It’s a plot device familiar from numerous films: the rickety bridge. Whether you’re making a horror, disaster or action movie, a rickety or collapsing bridge is a quick, simple way of introducing added suspense. The wobbly crossing and tumbling walkway is such a familiar movie staple, in fact, that I almost wonder if the writers of Hollywood don’t have some sort of patent on the device.
What follows is a selection of some of the most poorly made, disaster-prone bridges in cinematic history…
The Lost World (1925)
One of the earliest examples of a cinematic rickety bridge I’ve seen, this early adaptation of Conan Doyle’s dinosaur-filled novel was a clear influence on the numerous monster movies that came after.
To get across a chasm into the lost world of the title, Professor Challenger and his fellow explorers fell a huge, conveniently placed tree. There follows a lengthy scene in which various characters shuffle across the makeshift bridge, and in a typical display of gender stereotyping, it’s the female of the party, Paula (Bessie Love), who gets the fear, while the men all bound across heroically.
Minutes later, the bridge back to civilisation is destroyed by an interfering dinosaur, leaving Challenger and his friends apparently trapped in an uncivilised world. It’s a plot device that has been reprised numerous times in films since, most notably in The Evil Dead (see later), in which a collapsed bridge leaves protagonist Ash stranded in a demon-possessed forest.
King Kong (1933, 1976 and 2005)The Lost World‘s log bridge probably also influenced a sequence in 1933’s King Kong, in which the titular giant ape shakes a huge fallen tree, sending the hapless explorers running across it, falling to their doom.
The log sequence was reprised in both the 1976 and 2005 King Kong remakes. Despite the huge leaps in technology in the intervening years, the 70s John Guillermin iteration looked awful, with a man in a flea-bitten gorilla suit making a poor substitute for the original’s majestic stop-motion simian. Thanks to the power of computers, the 2005 version of the sequence fares rather better.
Interestingly, a portion of the 1933 log sequence was trimmed out. The four sailors who fall into the ravine are later dined on by giant spiders, but the scene was deemed to be so grim that producer Merian C Cooper decided to cut it, and has never been seen since. As a tribute, Peter Jackson had the characters in his log sequence eaten by giant bugs.
Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975)
Ah, the endlessly quotable bridge of death scene. The final hurdle in King Arthur and his knights’ quest is to cross the Gorge of Eternal Peril, but before they can do so, they must answer the questions posed by the bridgekeeper (played by Terry Gilliam, in one of his many roles in the film).
Fortunately, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) manages to outwit the bridgekeeper with his extensive knowledge of songbirds (“How do you know so much about swallows?”), leaving him and his remaining recruit, Bedevere (Terry Jones) free to cross the rickety bridge of death.
Brilliantly, the Python team don’t even attempt to invest the crossing with any sense of peril, and opt instead to insert an intermission where the usual breaking planks of wood and brushes with death should be. A classic moment in a classic comedy film.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
It’s widely thought that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were influenced by the 1939 film, Gunga Din, when they came up with the collapsing rope bridge sequence in The Temple Of Doom. It’s also possible, however, that they’d also seen the 1975 adventure film, The Man Who Would Be King, which starred Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Both Gunga Din and The Man Who Would Be King were based on Rudyard Kipling stories, and both feature a collapsing rope bridge.
It’s the scene in the latter film, however, which sees Sean Connery standing in the middle of a rope bridge that looks nigh-on identical to the one Indy encounters in Temple Of Doom that appears to have influenced Lucas and Spielberg the most, even if the sequence of events that follows is markedly different.
The Cassandra Crossing (1976)
A 70s disaster movie that throws a plague virus and a crumbling bridge at its protagonists, The Cassandra Crossing saw its starry cast stuck on a train headed for disaster.
An incredibly long, rambling movie, The Cassandra Crossing eventually rumbles to a dramatic climax in which the plague-ridden train crosses the unstable bridge of the title. The catastrophe that follows is depicted using some of the worst model effects I’ve ever seen in a mainstream film, with tiny toy trains bouncing off the miniature bridge’s matchstick girders.
Director William Friedkin followed up the hugely successful movies The French Connection and The Exorcist with this remake of a 50s French thriller, Wages Of Fear. Despite the supernatural allusions of its title, Sorcerer wasn’t about wizards or the occult, which may partially explain why the film made such a dismal account of itself at the box office.
Starring Roy Scheider, the film is about four criminals who agree to drive a truckload of unstable dynamite across two hundred miles of rough South American terrain. The highlight of this extremely well-made film is undoubtedly the scene in which Scheider and his cohorts drive their explosives-laden pair of trucks across a storm-battered rope bridge.
Masterfully shot by Friedkin, the sequence has a palpable air of danger and tension, helped in part by the authenticity of the acting. Everyone involved looks genuinely terrified throughout, and, considering Friedkin’s unorthodox methods on his earlier films, it wouldn’t surprise me if he shot the entire sequence for real, with no safety nets and no stunt actors.
When Time Ran Out (1980)
Producer Irwin Allen’s disaster movie formula, which had led to such films as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), appeared to be running out of steam by the 1980s. Despite their generous budgets, both 1978’s The Swarm and Meteor, released the following year, were unintentionally hilarious and universally panned.
When Time Ran Out once again played to the familiar disaster movie template in which an all-star cast (this time including Paul Newman and Jacqueline Bisset) fights for survival in the face of a natural calamity (this time, it’s an erupting volcano that’s the source of the drama).
When Time Ran Out marked the end of Irwin’s long run of big-budget disaster flicks, and the laughably bad scene in which the movie’s cast attempt to cross a rope bridge was probably the final nail in the genre’s coffin.
It’s worth contrasting the handling of this scene with the one in Friedkin’s Sorcerer. Where Friedkin brought all his lunatic talents to bear in a sequence of nail biting tension, When Time Ran Out‘s director James Goldstone’s scene opts instead for lots of emoting, dodgy lava effects and shrieking strings. Even the sudden death of The Karate Kid‘s Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) can’t add any suspense to the proceedings.
And then, just when you think it can’t get any more ridiculous, we’re treated to the sight of Burgess Meredith doing a trapeze act on the bridge’s one remaining section. Paul Newman, meanwhile, just looks like he wants to go home.
The Evil Dead (1981)
When encountering the kind of rotting, rickety bridge seen at the start of Sam Raimi’s classic, The Evil Dead, most motorists would probably do a three-point turn and head back the way they came. Fortunately for us, driver Scott (Hal Delrich) decides to plough on regardless, ignoring the bits of wood dropping into the water beneath his car, and carries on his journey towards the remote cabin that contains the Book Of The Dead.
Predictably, the bridge later collapses, leaving emerging hero, Ash, trapped in the woods with its rampaging demons.
Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984)
A less satisfying film than Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Temple Of Doom is nevertheless full of memorable set pieces, even if the glue that holds them together isn’t particularly strong or, it has to be said, politically correct.
The moment where Indie’s cornered on a rope bridge by Mola Ram’s foot soldiers is one of the film’s highlights. With nowhere left to turn, Doctor Jones slices through the bridge’s supporting rope, sending almost everyone who isn’t a lead or supporting actor cartwheeling into the crocodile-infested waters below.
It’s a sequence that’s clearly influenced by a similar one in the 1939’s Gunga Din, though the gruesome fate of the film’s extras in the teeth of the waiting crocs is pure 80s excess.
White Water Summer (1987)
A seldom mentioned adventure movie that stars Kevin Bacon and Sean Astin out of The Goonies, White Water Summer also features quite a lot of kayaking and wandering around in the mountains of America.
The film also features a gratuitous rickety rope bridge scene, a sure-fire way of adding a bit of tension to the middle of your film if the pace is beginning to drag a little.
Bacon and his young adventurers all cross the bridge safely, leaving poor, bespectacled Astin to wobble across all on his own.
Of all the rope bridge cameos on this list, the one in White Water Summer is the least consequential. It is, in fact, almost the only one that doesn’t collapse or kill anyone. Mind you, it’s still a far more scary scene than the one in When Time Ran Out.
Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)
For me, the sequence where Gandalf faces off against a Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad Dum is the standout part of the film, and an example of just how good Peter Jackson is at using grand images to keep audiences on tenterhooks.
Both the Balrog and the disintegrating bridge are expertly handled, and Gandalf’s subsequent battle with the monster packs a great emotional punch.
The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
An extremely odd thriller starring Richard Gere, The Mothman Prophecies involves the sightings of weird winged creatures (the Mothmen of the film’s title) that have some connection to an incoming disaster.
The film concludes with a well-handled and quite disturbing bridge sequence that was partially inspired by a real event that occurred in West Virginia in the 1960s.
Season Of The Witch (2010)
Was the rope bridge scene in Season Of The Witch intended as homage to William Friedkin’s Sorcerer? It’s possible, since the entire plot of Season Of The Witch bears a passing resemblance to that 70s thriller. Instead of a truck full of explosives, it’s a barred wagon with a witch inside it that knight Behmen (Nic Cage) must escort to an isolated monastery.
Along the way, the wagon has to be shoved across a crumbling rope bridge that’s straight out of Sorcerer. And while the scene isn’t shot with the immediacy of Friedkin’s, it’s nevertheless one of the film’s most memorable, tense moments.
The rickety bridge may be a plot device almost as old as cinema itself but, in the hands of a competent director, it’s one that can still keep audiences on the edge of their seats.