Irwin Allen’s last forays into TV specials revolved around making exceptionally long 3 hour plus double night features. By padding the runtime to within an inch its life, ‘The Night the Bridge Fell Down’ feels longer than a 24 episode soap opera and yet very little happens until the final half an hour or so. It is a battle between this and ‘Hanging By A Thread’ over which film is Irwin Allen’s weakest.
The disasters faced
A robber with a gun, greedy men, gullible women, a bridge that is determined to have an Earthquake before anything falls down, slippery and shoddy metal work and a dodgy gas fire.
Cal Miller decides to investigate a troublesome bridge that seems to be having a few too many accidents. However when he decides, along with his engineer friends, that the bridge is unsafe and needs shutting down, in true Irwin Allen movie fashion, no one cares. As he steals a truck to block one of the entrances he arrives a little too late as a several car pile occurs on the bridge right as it collapses in front of his eyes. Left hanging – is the central pillar with all our characters trapped on top like prize turkeys.
So who do we have stuck on the bridge?
Well the car crash was caused because Johnny had just robbed a bank alongside his utterly clueless wife to be Dee. Dee literally could not be more gullible and idiotic if she tried. Dee will spend the entire film staring at him whilst he waves a gun in everyone’s face saying things like ‘but did you ever love me?!’ No Dee, he is marrying you because you are rich and not very street smart…
Continuing the theme of money and greed, Paul has photocopied valuable coupons with his bosses secretary Elaine. They were running nose to tail in separate cars in the crash because their plans to cash the coupons and live off the money for investments had derailed earlier. Paul’s young son had been taken ill and he had to leave work early to collect him so the young baby will spend most of the film crying at the perfect time to allow plot points to advance.
Then we have Harvey, the policeman everyone already knows who has been rejected by his fiance Terry. Terry has instead joined the church to become a nun and was transporting Judy, a young girl, to her new adopted parents. Thankfully Harvey and Terry still love each other and will need a giant life changing event to snap Terry out of her funk and declare she still love Harvey, who seems like the nicest guy on the beat.
Talking of nice guys, the last character stuck on the bridge is Deigo. As Harvey is injured early on and requires Terry to lean over him for a good portion of the movie, Deigo looks after Judy and immediately goes full on Mr Rogers on her. I’m certain time will make this character seem far more sinister and creepy than originally intended but in 1980, I’m sure it came across sweeter.
Whilst these characters are largely held at gunpoint by Johnny who wants to escape with his bank money, the bridge slowly starts to disintegrate. That leaves Cal having to try various attempts to get them down whilst Johnny tries to halt any attempt Cal and his crew makes. Which team will win out and will the bridge hold up long enough for anyone to be rescued anyway? More importantly – after all the flashbacks – will you even care?
Why is it worth watching?
The Master of Disaster was left working with huge run times and zero budget for the end of his TV series. Originally commissioned to be huge events, after Flood! and Fire!, those budgets seemed to slip away for the remaining three TV events. So with little to do, the film resorts to flashbacks, martial drama, campy scandals and plenty of padding to try and stretch out what is already a thin premise into something practically anorexic at 3 and a half hours!
Irwin Allen loved melodrama in his movies but the problem with this movie is that over half the cast aren’t really very friendly characters. Between the crooks, the scandals, the gormless, the I-love-you-but-not-really-but-I-do-really’s and the personality-less engineers, you just can’t get invested in them. Add to the fact that you know the bridge can’t fall down with all the cast on it and you don’t get much peril. It is the same problems that plague Allen’s other poor movie Hanging By A Thread and a similar very low budget movie The Elevator. You know it can’t fall yet, that’s the end of the movie!
With that moan out the way, there are reasons to enjoy it. The acting is largely decent in its own unique campy way. It is still fun to Leslie Nielsen acting straight rather than comedy. Char Fontane is so convincingly thick you literally want to shake her. I just wish the cast were given more to work with.
There are seeds of something good here, which is what makes it all a bit frustrating. The tense gunpoint rescue could have been tighter and more dramatic. The breeches buoy is a great addition but is long and drawn out with an ending to its arc that we’ve seen before (with bigger consequences). The climbing section when it finally happens is genuinely decent but we’ve seen Cal go up and down that strut like a monkey several times before which lessens its dramatic effect. The problem is that each of things happen in turn and the main cast are stuck waiting for things to happen for them rather than ever take control. Nothing says ‘I’m bored too’ than a cast who have to sit and wait with nothing much to do in the meantime. Often with films, I feel like a longer cut would improve things, here, I’d chop an hour out at least to make a movie that could pack a much bigger punch. Most of part one could be axed and a lot of the repetitious padding views removed from part two as well. Then, you’d have a low budget but fun mini classic.
The bridge set itself is suitably full of polystyrene concrete to enjoy. Whilst the car crash itself is passable, the bridge collapse segments are quite hit and miss. Some of the shots of bits falling on the cast are decent enough but the exterior wide shots look like the bridge was made out of matchsticks. It is a real hodgepodge of ideas and ways of completing stunts and the film pads it out with showing rescues being set up. Look out for slow ladder erections, boats slowly cruising up to the bridge base… to do nothing. Elsewhere, bridge segments seem to repeat themselves over and over as the cast climb down them. I feel like there was only one segment and the camera is locked off so the cast finish one bit of the climb and then quickly run up to the top and climb down again!
Oh. My. God! I just want to shout at practically everyone and tell them to stop being idiots! When you don’t have a special effects budget, you need strong characters and plots to keep the viewer entertained and the problem, as I’ve said earlier is that the characters are wet and uncompelling. You can also tell which characters are likely to get their comeuppance very early on and I was spot on bar one character who seemed too nice to survive.
The issue here is that characters are either evil or pristine – and not in the grey. The only character sitting in the grey is Elaine who has been dragged into helping Paul commit fraud. She is clearly uneasy at the whole thing and has the only decent character arc in the movie. Seeing her come into her own and kick Paul to the side and move on was rewarding. Then it was even better to see her scared to death trying to climb down the struts. Time for your comeuppance too my lady!
Get your hash off this channel!!Terry the nun on a truckers radio. making friends.
Three memorable moments
- Watching Elaine absolute shit herself trying to climb down the bridge struts is glorious.
- The smash up and initial bridge collapse for being good campy fun.
- Watching Terry see her sister die infront of her and immediately declare ‘its all my fault! with literally no other reaction to her sister’s death.
The obligatory weird moment
Aside from it taking 4 years to be broadcast, I’d really like to know why every time the bridge breaks apart a bit, there is an earthquake sound clip at the same time. Elsewhere, Terry – what the hell were you thinking?! Also – does Deigo now get to adopt Trudy?! There is a weird sequel waiting to happen there…
The drinking game
Whenever nothing much is happening, queue Johnny to enter a scene and wave the gun around for no apparent reason and/or to look for an escape route by angrily looking over the edge of the bridge.
There is something morbidly fascinating about how slow a movie can drag its heels out. The Night The Bridge Fell Down absolutely fits this bill. It isn’t a film I can recommend to anyone that wants to see a decent film that provides pure entertainment. I can absolutely recommend this film to anyone who enjoys the ‘So Bad Its Good Again’ genre of movie. This is a prime example of when runtime, production values and hammy acting all have unrealistic expectations of each other and the whole thing falls flat.
Rating: So Bad It’s Good Disaster Movies (Very Much Personal Taste 1 or 5)
If you enjoyed The Night the Bridge Fell Down, then you may enjoy…
- Hanging By A Thread – Irwin Allen’s other bargain bucket hangathon.
- The Cassandra Crossing – The film where the train does not want to cross the bridge!
- The Elevator – A made for TV movie about getting stuck in the lift – with Carol Lynley as a gangsters girlfriend outside!