stunningly beautiful stone bridge with three arches between two very tall stone towers and two anchoring towers on either side of the valley walls. A close-up shot shows wooden rails and wooden planks for the walkway, which is only wide enough for about 4 people walking abreast.
The captain has, at best, a very motley crew of soldiers and sailors, who have never worked together before. It’s the classic war movie set-up proving that men from disparate ethnic, regional, and social backgrounds can work together for the common good as unhyphenated Americans. They immediately strap dynamite to the timbers supporting the roadway.
Once the Japanese arrive on the bridge, the Americans blow it up, but the stone piers remain intact and the Japanese begin rebuilding and guarding the construction with firepower. The captain and an assistant lob grenades throughout the night and blow up the roadway again. Locked in a momentary stalemate, the two sides probably both know the inevitable outcome as Japanese troop strength keeps increasing while the Americans won’t be adding to their manpower of thirteen.
A lieutenant, already critically wounded in an earlier exchange of gunfire, flies a dynamite-packed plane into the bridge and succeeds in destroying some of the supporting piers. The depiction of an American kamikaze pilot was unusual for the time. The remaining Americans should have retreated then, but their orders were to prevent the Japanese from crossing. The film is sketchy in describing how the enemy soldiers get closer to the American camp (across the valley floor, perhaps). A major Japanese assault leaves only three Americans alive. Finally only a sergeant (Robert Taylor) is left. Under attack, he continues firing while yelling, “We’ll always be here!” This is a remarkable American film, since all the soldiers die, a rare event for the unquestioning, morale-boosting propaganda of the time.
There are at least two films dealing with bridges in Yugoslavia during World War II. In The Last Bridge (Die Letzte Brucke, Austria-Yugoslavia, 1954) a young German nurse accompanies German troops into Yugoslavia. The film depicts her life in relation to three bridges. A narrator says at the beginning, “This is the first bridge, the Bridge of Mostar.” It is a beautiful stone bridge with one arch from pier to pier. The bridge rises about 15 degrees from each end to allow boats to pass under the center. The arch is slightly pointed, Arabic really, which explains why “the Yugoslavs call it the ‘Turkish Bridge.'” (Ignore the summary written on the IMDB because it is actually a response to Die Brucke/The Bridge, which is discussed later in this essay.)
Helga (Maria Schell) is serving in Mostar that spring of 1943. Crossing the bridge, she meets Martin, a young Sgt. Major in the Wehrmacht. At that same bridge, the site of her budding romance, Helga also witnesses death, as a Yugoslavian partisan tries to escape across the bridge. After he jumps into the water, he is shot.
After a short while, Helga is taken captive by a group of partisans who need a nurse to care for their wounded. When word of a typhus outbreak reaches them, they decide to try to get through to a hospital in territory liberated from the fascists. To do so, they must cross a rickety, wooden suspension bridge over the Neretva River. Just as they begin, a contingent of German soldiers comes up river in motorboats. Shooting breaks out. The bridge is torn apart by bullets and the stress of so much human weight. But finally the partisans defeat the Germans and create a makeshift bridge by standing in the river holding boards for the others to be carried across. The narrator informs us, “It was Helga’s Second Bridge.” Helga has crossed to the other side, not only the other side of the river, but the other side in the war. “She only knew she was there to help without asking questions.” The bridges have become a metaphor for her movement from the German side to being neutral to actually helping the partisans.
Unsuccessful in securing medicine from the hospital, already destroyed by previous fighting, the partisans send Helga and her female guard to the village of Poletwa where there is reportedly a cache of medicine dropped by the British. Helga and her guard quickly discover that the German army has occupied the small village. They stand along the bridge which Helga and the partisan must cross. Pretending to be Muslim, the two women cover their faces and walk past the guards. Helga has a perfect opportunity to speak out and ask for protection, but she crosses the bridge without saying a word to her German countrymen.
After a series of complications, Helga is back on the bridge headed toward the partisans with the medicine. But just as she is almost across, shooting breaks out, partisans against Germans. Martin, her four-day German lover, is among the soldiers stationed there and, realizing who she is, yells for her to come back to the “safety” of the German troops. The partisans yell for her to come to them. She stands on the bridge, uncertain what to do, but finally picks up the bag of medicine and walks toward the partisans, who take the bag of medicine. Now apparently wounded by the gunfire, she starts back across the bridge toward the German side. Both sides hold their fire until she crumbles onto the wooden floor of the simple stone slab bridge. Firing renews. Her body lies on the bridge as the camera pulls back and looks down at her. This is Helga’s 3rd and final bridge.
In this amazing film, the bridges are very much a real part of the landscape, actual places of battle, structures to be defended or destroyed. Yet the power of the film comes from their metaphoric use as a woman makes a journey from her native ideologies and patriotism to a larger understanding of the humanity found within the “enemy.” It isn’t that she has become a traitor. She has become a humanist with a love for all humanity and an understanding of the struggle for homeland. At the beginning of the film, she is part of the invading army. By the end, her mind, body, and spirit have become part of the Yugoslavian land. She has also crossed the bridge from life to death.
The second film focusing on bridges in Yugoslavia during World War II is a Yugoslavian film made in 1969, The Battle of Neretva (Bitka na Neretvi). Once more there is a narrator offering historical explanations: “January 1943, the Allied threat to Hitler’s domination of Europe is increasing.” Partisans, under Tito, struggle against the German army which needs to close the door on an Allied invasion of southern Europe. Typhus is spreading among the partisans in Bosnia. They are desperately trying to move the sick and wounded into the area liberated by Tito’s soldiers. The partisans try to enter the town of Prosov, but they quickly discover it has been occupied by Italians, Axis allies of Hitler. Worse, the Germans are bearing down on the partisans from behind. Caught in the middle, the partisans finally find the courage to break through the Italian forces to get to Prosov.
A Chetnik senator (Orson Welles), allied with the Germans and a supporter of the Serbian monarchy, suggests that the partisans be allowed to cross the Neretva River with their wounded and sick. Once they are in his territory, his troops will attack them. However, the German general prefers to attack them on the bridge.
Inexplicably, Vlado (Yul Brynner) and his partisan commandos start wiring the steel truss bridge for destruction. Besides having a pedestrian walkway, the bridge is primarily a train trestle, which cannot be allowed to survive for German or Chetnik use. After many arguments with his fellow partisans, Vlado blows it up.
With the Germans bearing down on them from behind and the Chetniks waiting on the other side, the partisans seem to have no escape route. So, they start repairing the bridge—just enough to allow people to pick their way down, over, and up the twisted steel beams. Just then the Germans start bombing the bridge. The image of the hundreds of partisans crossing the wrecked bridge is quite incredible. On the other side they successfully engage the Chetnik army and surround them in total defeat. A more manageable wooden bridge is set up at the base of the destroyed bridge and the Yugoslavian wounded and dead are brought across into liberated territory. Ever eager to destroy things, Vlado sets the wooden bridge on fire. The camera pulls back to reveal the conflagration.
A different kind of partisan saboteur is shown in Uncertain Glory (US, 1944). One reviewer described the plot this way: “During WWII, in France, Jean Picard is a criminal who is about to be executed via the guillotine, but an air raid interrupts it and allows him to escape. Inspector Bonet tracks him down and brings him back. But along the way, they hear that a railway bridge vital to the Germans has been destroyed, supposedly by allied agents. The Germans take 100 Frenchmen and are threatening to execute them unless the saboteurs come forward. Picard, who would rather die at the hands of the firing squad as opposed to the guillotine, offers to go to the Germans and say that he is the saboteur. Bonet accepts and so they go the village near where the bridge was to learn all that they can so that Picard can convince the Germans that he is the saboteur.”
Capturing bridges is vitally important for advancing armies. Battalions moving forward must take bridges that haven’t been dynamited or bombed. But in September 1944 the British General Montgomery decided to bypass the traditional method and simply insert men behind enemy lines to seize key bridges across the Rhine River several days before the main army arrived. A Bridge Too Far (US-UK, 1977) examines the triumph and tragedy of Operation Market Garden. (Visit this web site for information on the military campaign.)
A British military officer explains to his officers: “We’re going to fly 35,000 men 300 miles [from England] and drop them behind enemy lines. It will be the largest airborne operation ever done. We shall seize the bridges with thunderclap surprise and hold them until they can be secured.”
Arnhem Bridge is assigned to Major General Roy Urquhart (Sean Connery) and Major General Stanislaw Sosabowski, a Polish commander-in-exile (Gene Hackman). Arnhem is in Holland on the Rhine River 64 miles “behind enemy lines.” That will prove to be the bridge “too far” [away from Allied troops and supplies].
The Germans have orders to hold the bridges at any cost short of blowing them up. The German commander, Major General Ludwig, explains, “We need them for our counter-attack.” His theory is that the Allied paratroopers can’t fight long, are too lightly equipped, and will be overrun by his soldiers, who are about to receive reinforcements.
Contrary to Ludwig’s orders, German soldiers blow up a minor bridge, Sonne (Son) Bridge, as Americans arrive under Colonel Robert Stout (Elliott Gould). Soon the Americans start building a pontoon bridge over the Rhine where the Sonne had been. On the other hand, Gra Bridge is easily captured intact. Another bridge with a graceful long overhead arch, from which much of the roadway is suspended, is well protected by a German machine gun nest. (Similar to the bridge across Highway 360 in Austin, Texas.) In their attempt to take the bridge, British soldiers are mowed down. At night two British commandos accidentally hit an ammunition dump while using a flame thrower on the German machine gunners. A huge explosion sets the bridge on fire, a horrifyingly beautiful sight in the darkness.
Brigadier General James Gavin (Ryan O’Neal) plans the attack on Nijmegan Bridge. He firmly believes that “both ends at once is the best way to take a bridge.” Consequently he sends some of his troops into the water to float in boats down to the bridge.
Another German commander ignores Ludwig’s general command and wires a bridge with dynamite. He refuses to let it fall into Allied hands. As enemy tanks begin crossing the bridge, he orders the detonation, but the dynamite charge doesn’t work.
Slowly it seems that the Allies are taking most of the bridges—all but Arnhem, still effectively protected by the SS Panzers. The Allied reinforcements have no hope of reaching Arnhem in time. The British attack force, already low on ammunition and supplies, receives radio orders to give up the mission and evacuate. Thousands have died in a valiant but misguided attempt to secure the bridge. British Lt-General Browning (Dirk Bogarde) says in a cavalier fashion, “Oh, I thought the plan always had a bridge too far.”
The Allies failed in an essential part of their plan; they captured some key bridges but not yet the one at Arnhem. Thousands died on both sides. The bridges became bloody battlegrounds because of their supreme importance in getting men, supplies, and wheeled weaponry onward into enemy territory or in keeping them out. Steel or stone, the bridges became mute testimony to the frequently necessary risks of war.
Another World War II film involving an important bridge, The Bridge at Remagen (US, 1969), is described by Jeff Shannon: “Based on actual incidents during the final Allied advance on Germany in March 1945, the story focuses on the U.S. Army’s exhausted 27th Armored Infantry, assigned to seize the bridge at Remagen, on the Rhine River, to prevent 50,000 German troops from retreating to safety. Lieutenant Hartman (George Segal) leads the mission, while a Nazi major (Robert Vaughan) defies orders by attempting to hold the bridge instead of blowing it up.”
A tragic look at the price effected by the defense of bridges is shown in the German anti-war film Die Brucke (The Bridge, 1959). A group of seven 16-year-old boys are recruited into the German army as the Allied army advances on their small town. The young friends are untrained soldiers but strong in their youthful ideals. They are given the task of defending a useless bridge. Americans have already established a bridgehead farther north. It is nothing more than busy work for the boys, since the other German soldiers have no intention of helping them. The boys are entirely expendable. The German captain orders several older soldiers to blow up the bridge as the American tanks begin crossing, but the boys are not told of this plan. Instead, they think they are protecting their village from invasion.
Left completely alone, the boys dig foxholes by the bridge. One goes up into a tree to serve as lookout. This simple stone bridge over a gentle stream had been a place to play in childhood. Now, in their orders and even in their own imaginations, the bridge has become “the heart of the fatherland,” one they must defend at all costs.
Strictly following the cruel and stupid idealism of the young, the boys confront a man who comes out of the fog and tells them they should go home, that the bridge will be “smashed to pieces.” They accuse him of cowardice and order him away. Wisdom has been met with derision. They hear trucks approaching and set up barricades but discover the vehicles belong to the German army in full flight. Barricades are removed and army trucks fly through with their passengers, including a medal-smeared officer and many wounded, grizzled, defeated soldiers. With their innocent faces full of foolhardy idealism the boys stare at men who could be their older brothers. An impressive high angle shot shows the 7 boys alone on the bridge, shrouded in fog and confusion.
Sigi, the youngest of the group, doesn’t want to show he’s afraid of the American fighter planes as they strafe the town, so he foolishly remains standing as the bombs drop and bullets fly. He is the first to die on the bridge.
When the American tanks arrive, the boys put up a valiant resistance. But they are actually causing further destruction to their village. Had they not fired on the tanks, the Americans would probably have simply crossed the bridge and gone on through the minor town. It would have been best to leave the bridge to fend for itself. The three remaining veteran German soldiers are upset with the boys for not letting the Americans get onto the bridge so it can be blown up. Some of the boys become increasingly scared by the incessant firing during the firefight with the Americans. The two in the foxhole hold hands. Another pleads, “If only it was over.” Even as their exuberant idealism begins to fade, the boys somehow succeed in “defending” the bridge, because the Americans leave.
Then the three soldiers come to blow up the bridge. Sickened by the news that the army always intended to destroy the bridge, the two remaining boys shoot one of the soldiers and the other two run off but fire back and kill Hans. Only one boy remains alive, but even he is wounded in the arm. He walks off the bridge and the camera rises up to look down on the bridge with its bodies, discarded motorcycle, weapons, and meaninglessness except being a place where six boys died unnecessarily. The brook flows gently beneath. Black smoke covers the scene. An explanatory caption says, “This happened on April 27, 1945. It was so unimportant that it was not mentioned in any war communiqué.” For the boys the bridge became a place to test their manhood. They passed the test but failed the course. They shed blood, preserved their honor, but scarcely anyone remembered them as the Allies finally overran Germany and ended the war. Their actions and “heroism” were hollow and meaningless to all but the seven and only one survived to tell the story. The bridge remained intact and the river flowed on as if nothing had ever happened there.
When told about this project, nearly every friend told me, “Oh, yeah, Bridge on the River Kwai.” When thinking of bridges in films, it is indeed impossible not to immediately call to mind that magnificent film as testimony to another kind of madness in war.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (UK, 1957) begins with British prisoners-of-war held by the Japanese in Burma and put into a work camp. A bridge must be built over the River Kwai to connect the railway from Rangoon to Bangkok in preparation for an invasion of India. However, British Colonel Nicholson refuses to allow his officers to do manual labor, to “work as coolies,” because it is against the rules of war as created by “gentlemen.” If nothing else, Nicholson is intent on maintaining the rigid class system of the British Empire. Equally intent on showing his power, Col. Saito insists that all the British must work, regardless of rank, and begins the long punishment of his adversary.
After baking for several days in a “hot box,” Nicholson is brought to Saito, who tries a different tactic: Since the bridge must be finished by a certain time, he will put the sick men to work if Nicholson does command his officers to join in the work. Continuing his maniacal support of class snobbery, Nicholson will not relent.
Both men are stubborn and think the other mad. Col. Nicholson is willing to suffer for his 19th century “principles,” but most damnably he makes many others suffer, particularly those who are the victims of class divisions back home. Finally Saito provides amnesty for all in honor of the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905. Nicholson and the other officers are released from their cages. The rank-and-file soldiers are ecstatic that their colonel faced down the Japanese commander. Karl Marx would have told them they were xenophobic idiots. Why would they uphold the traditional class system? They had already found a more effective way of sabotaging the construction of the wooden bridge by simply dragging their feet or making sections of the wooden edifice collapse.
Colonel Nicholson begins to see the bridge building as a way to restore order to the battalion, which has become “disorganized rabble.” He throws himself wholeheartedly into the project. He intends to show the Japanese what inimitable builders the British engineers can be. Among the officers are men who built bridges all over India. One of them tells Nicholson that the location for the bridge is wrong: “There is no bottom to the river here [sand] and the piles are sinking.” He suggests that it be built downstream across the narrows with solid bedrock on both ends. Nicholson is wildly pleased to hear that the use of elm trees for the pillars and posts would raise a bridge with a possible life span of 600 years. That would be a testament to British ingenuity. One dissenting voice, that of a British medical officer, warns the colonel that helping the Japanese build the bridge successfully could be seen as treasonable activity by collaborating with the enemy. “Must we work so well, must we build them a better bridge than they could have built themselves?”
Once Col. Nicholson realizes the bridge can’t be finished on time with the present work force, he completely scraps his earlier stance and gets the officers to “volunteer” to work on it. He won’t ask Saito for Japanese manpower because he wants to show what the British can accomplish alone with discipline and order. He even asks the doctor to send him some of the less sick men to work on the bridge.
Meanwhile commandos are being briefed elsewhere for an attack on the bridge. Their major says that aerial photos reveal it to be a solid bridge, not like the temporary bridges the enemy usually throws together. They already know something is different about this bridge.
Upon completion of the structure, Col. Nicholson nails a sign to the bridge: “This bridge was designed and constructed by soldiers of the British Army, Feb-May 1943. Colonel L Nicholson.” To test the soundness and usefulness of the bridge, a Japanese train is due to arrive the next day with dignitaries. Commandos intend to blow it up when the train is on the bridge. Through the night they silently attach dynamite to the underside of the bridge and string a long cable back to the explosive trigger.
At the inauguration of the bridge, the ribbon is cut by Col. Saito with a samurai sword. The British prisoner-workers march across it while whistling the famous theme song. Colonel Nicholson struts proudly across the bridge, stopping to remove something from the immaculate wooden floor. Sounds of the approaching train are heard. The river level has dropped, revealing the connecting cables running from the plastic charges to the detonation box hidden farther down river. Nicholson spots the line and, now a real traitor through madness, calls out to Saito. Together they walk down to the riverbed to follow the line leading right to one of the British commandos crouching by the plunger. Thinking of nothing but his bloody bridge, Nicholson tries to stop the destruction. A battle breaks out between the Japanese and the British commandos. Wounded, Nicholson accidentally falls onto the plunger, thereby setting off the explosive charges and destroying his supreme success, the bridge over the River Kwai. The medical major can only say, “Madness, madness.” A final aerial shot shows the dead bodies strewn about the area on and around the splintered bridge.
The bridge takes on so many meanings in this film. At first it represents a battle of wills between the Japanese and the British colonels. Who can be commanded to work on it? That struggle pulls aside the veil from the British class system of the time. Manual labor was beneath the gentlemen officers. The grunts saw the bridge for what it was—a necessary and dangerous link in the Japanese supply system in southeast Asia. In their own way they sabotaged the project. That is, until Col. Nicholson began to see the bridge as a different kind of metaphor, one which would prove why the British had a world empire—they were builders of the highest sort, the Romans of the early 20th century. He completely ignored what the function of the bridge would be. Instead he wanted to build one that would last for centuries and let the world admire British ingenuity and capability. He had forgotten his military view of the war. Becoming a kind of mini-pharaoh in the jungle, he took sick men and officers and had them work on the bridge. He met the deadline with a sturdy, lovely wooden bridge, one that he would risk his life and the lives of many others to preserve. He succeeded in building the bridge on time but contributed nothing to the higher cause of defeating the Japanese empire-builders.
Another film in which a man is reluctant to allow a bridge to be blown up is the Yugoslavian war film Most (1969) in which Serbian partisans must defend their homeland against German invaders. Dragan Antulov writes, “In order to check the German offensive, partisans send an elite team of explosive experts to blow up a strategically important bridge. Besides being heavily guarded, that bridge is almost indestructible and the only man who knows weak spots in the construction is the architect who built it. He is, however, reluctant to cooperate because he doesn’t want to see his masterpiece destroyed.”
Bridges in the Korean War are represented through the story of an American naval fighter pilot reluctant to go into battle against some extremely well defended North Korean bridges. The Bridges at Toko-Ri (US, 1954) begins with a naval commander explaining to his pilots the need to destroy those bridges: “That little mission will convince them we’ll never stop, never weaken in our purpose. That’s the day they will quit.” The destruction of the bridges by aerial bombing would be equally strategic and symbolic. Lieutenant Harry Brubaker (William Holden) clarifies the situation to his wife (Grace Kelly, in a thankless role), “The bridges span a narrow gap between two mountains. It’s one of the most important targets in all of Korea. Consequently it’s fortified accordingly. Although we’ll be over the target only 30 seconds, it’s a lifetime. Every kind of gunman imaginable is hidden in the mountainside. We have to fly between the mountains, low and straight. There’s no room to twist or duck. That’s Toko-Ri, Nancy.” Brubaker is in the Naval Reserve and was doing quite nicely back in the States when he was recalled to active duty, which he resents. Like Bogart in Casablanca, he is the reluctant patriot who ends up doing the right thing.
Initially a reconnaissance mission is flown to secure better photos of the bridges and their defenses. Two of the bridges appear to be reinforced concrete spans with 8-9 piers for support. They cross a valley rather than a river, so there is no need to have much space between the piers. The mission is successful despite the amount of firing coming from the ground.
When the pilots return for the actual attack, they hit the tall concrete bridges and the low-lying steel ones. The bombing takes big chunks out of the bridges, and the metal ones are destroyed. Even though the mission was successful, Brubaker has to crash land. He soon dies along with the helicopter rescue team who had come to his aid.
The film never shows the Korean defenders of the bridge, so there is no feeling of two armies sitting on either end of a bridge fighting for its possession. The destruction of the bridges, while heroic and dangerous, seems so removed—fingers push buttons that release bombs which destroy the targets. This film provided a glimpse of war tactics of the future.
Most of the films about the Vietnam War were made after the war ended. Bridges were a less decisive factor in that war, and yet at least three films have contained scenes involving struggles over a bridge. Apocalypse Now (US, 1979) depicts a mysterious journey up the Nam River. As the boat approaches the Cambodian border, there is a wooden suspension bridge strung across the river, its foundation piers partially chipped away. On one side are American troops, on the other North Vietnamese. This is the last US Army outpost on this river. The pretty strings of lights on the bridge make it look like an amusement park where a large picnic could be taking place. But this is a place of destruction, death, and madness. Some of the American soldiers feel abandoned and are so completely drugged that they no longer know what they are doing or who their commander is. In fact, they have none. All they know to do is shoot at the enemy and build the bridge back if “Charlie” blows it up, “just so the generals can say the road’s open.” But where does it go and what would the soldiers do once they got “to the other side”? With blazing fires, searchlights, constant explosions, rifles firing, men shouting and crying, and chaos all around, the bridge is seemingly a portal to Hell, like a painting by Bosch. The bridge provides a clear image of the madness that was Vietnam.
Captain Willard’s mission is to continue on into Cambodia, officially off-limits for American military. As his boat passes under the beautifully lighted bridge, he is “off the map.” Officially it is as if he doesn’t exist, as if he has become a ghost. He is a murderer sent to assassinate a renegade American colonel. So, in Apocalypse Now the passage under the bridge is more significant than the impossible passage across the bridge. Here, the wooden structure serves as a doorway into an unknown world, as in Deliverance.
Other countries have made films about Vietnam. Angel Hill: l’ultima missione (Italy, 1988) shows an “ex-cop and highly decorated war hero,” Chet Costa, who accepts a “risky mission” to “blow up a bridge at the Vietnamese border to close the Vietcong’s line of communication. He’s given a group of prisoners to accompany him.”
A Hong Kong martial arts film, Eastern Condors (Dung fong tuk ying, 1986), contains a scene in which a group of Asian-American commandos attack Vietnamese soldiers guarding a bridge. The war with the US has long been over but these commandos have been instructed to destroy a secret cache of missiles left behind in the American flight. The Vietnamese defend the bridge against this mysterious group of unknown soldiers of fortune, some of whom are killed in the onslaught. But through a series of daring maneuvers, the commandos kill the Vietnamese guards and cross the bridge onward to the site of their mission. It is a fairly stereotypical use of a bridge in a war movie.
Other wars have provided their share of bridge exploits adapted for film. The Disney film, The Great Locomotive Chase (US, 1956) is set during the American Civil War and is based on the exploits of the “Andrews Raiders, a team of 22 Union spies who in 1862 snatched a train out from under the normally watchful eyes of Confederate troops based near Atlanta” and proceeded “in a daredevil attempt to wreck the track and bridges of the Western & Atlantic Railroad. It was a high-stakes operation with a huge payoff. If they succeeded, they would effectively win the war; if they were caught, they were sure to be hanged.” (Summary by Tammy La Gorce.)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo, Italy, 1966) presents an American Civil War apparently set in an alternative universe. The fully pitched battles between the North and the South take place in the desert southwest, far from the big battles of the southern states. Tuco (the Ugly) and Blondie (the Good, Clint Eastwood) are locked in a deadly battle to find a cache of gold buried in a cemetery. They could care less about the War Between the States. After many near-deaths, Tuco and Blondie are captured once more by the Union Army, who maintains a heavily fortified area along a river with a long line of trenches and a wooden stockade. Across the river lie in the wait the Confederate troops intent on taking the Branson Bridge, an inexplicable “key to the whole battle.” Both sides want to keep the low-lying wooden truss bridge intact.
Once the battle begins, Union troops run across the bridge where they fight the Confederates with sabers. Blondie and Tuco decide that the only way they’ll get across the river to the cemetery is to blow up the bridge and make the soldiers go elsewhere for their irrelevant war. They sneak into the water and attach sticks of dynamite to the cedar posts. The explosion turns the important bridge into a stack of broken timber. Tuco and Blondie are then free to walk across the river, passing the corpses of hundreds of soldiers, mixed together regardless of their military rank or ideological beliefs. Although Leone’s story is about the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and their focused search for gold, the director succeeds in showing the pitiful tolls of war.
Hemingway’s classic novel of love and explosions in the mountains of Spain during its Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, was made into a classic American film in 1943. Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) is an idealistic American who has joined the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War against the fascist rebellion led by General Franco. Jordan is a saboteur who specializes in destroying bridges. His new target is one over a deep gorge which must be blown up to prevent the enemy troops from bringing in reinforcements, tanks, and artillery. To destroy it is not enough. It must be blown to pieces as the opponents are on the bridge itself so the Republicans can rain death down upon the enemy.
Of course, most people watch this movie for the love affair between Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, who plays María. As for the bridge, it appears to be a steel truss bridge resting on stone pillars attached to either side of a rocky gorge. In reality it’s a construction on a Paramount Studios sound stage. When the right time comes, Jordan and his elderly assistant Anselmo attach explosives to the girders after the guards on either end have been killed. They unroll the wire to one end of the bridge and pull the wires as the tanks begin crossing the bridge. It plummets into the river below and most of Jordan’s friends escape. A wounded Jordan remains behind, like Robert Taylor in Bataan, to fight until his last bullet or his last drop of blood.
Bridge as Toy for Sci-Fi Monsters (Part 8)
It is not only in traditional warfare that bridges are fought over and destroyed. During the 1950s many landmarks were under attack by cinematic sci-fi monsters, often the mutated offspring of nuclear radiation spread by our own atomic and hydrogen bomb tests. These huge enemies inevitably headed for the symbols of humanity’s supreme intelligence and power, skyscrapers and bridges being particularly delectable targets.
It Came From Beneath the Sea (US, 1955) portrayed the adventures of a giant squid wreaking havoc in the Pacific. Contaminated by radiation from atomic tests and unable to eat its customary fare, the creature must seek new food sources, such as US atomic submarines, fishing boats, and people strolling along the beaches of the West Coast. The nutritional confusion seems quite severe (steel and flesh).
The Navy sets up monster headquarters in San Francisco and peppers the Golden Gate Bridge with radar and sonar devices. As the monster approaches the Bay Area, the Navy sets off mines to no avail. The thing is still coming to town.
Magnificent shots of the Golden Gate Bridge with its graceful suspension cables and red steel arches are sullied by a large tentacle popping out of the water and grasping one of the towers. The squid seems to be simultaneously pulling itself up onto the bridge (a squid out of water?) and pulling the bridge apart. It doesn’t seem to be eating the bridge, so the monster is obviously irrational and just likes to bust things up. Eventually he returns to the water and is destroyed by torpedoes appropriately shot from an atomic submarine, which, in a sense, is a cousin to the squid, both having been spawned by man’s exploration of atomic energy. So the film could be seen as just a family feud. The Golden Gate Bridge is left fairly intact with damage that could be repaired in a couple of years.
Another 50s monster movie, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (US, 1953), features a prehistoric dinosaur returned to life by atomic tests in the Arctic Circle. Like an elephant, it begins making its way towards the Hudson River Valley where bones of his ancestors lie. Unfortunately for some, New York City lies en route. A panoramic shot of the Brooklyn Bridge, with Manhattan Bridge in the background, lets the audience know what to worry about. Dock workers, who would soon be battling Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, are shocked to see a dinosaur lift up out of the water and wisely begin to run. Real shots of the bridge and surrounding area are interspersed with rather poor matte shots of the animated monster. Special effects were still rather primitive in that pre-computer-generated-imagery age. Women shoppers and male workers run around under the bridge. There is absolute panic on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side. But, unfortunately for this essay, the monster never touches the bridge. Doesn’t even glance at it. Perhaps the SFX for bridge destruction would have been too expensive.
At the finale of the remake of Godzilla (US, 1998) the monstrous dinosaur (Gojira) bursts up through the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge and picks up a cab with his mouth. Sliding down the slippery tongue, the scientist, journalist, and French secret agent inside the cab realize they are poised to become late 20th century Jonahs. Grabbing some handy electrical cables from the bridge, the scientist (Matthew Broderick) stabs the electricity into Godzilla’s mouth and the cab flies out of his snout safely onto the remaining roadway.
As proof of the strength of the impressive bridge, the giant steps the huge lizard takes don’t initially send it crashing into the East River. Racing after the cab headed towards Brooklyn, Godzilla climbs the first tower, which holds together, testimony to its excellent design and construction because huge chunks of Manhattan skyscrapers have already been torn out by his tail in earlier scenes. However, even the Brooklyn Bridge begins to sway under his weight and unruly movements.
The second tower of the bridge finally traps Godzilla as he inexplicably tries to go through rather than over. The broken support cables turn into a steel net entangling the monster. Large tubes, holding hundreds of cables connected to the support towers on land, begin to detach from the walls in which they had been buried for over a century. Jets close in and begin firing at Godzilla, who is wounded but manages to free himself of the steel net before falling dead on the Brooklyn side of the bridge. For the most part the bridge still stands. Godzilla was never attacking the bridge for its own sake but only trying to destroy the people he thought had killed his 200 offspring. As the soldiers cheer the death of the monster which has devastated much of New York City, one can’t help but be a bit sad for this loving parent, big and ugly as he is.
Bridge as Politicized Space (Part 9)
The image of enemies positioned at either end of a bridge continued right on after the conclusion of World War II, but the weapons were as much ideological as military. There was rarely any shooting and no one was going to cross the bridge onward to victory. During the Cold War bridges became barriers, rather than connections, between countries and opposing ideologies (the democratic West and the totalitarian East). They became a no-man’s land, a gray area traversed only with appropriate documentation, identity, and permission. They might as well have been walls with tiny doors padlocked and opened only with the correct password. What once connected portions of a city or two countries became closed off and grim, protected by weapons, words, and laws. The metaphor of bridges as connections breaks down in such films.
Funeral in Berlin (UK, 1966) contains a scene in which a bridge connecting East to West Berlin is crossed by a funeral car. A high-ranking Communist official is being smuggled into the West as a “corpse.” There are roadblocks and soldiers at both ends of the bridge. Paperwork is carefully examined and finally approved. Near the Western end of the bridge, the coffin is transferred from a communist vehicle to a capitalist one. However, this clever means of escaping an oppressive society fails. Inside the coffin is a corpse—that of the East German who designed the escape and was set up by the secret police and the very Communist official who said he wanted to “escape.” The bridge returns to the metaphor of a passageway to death.
A scene in Bad Timing (UK, 1980), a cautionary tale of sexual obsession and emotional possessiveness, shows Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell) crossing the bridge from Bratislava (then a city of Communist Czechoslovakia, now capital of Slovakia) to Austria. Appropriately it is the Danube River she is crossing, a river that brings to mind the romantic, but clichéd, “Blue Danube” waltz. Her new lover Alex Linden waits nervously for her arrival but is told he cannot walk near the guardhouse. She is radiant and joyful about the crossing, but Alex immediately wants to know who drove her to the bridge. His suspicion and jealousy are insatiable.
This bridge is a politicized space between Communism and the West. The bridge would seem to be a means of connecting Milena with Alex, but his obsessive possessiveness drives them apart and pushes her over the edge into a suicide attempt, not in a fall from the bridge, but with pills.
A Cuban film, The Elephant and the Bicycle (El Elefante y la bicicleta, 1995), reportedly uses a bridge as a means of depicting Castro as a ruthless dictator. Edgar Soberón Torchia writes, “After two years in jail, El Isleño [‘Island Dweller] returns to the island of La Fe [‘Faith’], ruled by the dictator Francisco Gavilán. He arrives with a cinematograph [movie projector] and exhibits Robin Hood to the people. The next day the bridge that communicates La Fe to the mainland has been destroyed, and the people plan to overthrow Gavilán.” Since the 1959 Revolution most “bridges” between the US and Cuba have been closed by both sides.
Bridge for Expanding Empires (Part 10)
Not only have bridges separated competing ideologies, but they have also made empires possible. Bridges have been essential in expanding political territory, especially in building the great empires of the 19th century. As railroads laced across Africa, the European powers struggled to be the first “there,” so they could claim land already lived on by tribal people and so they could colonize them, use their labor cheaply or through slavery, and rip out their natural resources for European factories. Since the United States acquired so much land from Native American tribes and Mexico, the American empire was internal for most of the 19th century. Here, the railways would spread from east to west, only briefly interrupted by the Civil War.
The Ghost and the Darkness (US, 1996) examines the importance of railroads in the creation of the British empire in Africa. A colonial expansionist, Robert Beaumont, tells a military structural engineer, Col. John Henry Patterson: “We’re in a race and the prize is nothing less than the continent of Africa. We are building the most expensive and daring railroad in history for the glorious purpose of saving Africa from the Africans and, of course, to end slavery. Our competitors are the Germans and the French. We are ahead and will stay ahead, provided you do what I’ve hired you to do—build a bridge across the River Tsavo in five months.” Without the bridges across rivers, the empire would be impossible. Like blood vessels coursing through the body, the railway lines kept the imperial body politic functioning smoothly, but the lack of a bridge or a bridge destroyed would be like a blood clot suddenly endangering the life of the imperial dream.
As progress begins on the iron train trestle with three stone support columns, Col. Patterson tells Samuel, his African assistant, “What better job in all the world than to build a bridge—bring land over water, to bring worlds together.” He is a cinematic ancestor of the engineers and builders held in the prison camp in The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Unfortunately the rest of the film becomes overly concerned with tracking down man-eating lions. However, as if returning to its senses, the film ends with a shot of the bridge, which allows us to contemplate the relationship between technology and empire-building. Good roads were of little importance in the 19th century since vehicles were animal-drawn. Consequently most bridges, outside of cities, were built for trains. Empires were built on the coal-driven backs of railway cars as much as on coastline-exploring ships.
Expansion throughout the American West depended on railroads more than on wagon trains and horses. Many films depict the building of the railway lines to connect East to West, but bridges appear in only a few Westerns. Perhaps the Hollywood studios wanted to speed up the process and show railway lines falling into place quickly so they could get to the big finale. Bridge-building was long and arduous work and might endanger the pace of the average Western.
Pillars of the Sky (US, 1956) examines the effect of a bridge on Native Americans and their land. Jeff Hole writes: “In Oregon Country, 1868, several tribes of Native Americans have been placed on a reservation north of the Snake River. Here Doctor Holden has built a church, and many of the tribes have accepted Christianity and Christian names. Sgt. Emmett Bell is in charge of maintaining order here. When the cavalry, under the command of Col. Stedlow, arrives, building a bridge across the river and intending to open a road across the reservation to areas north, some of the tribal chiefs feel their treaty has been violated. As the cavalry column advances into the reservation, Kamiakin vows to lead the tribes in battle against the encroaching white men.”
A silent film, The Iron Trail (US, 1921), deals with the building of the railway system in the Alaskan portion of the American empire. Jim Beaver writes: “Honest railroad man Murray O’Neil competes with the crooked railroader Curtis Gordon to be the first to complete a trans-Alaska railroad. O’Neil must complete work on a massive bridge before the spring ice floes can destroy the project.”
In a more recent film with an odd-sounding plot, Volunteers (US, 1985), Tom Hanks plays a rich boy in the Peace Corps in Southeast Asia. His assignment: to help build a bridge for a group of villagers. Many people want to see that bridge built: the U.S. Army, “a local Communist force, and a powerful drug lord. Together with the help of At Toon, the only English speaking native, [Hanks and the other Americans] must fight off the three opposing forces and find out what is right for the villagers, as well as themselves.” This film sounds more like a post-Vietnam anti-imperialistic story than the earlier films celebrating the creation of vast empires through technology.
Bridge as Place of Work (Part 11)
Building bridges should be a perfect theme for movies—men struggling against the force of gravity through exhilarating and terrifying work. But other than the ones already mentioned in connection with other themes, few films have focused on such labor. In 1941 an American movie, Steel Against the Sky, presented “rough-hewn Rocky Evans” who “has two great loves—his job building bridges and beautiful Helen Powers, his boss’s daughter. But it’s Rocky’s shiftless brother Chuck who wins Helen’s affections. Chuck even takes a job on Rocky’s bridge-building crew to woo Helen, but the two brothers soon find themselves clashing over work and love.”
Russian Pizza Blues, a 1992 Danish film, which sounds like its structure was taken from Jim Jarmusch’s A Night on Earth, tells four parallel stories, one of which involves two men who work on a bridge.
Bridge as Opportunity for Financial Gain (Part 12)
A rare film theme, but probably an interesting reality throughout the world, is the potential for graft and corruption created by bridge construction. Finding out where a bridge is to be built can help real estate buyers get in on the ground floor before anyone else knows. Another way to make a great deal of money from bridges is to be awarded the construction contract. Who Pays the Piper (Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro
, India, 1983) is the sole example I could find of such a film. “One of the biggest builders in Bombay, Tarneja, is trying to bribe Municipal Commissioner D’Mello into giving him a bridge contract.”
Bridge as an Identity Marker (Part 13)
Sometimes bridges simply let us know where the film, or even just a scene in it, takes place. The same way the Eiffel Tower says “Paris” and the way the World Trade Center used to say “New York City,” the Golden Gate Bridge proclaims “San Francisco” and the Brooklyn Bridge sets us up for Manhattan and/or Brooklyn. The use of bridges in this way serves no purpose in the plot of the film. They are postcard views of bridges, primarily for scenic beauty and for indicating the setting. The camera includes the bridge in a panoramic view of an entire city or area but doesn’t move in closer to examine any stories particularly related to that bridge. In fact, the bridge is making nothing more than a cameo appearance.
An early Indian comedy, Jamaibabu (1931), uses Calcutta’s famous Howrah Bridge as a locale marker. Down to Earth (US, 2001), a remake of Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), uses the Brooklyn Bridge only as a sign that Lance Barton/Charles Wellington (Chris Rock) is in Brooklyn outside the county hospital he is about to buy. The Rock (US, 1996) shows the Golden Gate Bridge to remind the audience that the film takes place in San Francisco. Shots of fighter jets flying under the Golden Gate Bridge serve the same purpose while adding to the tension and demonstrating the skills of the pilots.
Bridge as a Cultural Barrier (Part 14)
Bridges do not always provide connections. Just as international bridges can become ideological lines in the sand during cold wars, bridges can present a cultural barrier which some people fear to cross. Saturday Night Fever (US, 1977) is a perfect example of a film in which a bridge seems more like a cultural wall than a link to new experiences. Tony and his friends are scared of Manhattan and stay in Bay Ridge, the Brooklyn neighborhood and cultural world they have always known. For them, the Brooklyn Bridge might as well not exist. It goes nowhere they wish to go.
The film opens with a shot of the Brooklyn Bridge viewed from the Brooklyn side. The twin towers of the relatively new World Trade Center loom in the background. Everything looks gray and uninviting, but the bridge is beautiful. The shot dissolves to an aerial view of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island. It is an even longer suspension bridge, and yet this is the one on which Tony and his friends feel more comfortable.
In one scene, Tony and the girl he wants to date, Stephanie, sit on a park bench in Brooklyn with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. She talks about the wonders of Manhattan. In fact, she overly romanticizes it, for the cultural capital symbolizes everything she wants to be and have: “Right across the river everything is different.” Stephanie intends to be “refined” and has already begun to take college night classes. In the process, she lies about the people she has lunch with and she tries to make Tony feel little because he is satisfied with Bay Ridge. She says he’s “a cliché, nowhere on your way to no place.” Stephanie has every intention of moving into Manhattan. Tony’s only response is that he loves dancing but wants to find “some place else to get that same high.”
Later in the movie Tony helps Stephanie move to Manhattan. She is finally escaping whatever constraints Brooklyn has put on her. An aerial shot of the car going over the Brooklyn Bridge reveals the mattress on top, not the most “refined” way to arrive in the City, but at least she is making the transition from one culture to another. As they return to Brooklyn, again over the Brooklyn Bridge, she explains her relationship to a man in Manhattan. Stephanie won’t yet admit that the price for his help was to sleep with him. The man is a bridge that allows her to move onto the isle of her dreams, but he also requires a physical connection, even if fleeting. She is that desperate to leave her native ground and explore a larger world.
Tony and Stephanie later sit in another park, this one in the presence of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, fog-enshrouded, graceful, and grand. Amazingly Tony knows all the statistics of this bridge. This is where he comes to dream. Just as Stephanie must have sat contemplating Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge, the connection to her dreams, Tony has apparently allowed himself to dream, not of Staten Island connected to Brooklyn via the Verrazano, but of his future. For both, the bridges have inspired grand dreams, new possibilities. Tony’s have been beyond the horizon and therefore indefinable. They aren’t really connected to a place. Stephanie’s have been more tangible in a way: work in the City, cross the Brooklyn Bridge, move to Manhattan, and become more sophisticated and knowledgeable. That must seem impossible to Tony.
After Bobby C’s death on the Verrazano Bridge, Tony rides the subway into Manhattan. He needs to see Stephanie and to become better grounded. Perhaps her dreams can become his own. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t show him crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, for he’s using a subway line that goes through a tunnel under the East River. Had he used the bridge, we’d know that it was no longer a cultural barrier for him. It is still significant that he goes to Manhattan for comfort, not back to his family in Bay Ridge. He does appear to be breaking out of his carefully restricted world now that the Verrazano Bridge has claimed the life of a friend. But the movie leaves his future hopeful, if uncertain.
When considering the bridges in Cop Land (US, 1997), it becomes apparent that it’s a strange fraternal twin of Saturday Night Fever, with a setting in New Jersey rather than Brooklyn. A narrator at the beginning of the film informs us that in the 1970s every New York cop wanted “out of the city,” but there were laws against NYPD members living outside the five boroughs. By moonlighting for the Transit Authority Police Department, they were able to circumvent the restrictions. As auxiliary transit cops, they could live anywhere. Little towns in New Jersey, especially one just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, became very alluring. In this film the town of Garrison, NJ is presented as a “cop town” with no “civilians.” The film shows how this town was basically bought by the Mafia and “given” to certain members of the NYPD in exchange for eyes averted from certain crimes. Throughout the film, a major character will be the George Washington Bridge, a suspension bridge with two metal towers.
One night Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone), sheriff of Garrison, sits by the Hudson River near the bridge. He goes there often in times of trouble for quiet contemplation. He can look across at Manhattan, a city whose police force denied him the possibility of joining. When he was a teenager, he saved a young woman from drowning after her car crashed off a New Jersey bridge, but the resulting damage to his hearing in one ear made him unfit for the NYPD. Becoming sheriff was only a distant second choice as he grew older, but as proof of his youthful heroism he still keeps a framed newspaper clipping on his office wall. So, as the Brooklyn Bridge was a cultural barrier for Tony Manero, so is the George Washington Bridge for Sheriff Heflin. The difference is that Freddy really wanted to work in Manhattan. He lives in an apartment with windows that look out at the George Washington Bridge, a constant reminder of his failed dream.
As Heflin sits by the water, he hears a loud car crash up on the beautifully lighted bridge. One of the cops who lives in his town, Murray “Superboy” Babitch,” has just collided with a sports car containing two young guys. Heflin hears the police cars and emergency vehicles arriving, but he has no idea that the accident and Babitch will soon be a major problem in his life and the means by which he will finally cross the George Washington Bridge as a successful lawman.
On the G.W. the two young men are dead, shot six times by Babitch who thought one was brandishing a gun at him. Told their “weapon” was a steering wheel lock, the young cop becomes despondent and worried about a trial for unjustifiable homicide. A few moments later detective Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel) is yelling out that Babitch has jumped from the bridge. A fireman believes the young guy was pushed so that NYPD wouldn’t have to deal with a murder trial.
The reality is that some cops have hidden Babitch to help him escape, not out of altruism, but to give them time to think about his situation and their own dirty secrets that must be kept hidden from Internal Affairs investigations. The little New Jersey town provides clean living for the cops who are totally corrupt in Manhattan. They assume they own Sheriff Heflin and can act as they wish in their little town. Ray Donlan tells Heflin, “These men cross that bridge every day to a place where everything is upside down, where the cop is the perp[etrator] and the perp is the victim.” They don’t want Heflin or any IA officials looking into their set up.
The climax of the film comes when the sheriff finally tries to clean up the mess. After a deadly shootout with some of the worst of the criminal cops, Heflin and a bad cop gone good, Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta), take Babitch across the bridge into Manhattan to turn him in for protection and prosecution. The end of the movie shows Heflin back in his little town standing by the water and the George Washington Bridge looking over into Manhattan. He finally made it across the bridge. He was a good cop who turned in some really bad ones. The G.W. was no longer a wall keeping him out.
The bridges of Los Angeles haven’t appeared in many movies, primarily for socio-economic reasons. The Los Angeles River barely runs anymore but the bridges over it go into East L.A., which only began to gain wider attention in the 1970s with the rise of Chicano activism. It took another decade or so before those bridges began to appear in films focusing on the lives of Mexican-Americans and other Latinos.
My Family/Mi Familia (US, 1995) opens with shots of four stately bridges in a sun-washed concrete cityscape. A narrator intones, “Whenever I see the bridges that connect Los Angeles with East Los Angeles, I remember my family….” In the early periods of the film in the 1930s and 1950s, those bridges connect the residents of East L.A., primarily Mexican-American, with downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and points beyond only if they cross over to work as gardeners, maids, office maintenance workers, and other low-wage laborers. Otherwise, those bridges are cultural barriers. It isn’t that the people in East L.A. don’t want to cross the bridges for other reasons, but that the socio-economic system will not allow them.
The narrator continues, “To my father, there was dignity in work. He crossed the bridges every morning to work to support his family.” And that is how he meets his future wife, Maria, who works as a maid for a middle-class family. So, actually the bridges bring him happiness in the form of a beautiful young woman. Perhaps that is why he doesn’t complain. His children would see a different world, provided they struggle to cross those bridges on their own merits. Some succeed, some fail. For the latter the bridges remain impassable obstacles.
Bridge and Poverty (Part 15)
Since at least the days of Roman bridges, there have been wanderers or outcasts who found shelter beneath a bridge—if not protection against the cold, at least a defense against rain or a blistering sun. With nearby edible plants and rivers full of fish, one could satisfy the basic needs with little effort. In more recent times the homeless have created living spaces beneath urban bridges and have sought their food in the dumpsters of restaurants and handouts from more fortunate passersby. For some people, especially children, these bridge dwellers may be seen as the new “trolls.” For others, they are wandering sages, free of all the fetters of modern society.
Scrounged Meals (Gefundenes Fressen, Germany, 1977) is concerned with a homeless man, Alfred, who sleeps under a bridge. An Italian film, Giravolte (2000), follows the adventures of Victor, a “metropolitan nomad and poet” who rides a scooter “through borderline places in Rome,” including “lunch at a homeless shack under a bridge.” Under the Bridge (US, 1996) shows the lives of a “group of renegade squatters who become surrogate parents for a young African-American runaway.” Several scenes in Shanghai Blues (Hong Kong, 1984) show a group of homeless musicians living under a beautiful stone bridge after World War II until they are evicted by baton-wielding police.
Living near a bridge is less stigmatizing than living under it, but sometimes only relatively so. The neighborhoods around a bridge may often be poorer ones. Sometimes there is really no “wrong side of the bridge.” Simple proximity on either side is sufficient to brand one as poor.
‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge (US, 1942) features the Dead End Kids who became the East Side Kids who became the Bowery Boys during their journey through American popular culture in the 1930s and 1940s. The title of this film was sufficient to tag the characters as poor. An opening shot in the film shows the Brooklyn Bridge with Manhattan in the background. A steam-powered tugboat passes under the bridge. A panoramic shot ends up gazing at a street scene in Brooklyn, ‘neath the bridge. There is the implication of this being a waterfront neighborhood, complete with boxes being unloaded off wagons and a woman dancing suggestively in the Bridge Café. Such images were standard Hollywood code for moral depravity, crime, and poverty in the 1940s.
Later in the film, small-time thief Muggs McGinnis sits with his gang members down by the East River. Danny Lyons (Bobby Jordan) intones, “Hey get a load of that Brooklyn Bridge. It sure looks good, don’t it.” Muggs agrees, “That’s an architecterial [sic] masterpiece.” One of the other juveniles proclaims, “Aah, anybody can build a bridge over water. I’d like to see somebody build one under.” In return, he gets hit in the head for disrespecting the neighborhood landmark.
An improved version of the Dead End Kids is presented in Delivery Boys (US, 1984). Here a “gang” of pizza delivery boys love break dancing and dream of entering a local dance contest. They are already stigmatized by their home addresses. Evil people try to derail their success in the contest.
Living on a bridge is a late-20th century phenomenon, indicating urban decay or social change. Paris , scene of so many cinematic lovers meeting on bridges, becomes the locale for two homeless lovers meeting on a bridge, the famous Pont Neuf, previously seen in Four Nights of a Dreamer. Lovers on the Bridge (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, France, 1991) is the story of Alex and Michele.
At the beginning of the film, a sign is seen: “Restoration of the Pont-Neuf, 1989-1991. Paris’s oldest bridge in hazardous condition. Will be closed to vehicles and pedestrians. Reopening Summer 1991. ” A homeless, mentally disturbed young man lives on the bridge. Alex also has a broken leg that brings him even greater pain for which he must take medication, doled out by an older homeless man, Hans, the other resident of the bridge. Pont Neuf is a lovely stone bridge designed for pedestrians as much as for vehicles. There are balconies and alcoves with curved stone benches, ordinarily meant for sitting, but now used by Alex and Hans for bedrooms. Alex bathes down by the river with water from a faucet. The film shows all the beautiful passageways of the bridge with its graceful staircases carrying pedestrians down to the walkways along the Seine. Other bridges can be seen up and down the river. Everything is perfectly scaled to human needs.
During one of Alex’s absences, a woman artist sneaks onto the bridge and sleeps in his spot. Hans insists that she leave. Alex, however, becomes intrigued by the beautiful, but psychologically problematic woman who is going blind. As he begins to help her learn to survive on the streets and bridge, their relationship strengthens. During a citywide celebration, Alex and Michele get stinking, disgustingly drunk on the bridge. With fireworks exploding on the horizon behind them, colorfully lighting up the city, the bridges, and the river, they dance across the bridge, not as Astaire and Rogers, but in a spastic, disjointed, ugly way painful to watch. He is shirtless, scarred, dirty, and ugly. She has a gray patch over her blind eye. There is no real joy or release in their grotesque waltz. There is so much anger and pain inside these two people that a real catharsis is impossible. The film does nothing to romanticize their lives on the street. As beautiful boats shooting off their own fireworks pass under the Pont Neuf, Alex decides to steal a boat and take Michele water-skiing. They pass under many other beautiful stone bridges in their momentary freedom.
Eventually Hans tells Alex that he should send Michele away: “There’s no love here. There’s no cold air in bedrooms. It [this love affair] doesn’t fit your life.” Hans then tells Michele that life on the streets is not for a woman, that she must go and live elsewhere. Still trying to hold onto this impossible love, Alex says they can sleep on top of the bridge in summer and underneath it in winter, but Michele, beginning to pull away, says it stinks down there. She returns to her previous life of privilege to regain her sight with an innovative eye operation. Alex, in turn, goes to prison for three years for setting a man on fire.
Two years pass. Michele visits Alex in prison and says she returned to the Pont Neuf to see it with her new vision. “It’s repaired. It’s all solid now.” They agree to meet on the bridge on Christmas Day a year later, the date of Alex’s liberation. When that time arrives, we see the bridge covered with snow. Alex walks across the bridge, once again filled with pedestrians and cars. Michele is on the opposite side of the bridge. They sit on their bench. She sketches him as she had frequently done during their street life. They then drink once more on the bridge. He is drunk and does acrobatics on the wall of the bridge. When she tells him she has to go, he becomes angry and, in his struggle with her, takes them both over the wall into the river. Intending to keep her with him forever in death, he holds on but finally relents and lets her rise to the surface. A passing barge picks them up. They decide to remain on the barge and travel all the way to the Atlantic coast. On the way they pass under the many other bridges of the Seine. This is ultimately a love story, similar to the naturalistic tales of Zola, but ending on a very romantic note.
In Lovers on the Bridge the Pont Neuf became a home for the homeless, a place of unexpected love, a site for sorrow and pain, and nearly the setting for death by homicide-suicide. Finally it served as the jumping off place for a totally impossible romance that would have to float down river because its future would be so uncertain in Paris.
Bridge as Connection to Other Times or Places (Part 16)
Perhaps because bridges are sometimes the locus of death, the ultimate transition, some movies have explored the possibility of bridges connecting the present to other times and/or places as a time-travel machine. Since bridges are in-between “here” and “there” in the geographical sense, the choice of such a location makes a kind of logical sense for a physically impossible dream.
Many cultures also maintain that there are bridges between heaven and hell, the earthly plane and the celestial, or this life and the next. A perfect example of this belief is found in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long, China-Hong Kong-Taiwan-US, 2000). The final scene transpires on a beautiful stone bridge high in the mountains, locale of a legend that states a wish will be granted if one trustingly jumps from this bridge. The original tale indicates that a man made his wish and then jumped from the bridge, but, instead of dying, he floated away happily and never returned to earth. In the film the two lovers, Xiou-Hu, a stormy horseman from the desert plains, and Xiou-Long, a princess adept in sword fighting, stand on the bridge. She tells him to make a wish (“that we return to the desert”) and then she leaps from the bridge. The music rises to an ethereal height as she flies down through the open valley full of trees and mist obviously passing from this world. It is a magical scene of complete liberation from the corporeal world.
Following this same thread of lovers, a bridge, and a transition into another world, my sister told me about the Blue Willow pattern found in English china from the late 1700s/early 1800s. The scene on the plates shows lovers on a bridge, representing the transition from single to married life, from two individuals to one couple, from the parental home to one’s own, and from childhood/adolescence to adulthood. The folk tale related to the scene reportedly says that a beautiful girl Kwang-se fell in love with Chang, a poor clerk. The lovers fled across the bridge to a cottage on an island. Her wealthy father “pursued and caught the lovers and was about to have them killed when the gods transformed them into a pair of turtle doves.” There is much disagreement about the origin of the tale. Some say it was actually English, a form of folkloric advertisement for the china plates, cups, and saucers. Whatever its origin, it is now part of world culture and strengthens the idea of bridges as passageways to other worlds.
In Paul Auster’s complex and little-known film, Lulu on the Bridge (US, 1998), a young woman, Celia Burns, throws a magical stone off an ornate metal footbridge crossing the River Liffey in Dublin, Ireland. She then jumps into the water to escape some men who are trying to retrieve the stone, which mysteriously provides a sense of well-being to whoever holds it. However, the girl and the stone reside only within the imagination of a dying man, Izzy Maurer, who is confronted with a final question, “Have I been a good man?” Finding the stone (in his imagination) fills his life with love for the young woman. Both the woman and the stone must return to the water (the unconscious mind) before Izzy can die. What surfaced from his unconscious must return to that realm after helping him better understand his true character during the few moments before death. The bridge provides a perfect definition of the space between life and death, the conscious and the unconscious mind.
Graffiti Bridge, the sequel to Purple Rain, shows Prince writing letters to his deceased father and finding inspiration and love underneath the bridge of the title. Youngsters in The Bridge to Terabithia (Canada, 1985) need to create a secret kingdom where they can escape the uncertainties of life in their real world. To get there, they cross over and climb a fallen tree, the earliest form of bridge, and hide themselves on a small, wooded, magical island. They are perhaps too young to know they are falling in love, but they do know that they give each other great pleasure in sharing their wonderful moments in Terabithia. So, it is with great sorrow that Jesse learns of Leslie’s death. While he was at an art museum with his teacher, Leslie tried to cross over to Terabithia to find him but fell from the rain-soaked log and struck her head. For Leslie the final crossing of the bridge led to death, but Jesse will apparently maintain the wonder of the land on the other side of the log bridge.
Bridges may not be just connections to other places, imaginary or in parallel universes. They may also serve as time-travel facilitators. A Bridge Across Time ( US , 1985) uses the sale of the London Bridge to entrepreneurs in Arizona to resurrect Jack the Ripper in the desert. One of the three tales in Encounter with the Unknown ( US , 1973) dredges up the urban legend of the man picking up a hitchhiker on a bridge and taking her to the home address she mentions, only to find a puddle of water in the back seat where she sat. The twist in this telling is that he is a senator, another not so sly reference to Ted Kennedy. A more recent film, Kate and Leopold ( US , 2001) explores a rip in time found by a man near the Brooklyn Bridge . Stuart travels back to the 1870s, the decade which saw the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge . Leopold follows Stuart back into the 21st century and there the story begins.
Bridge and the Documentary Film: “Actualities” Before 1905 (Part 17)
The great steel bridges of the late 19th century found a willing partner in the new motion picture technology making its tentative laboratory appearance in 1893 and bursting forth into public consciousness in 1895. With the lightweight movie cameras of the French Lumiere Bros. in 1895, followed by Edison’s mobile cameras, hundreds of filmmakers took to the streets and filmed whatever was of interest. Bridges quickly became a desirable subject for these early “documentaries,” which were dubbed “actualities,” more akin to travel movies or newsreels. The length of the film was dictated by the length of the roll of unexposed film passing behind the lens, initially no more than 50 seconds. The only editing took place in the camera: point the camera at a scene, turn it on, run some film through, turn it off, point another direction, turn the camera on, run some film, and turn it off. When the film ran out, the celluloid was developed and the film was ready for viewing. After tiring of watching a series of minute-long films, audiences began clamoring for longer individual films. Consumer pressure on film technology was immediate and caused inventors to stay up late at night improving the entirely new world of cinematography.
Bridges were a crowd-pleasing subject. For most of the people of the world, their first experience of a landmark such as the Brooklyn Bridge was through a movie. They might have seen a photograph in a book or an engraving in a newspaper, but the movie could put them on an elevated train and take them across the Brooklyn Bridge. That was an astounding experience for people who would never be able to go to New York.
In 1899 no fewer than sixteen “bridge actualities” were made. Fifteen of those were made by American companies, even though the subjects ranged from the Brooklyn Bridge (7) to bridges in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War (2), Niagara Falls suspension bridge (2), bridges in the Boer War of South Africa (1), and miscellaneous bridges (4). The following year brought at least six bridge actualities, though there were probably more. So many of the early silent films have been irrevocably lost and the only descriptions remaining are found in catalogs of the time, sometimes sketchy in their information. What is certain is that after the release of Georges Melies “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) and Edwin S. Porter’s “Great Train Robbery” (1903), audiences switched their allegiance and began to clamor (and pay) for short narrative films with actors and dramatic storylines. They were less and less likely to buy a ticket to watch “reality.” Filmmakers complied and put most of their resources and efforts into making fictional films. Bridges didn’t disappear from the screen, but quickly moved from documentaries to narratives and became settings for action.
A look at those early “actualities” about bridges reveals clusters of films concerned with certain themes, some of which would make their way into the narrative film world. With the disappearance of 90% of all silent films, according to some estimates, this discussion will be tentative at best. A larger body of films for study would doubtlessly suggest additional themes, but based on films available for viewing on video and on the Library of Congress website, this discussion can at least make some generalizations about the types of actualities made with bridges as a subject or background element.
Exploration of Existing Bridges
The invention of the movie camera came too late to capture the construction and inauguration of such landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge. However, many people throughout the world were curious about that magnificent bridge, especially those who had never traveled to New York City. Since so many filmmakers were based in the New York City area before the move to Hollywood in the mid-1910s, the Brooklyn Bridge became the most photographed bridge in America, if not the world. Every catalog had to contain several films about the wondrous bridge.
In 1896 the Lumiere Bros. sent a cameraman from France to New York City to make various films, including New York, Brooklyn Bridge. In the golden year for bridge movies, 1899, the Brooklyn Bridge became an American icon. Across Brooklyn Bridge (American Mutoscope and Biograph, 1899) is described in the AMB catalog: “This picture is very novel and interesting. It gives the complete trip from the station at the New York City end of the bridge to the station at the Brooklyn end, as seen from the front end of a third rail car running at high speed. The entire trip consumes three minutes of time, during which abundant opportunity is given to observe all the structural wonders of the bridge, and far distant river panorama below.” The Lubin Company released Full View of Brooklyn Bridge described in their catalog: “This picture shows the entire Brooklyn Bridge from end to end. The car from which the picture was taken started from the Brooklyn end and lands in the depot in New York. This picture was taken on Dewey Day, when thousands of persons were on the bridge. This is the only film on the market that shows the Bridge from one end to the other. One of the interesting features of this marvelous picture is the winding in and out of the car tracks in the New York depot.” It may be a portion of this early film that appears in Ken Burns’ inimitable documentary on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Thomas Edison’s movie company chimed in with New Brooklyn to New York via Brooklyn Bridge, no. 2 and provided a trip similar to the Lubin film. You can now take the train ride yourself across the Brooklyn Bridge by visiting the Library of Congress American Memory Collection website. Click on “Motion Pictures” and on the subsequent webpage enter a search for “Brooklyn Bridge.” Be sure to check for some of the other films discussed below by doing a search on “bridge” on the same website. A similar film, Panoramic View of Brooklyn Bridge, was also made by the Edison Co.
Climbing up the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge became a sport for some cameramen. From that vantage point, by far the highest in the area at the time, so much of Manhattan and Brooklyn could be seen. The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company shot such a film in 1899 but didn’t release Panorama from the Tower of Brooklyn Bridge until 1903. Their catalog description is as follows: “The view was taken from the tower on the Brooklyn side of the bridge. As the film begins, the camera is looking southwest, towards the southern tip of Manhattan (the Battery). The camera pans very rapidly north following Manhattan’s East River shoreline, across the bridge span itself and the bridge’s New York side tower, following the shoreline further north towards Corlear’s Hook, where the film ends.” Thus, the tower was used as a giant tripod from which to secure a 360 degree view of the area.
Not to be outdone, the Edison Company released Panorama Water Front and Brooklyn Bridge from East River in 1903, also. But this isn’t a true “panorama” with the camera placed on a tripod and slowly turned horizontally across a landscape. Instead, the film uses a tracking or traveling shot taken from a boat passing up the East River. Only at the end of the film does the camera begin panning across the river and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Other bridges made their way into early films. Curiosity was high about the latest additions to the American Empire made during the Spanish-American War, particularly the Philippines. Blanco Bridge (US, 1899) explored an apparently well-known bridge in Manila. France was visited by the Edison Company in 1900. The recently completed bridge of Alexander III on the Seine was seen in Esplanade des Invalides.
Bridges Under Construction
There were surely a number of early films produced to show various bridges under construction, but the only one I could actually find is Panorama of Blackwell’s Island (Thomas A. Edison, Inc., 1903), which provides a brief glimpse of the rising piers for the Queensborough (59th Street) Bridge. That bridge was designed to connect Manhattan to Queens and would be finished in 1908. Any films documenting the construction of this or the Manhattan or Williamsburg Bridges have been lost or have insufficient catalog descriptions. However, two films about the inauguration of the Williamsburg have survived.
Celebrations of New Bridges
At the beginning of the 20th century the opening of a new bridge was cause for great celebration. Generally, the city mayor (or mayors, if two cities were united), city councilmen, firemen, police, and other VIPs walked across the bridge for the first time, before any vehicular traffic tested the new structure. They were usually joined by young, screaming boys (“street urchins,” most likely) and journalists in bowler hats, contrasting with the silk top hats of the powerful. Patriotic bunting and fireworks usually added to the celebratory nature of the occasion.
Although the Williamsburg Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn has no existing movie showing its construction, its inauguration on 19 December 1903 attracted at least two film crews, Edison and Biograph Co.
Edison’s Opening of New East River Bridge, New York begins with shots of children passing before the camera, boys for whom the bridge may become a new place to play, a place for amazing adventures and death-defying climbing. Children interacted with bridges differently than adults, especially in that less litigious, less paranoid era. VIPs in top hats and journalists with press cards in their bowlers walk past the camera. Decorations, primarily patriotic bunting, drape the bridge’s length. The Edison cameraman, James Blair Smith, seems to have positioned himself in the area of the grandstand, somewhere near the middle of the bridge. Consequently his camera sees less of the bridge than the Biograph cameraman, who located himself at the end of the bridge. The dignitaries seem of paramount importance to the Edison filmmaker, and perhaps they granted the Edison Company a more privileged position to capture their every political gesture. At the platform the official inauguration speeches begin and a brass band plays. The Edison Company was first to release their film just a week after the event.
The Biograph film, Opening the Williamsburg Bridge (US, 1904), actually reveals more of the framework of the bridge. The camera points down the length of the bridge to observe the approaching dignitaries who have come to inaugurate the bridge. It would seem likely that they began their journey in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and walked across the bridge to Williamsburg, a neighborhood in the borough of Brooklyn.
The first people to be seen in the film are uniformed men on horseback, probably the mounted police. The Library of Congress website indicates that press photographers are then seen with their large wooden box cameras. “Next, a parade of dignitaries and military representatives, accompanied by members of the press, is photographed passing the camera position led by a standard bearer whose banner reads ‘MAYOR’. The mayor of New York was Seth Low, a lame-duck at the time of filming, having been defeated in November 1903. The Williamsburg Bridge, a combined cantilever and suspension bridge, crosses the East River from Delancey and Clinton Streets, Manhattan, to Roebling and S. 5th Streets, Williamsburg. Built at a cost of twelve million dollars, it held two lanes of roadway, two “L” tracks, four trolley tracks, and two promenades. It was the largest suspension bridge in the world at the time.”
G.W. “Billy” Bitzer was the Biograph cameraman, who would become more famous as the cinematographer for D.W. Griffith’s epic films Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. As the dignitaries approach his camera, Bitzer begins to pan along with their movement. For a brief moment before the end of the film, there is a different shot of the men walking away from the camera. This change of angles was doubtlessly accomplished by in-camera editing rather than cutting the film later. The bridge is always seen in the background, but the apparent focus of interest is the important men walking across the bridge. The bridge is principally a context for them, a symbol of their power and belief in the future. Such films celebrate America and its industrial-technological strength and accomplishments. Inaugurations of bridges provided a great opportunity for certain politicians to take credit, probably too much, for these grand structures rising “on their watch.”
Bridges in Wartime
Filmmakers quickly rushed to the battlefields of the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century. America’s empire was moving beyond its “Manifest Destiny” borders into the former Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. These documentaries were really the forerunners of news photography for the movies and later television.
The Lubin Co. sent a small crew to the Philippines to shoot American Soldiers Defeating Filipinos Near Manila (1899). Their highly revealing catalog description speaks volumes about racial attitudes of the time: “Think of a war picture 400 feet long. A few months ago this was considered out of the question, but it remained for us to produce a life motion picture of the American soldiers and the half-wild Philippinos in active battle. The high bridge and stone wall behind which so many were killed or wounded, is seen in the distance, and after a stubborn resistance, ‘our boys’ vanquished their foes, and climbing down from the top of the wall, proceed to deal a deadly fire on the semi-dressed savages, who scatter in all directions. Indeed, so startling is the action that audiences have been moved to shout aloud and some stand in dread of a stray bullet that might come their way. All that is lacking in this film is sound, that can easily be produced artificially by means of a drum or similar contrivance. This is not alone the most realistic and forceful war subject, but it is the longest film of the war thus far produced.”
Contemporaneous with the Spanish-American War was the Boer War of South Africa, in which Dutch Boers fought the British army for control of the rich territories. Both British and American filmmakers boarded ships and headed to those distant battlefields.
Frere Bridge, as Destroyed by the Boers (British Mutoscope and Biograph Co, 1899) shows “the Royal Engineers at work on the temporary bridge in place of the one blown up by the Boers with dynamite.” Battle of the Upper Tugela (American Mutoscope and Biograph, 1900) is described in the AMB Picture Catalogue: “This is probably as near an actual scene of battle as a camera will ever get in modern warfare. It was taken from the second line of entrenchments during the battle of the Upper Tugela, in which the British, under General Buller met with defeat at the hands of the Boers. The British lost about 500 men in this engagement, and our picture, taken at the rear of the British fighting line, shows the wounded being brought in on litters, and in ambulances. The scope of the view is very broad, taking in the Tugela with its temporary pontoon bridge, and the reserve force on the opposite bank of the river, and the distant mountains where the Boers are stationed.”
Bridges Providing Pictorial Beauty
Sometimes bridges were chosen strictly for their pictorial beauty in early films and became anchoring elements in the background. These early shots of bridges can sometimes tell us how people used the bridges in everyday life. Louis Lumiere’s Arrival of the Conventioneers at Neuville-sur-Saone (Arrivée des congressistes à Neuville-sur-Saône, France, 1895) focuses on a group of convention-goers disembarking from a river boat while a masonry and steel bridge can be seen in the background.
The Paris Exposition of 1900 attracted a lot of attention. In Edison’s Panorama of the Paris Exposition, from the Seine, the camera mounted on a Seine steamboat passes under six bridges, ending with the $3m Pont Alexander III. This is another incorrectly dubbed “panorama,” which is really a tracking shot. The bridges are simply background sights until the boat begins to pass under them. Only then do they become the focus of attention. The British Mutoscope and Biograph Co. also explored the French world’s fair in a series of short films (Paris Exposition) taken from a “captive balloon.” Their cameraman included shots of a footbridge over the Seine and both the Invalides and Alexander III bridges.
Niagara Falls and its beautiful suspension bridge were the subject of Panoramic View of Niagara Falls (American Biograph, 1899) and Rapids Below Suspension Bridge (Edison Company, 1899). Panorama of Susquehanna River Taken From the Black Diamond Express (US, 1897) apparently included a “slender bridge” over the railway tracks and several bridges seen in the distance as the scene opens up to the valley of the Susquehanna. A four-part French documentary, Moscow Clad in Snow (1908), includes moving views of Marshal’s Bridge near the Kremlin (description by email@example.com).
Even when the camera was focused on other subjects, if there was a bridge anywhere nearby, the camera operator often framed the event with the bridge as a pictorial element, as in Parade of Horses on Speedway (American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1903). This film is concerned with a “parade of fine horses and fashionable carriages” traveling along “what is now the Harlem River Drive, in the Highbridge section of northern Manhattan.” In the background can be seen the High Bridge at 175th Street, “an important landmark completed in 1842 as part of the Croton aqueduct system,” and farther on is the Washington Bridge at 181st Street, passing from Manhattan over the Harlem River into the Bronx.
Bridges and the Documentary Film: 1921-2002 (Part 18)
By the mid-1910s the age of the feature film was underway. Audiences expected longer narrative films. Movie palaces holding up to 4,000 seats were built in the bigger cities. In between presentations of the feature film came “short subjects” such as newsreels and travelogues, which took over from “actualities.” By the Depression era, movie theaters often showed a double feature to retain high attendance during those times of economic difficulty. That practice continued through the early 1940s. Even in the 1950s a movie audience expected a feature film, previews of coming attractions, a cartoon, a newsreel, and some kind of travelogue or mainstream documentary. Bridges inevitably made their way into some of these documentary films. One such travelogue was The Bridges of New York (US, 1921), which apparently explored “the many bridges linking Manhattan Island to the mainland.” A British film made in 1950, Life on the Thames, was a “Traveltalks” short which depicted “cities and towns along the Thames River.” During the London segment, the Tower Bridge is seen.
Inaugurations of bridges were generally relegated to newsreels, but Nuevos Puentes (Spain, 1945) was an exception since it appeared as a documentary. In this short film, “the Guadalvacar Bridge, near Lora del Río (Sevilla, Spain),” is inaugurated with the blessings of Cardinal Segura.
Disasters on bridges were certainly filmworthy. The infamous Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse was captured in a film of that name (US, 1940). A contributor to the Internet Movie Database describes the film: “In November 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed due to a combination of high winds and poor construction. In this footage, the bridge can be seen literally waving and twisting for several minutes before finally collapsing into Puget Sound.” A compilation film made in 1985, Disasters of the Century, undoubtedly used that same footage for its segment on the bridge collapse.
Working on the construction or maintenance of bridges should be a worthy subject for a complete documentary. In a segment of Adventures in Wild California (USA, 2000) the filmmaker travels to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge to observe the “ironworkers who maintain it.” A Canadian film, Victoria Bridge: the 8th Wonder (1987) examines the “construction and opening of Montréal’s Victoria Bridge, a one-mile iron tube.”
As can be seen, some of the same themes concerning bridges in narrative films appear in documentaries, like death through collapse and bridge construction. There are other themes shared by documentaries and narrative films employing scenes with bridges.
Hector Herrera’s film, One Dollar: El precio de la vida (The Price of Life, Spain, 2002), a hard-hitting look at gangs, guns, cheap drugs, murder, police brutality, and gangsta rap in Panama City, significantly uses some important discussions among the gang bangers as they cross a bridge from the high-rise, commercial, touristy, entertainment center back to their neighborhoods where life is cheap and easily lost. As in some of the narrative films, that bridge serves as a cultural barrier, which, in this case, keeps many Panamanians “out.” (From a discussion with director Hector Herrera in Austin, TX, May 2002.)
Le Pont Rouge (The Red Bridge, Belgium-Luxembourg, 1991) sounds like an amazing study of actual suicides off a bridge. “The Red Bridge is a highway overpass built over a small town in Europe. Unfortunately, the bridge became a magnet for suicides, which meant that the bodies would drop all over the houses and streets of the town below. People would be sitting at home eating dinner and suddenly hear a loud thud, and then go out to discover another dead body on the roof. The film has interviews with the townspeople and local officials about what it’s like to live underneath the Red Bridge.”
The magisterial biography of a bridge still remains Ken Burns’ thorough history of The Brooklyn Bridge (US, 1981). Like so much of his other work, this one intrigues, entertains, and educates. Every major building and monument in the world should be treated to such thorough documentation and loving assembly of facts, commentary, and images. Burns gathered together so many still and moving images of the Brooklyn Bridge at night and day, in all kinds of weather, from different angles, under construction, inaugurated, empty, and overflowing with traffic. Various cultural commentators talk about what the bridge means to them and to mankind.
Part One examines the arduous, unpredictable, nearly sidetracked designing and building of the bridge. With the contributions of the Roeblings, father and son, and the wife of the son, the construction was finally finished in 1883, two decades after its initial proposal. Its two stone towers were taller than any structure in the entire North American continent at the time. It was meant to be pedestrian-friendly with its elevated promenade on the upper level and traffic down below. To walk out onto the bridge was (and is) a means of experiencing a breathtaking view of Manhattan. With steel cables making its suspension possible, the bridge was indeed a marvel of its time, graceful, strong, beautiful, eternal, and useful.
Part Two examines the place of the Brooklyn Bridge in the American psyche and cultural forms of music, movies, cartoons, poetry, painting, and photography. It quickly proved to be more than a way “to get people from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back again.” David McCullough says of the Brooklyn Bridge: “I think the bridge makes one glad to be alive. I think it makes you glad that you’re part of the human community, that you’re part of a species that could create such a structure.” Arthur Miller refers to the Brooklyn Bridge as “steel poetry” and adds that it “puts everything to shame and makes you wonder what else we could have done. It carries its weight and does what it’s supposed to do. I mean, they could have built another Manhattan Bridge, couldn’t they? It makes you feel that you too could make something that would last and be beautiful.” A writer for Harper’s Weekly in 1883, quoted in Burns’ documentary, proclaimed, “It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity is a work of bare utility, not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.”
Ric Burns looks at the three other East River bridges (Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensborough/59th Street) in Vol. 4 of his wonderful mini-series New York: a Documentary Film (US, 1999). The narrator states, “By 1909 in just six years three more bridges had been thrown across the East River.” Along with the subways and electric trains, the four bridges made it possible to work in Manhattan but live in other boroughs. Thus, New York’s suburban exodus began before WW1. As highways made the post-WW2 Los Angeles sprawl possible, bridges allowed New York to expand and begin the creation of a uniquely American lifestyle.
Some of the narrative films have spawned their own documentaries. The Making of The Bridge on the River Kwai (US, 2000) doubtlessly shows the construction of the bridge. The Making of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) specifically contains a segment on the “climactic bridge sequence.”
Conclusion (Part 19)
Since the appearance of the very first movies in 1895 there have been moving images of bridges captured on celluloid. After the “actuality” frenzy began to dissipate, bridges quickly became an essential part of an impressive number of narrative films. Whether as playground, passageway to death and beyond, romantic trysting spot, or battleground, bridges have made their way into the filmgoers’ conscious and unconscious minds. Some have been used to terrify us, others to inspire us. We can’t approach the Brooklyn Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge in real life without immediately drawing on cinematic memories. In one movie or other, we have already “been there.” Just as actual bridges and legendary bridges, cinematic bridges have become part of our mythology. We have watched heroes battle for their lives on bridges, romantic ideals flower on bridges, bodies die and spirits depart from bridges, and transformed lives begin on bridges. With such mythological ties, the relationship between bridges and the cinema will inevitably continue for as long as some form of cinema exists.
Acknowledgments (Part 20)
Many thanks to Kate Johnson and Kitty Henderson who proposed and supported this project and to Jane Thurmond who placed it on the Web site.
Thanks to all those who helped in this project by recalling one or more movies with significant bridge scenes, including Cassandra Knobloch, Richard Linklater, Phil Marson, Charles Ramirez-Berg, Robert Johnson, Mitch Abney, Romeo Navarro, firstname.lastname@example.org, Mark Brader, Howard Brazee, email@example.com, Jeff Coleman, Henry Glenworthy, John Harkness, Matt Heaton, Jaquandor, Cadillac Jones, J. Linwood, Frank R.A.J. Maloney, firstname.lastname@example.org, David Matthews, Peter Millen, M.P. O’Connor, Liz Owen, Jim Powers, Ivan G. Shreve Jr., Tony Spadaro, email@example.com, DrummGuy13@aol.com, and the many contributors to the Internet Movie Database.