A few weeks ago I finished reading “The Great Bridge”, David McCullough’s authoritative 1972 chronicle of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Some may come across the book and think it’s perhaps too technical to bother with, but it’s a fascinating, very down-to-earth tale of what Brooklyn and New York looked like in the 1860s. In his prose, McCullough takes us right there, introduces us to the people that mattered in the construction of the bridge (especially the Roebling family) and engagingly shows us the dirty politics behind it; this was after all the era of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed, the very symbol of corruption in America. The writer lets us in on the suffering that came with the caisson disease that would strike many of the workers, including the bridge’s chief engineer, Washington Roebling. But it’s also a tale of how Washington’s wife Emily impressively rose to the occasion and took charge of the construction when her husband became too ill to handle the job. In short, “The Great Bridge” is an exemplary historical biography. Those who want the short version can take a look at the History Channel version in the clip above.
Crossing the bridge may not be as big a deal now as it was in the late 1800s (something McCullough also makes sure we understand in his book), but it’s still a wonderful thing to do on a sunny day in New York City. After finishing the book, I came to think of how the bridge has been represented onscreen. Let’s take a look (with help from the New York Daily News).
To a history buff, this is truly amazing stuff. This clip was shot by Thomas Edison on September 22, 1899, as he took the train across East River on a bridge that was only 16 years old. It would carry trains for an additional 45 years.
There’s something romantic to the bridge, isn’t it? Many lovers have crossed it since 1883, but in Moonstruck (1987) the bridge takes on special significance. Sure, we see the profile of Manhattan and the Twin Towers bathing in moonlight, but Brooklyn plays a special part as Cher’s family lives in Brooklyn Heights, a place where Washington Roebling had a house and a perfect view of his creation. The trailer above features a beautiful shot of the bridge in the moonlight.
But what about the expected Hollywood mayhem? After all, we’ve seen the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building fall victim to everything from alien attacks to natural disasters. Sure, the bridge has suffered onscreen. The Will Smith dystopia I Am Legend (2007) features footage of the bridge getting blown to pieces, and in the clip above people fleeing Manhattan from the monster in Cloverfield (2008) see the bridge collapsing. Godzilla and Deep Impact (both in 1998) also destroyed the Brooklyn Bridge. In Spider-Man (2002), Peter Parker saves Mary-Jane on the bridge; interestingly, considering how The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is virtually a remake of the first film, it also features a bridge sequence… but on the Williamsburg Bridge. Apparently, there was a limit.
Simply put, there’s something about watching one of the nation’s most beloved landmarks fall victim to forces of evil, especially (and this should not be underestimated) as there are huge American flags planted on top of the two towers. When the bridge falls, so do the flags and that carries some emotional weight.