Golden Gate Bridge featured in many fantastic film fantasies

by Daniel K. Davis

If there is one thing the movies have taught us, it is that when little green men from outer space finally attack, they are going to take out our architectural icons first. Being one of the most recognized landmarks on the planet, as well as one of the American Society of Civil Engineers' Seven Wonders of the Modern World, the Golden Gate Bridge is sure to go down in the first round of the alien onslaught.

Those in attendance at the Sunset Branch Library for Jim Van Buskirk's presentation "On Location: the Golden Gate Bridge on the Silver Screen," got to see the bridge fall victim to all sorts of disasters - natural, man-made, alien-made and more. They also got to see it in times of peace as Van Buskirk showed a variety of movie clips featuring the bridge spanning its 75 years of existence.

The architectural masterpiece actually made its silver screen debut even before its 1937 opening, appearing in the 1935 movie "Stranded." In the film George Brent plays the superintendent overseeing the building of the bridge, and Barton MacClane plays a racketeer whose scheming threatens the construction.

MacClane's character is thwarted and the bridge comes out of that movie in good shape (if still not completed). This was good news for Hollywood, which has used the bridge in dozens of movies since then.

The first Hollywood film to take out the Golden Gate Bridge was 1955's "It Came from Beneath the Sea," in which stop-animation legend Ray Harry­hausen's gigantic octopus crushes the deck and one of the towers with its mighty tentacles.

Since then, the bridge's appearances have ranged from the funny (Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety"), to the serious ("The Joy of Life" and "The Bridge," two documentaries about suicide jumpers off the bridge), to the bizarre (a double-decker bridge in "Bicentennial Man," or Harvey the Volkswagen Beetle trying to commit suicide off the bridge in Disney's "The Love Bug").

Van Buskirk, the author of "Celluloid San Francisco: The Film Lover's Guide to Bay Area Movie Locations," says most movies employ the Golden Gate Bridge only as a "picturesque setting and delineation of place." For his presentation, Van Buskirk chose clips that give the bridge "a role … a piece of the plot."

Van Buskirk's favorite clip was from "X-Men: The Last Stand" (2006), in which the villain Magneto rips the bridge from its pilings with his magnetic superpowers and flies it over to connect Alcatraz to San Francisco.

His highest praise, however, was saved for a clip from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011).

"It's 10 minutes long but I couldn't bring myself to edit it because it makes such masterful use of the bridge in every way," he said. "It's almost as if this is the accumulation of all the different ways that the bridge has been used in all the film clips that we've seen tonight."

As this clip played behind him and evolved apes fought their way over, under and above the Golden Gate Bridge, Van Buskirk engaged the audience in a conversation about what has made the span so attractive to Hollywood over the decades. He estimates it has appeared in more films than any other American man-made icon. Audience members spoke of the bridge as a symbol of the end of the country, the last stopping point for those journeying west. Similarly, it is the first thing people see when coming into the country from the west.

Then there is its beauty - the stunning bridge itself as well as its spectacular setting.

"This bridge, as we've seen, looks beautiful from every vantage point," Van Buskirk said. "If it's foggy, if it's sunny, if we're underneath, if we're on top … it can't help itself, it's magnificent."

But, despite the bridge's magnificence, it is still in danger in Hollywood - the recently-released science fiction movie "Pacific Rim" destroys the bridge once again.