Why Fight Scenes on Bridges are Lazy Writing

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

As America’s infrastructure continues to crumble and decline, there’s another place you should avoid bridges: at the movies.

No matter what else happens, the climax of too many films offers a good guy fighting a bad guy on a bridge. This is beyond stupid. It’s criminal negligence on the part of Hollywood filmmakers, if not outright fraud, evidence they have zero creativity while being paid a king’s ransom to make movies. The Star Wars franchise alone shows the viral sickness of the bridge as poor storytelling. Luke Skywalker duels Darth Vader on bridge in both The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1984). There is a lightsaber bridge battle in The Phantom Menace (1999) while Revenge of the Sith (2005) treats us to hand-to-hand combat on a towering platform, not quite a bridge but close enough. Given that history, when Harrison Ford’s Hans Solo dies in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), you’d think he’d be killed in setting befitting a hero. But no, he, too, is lightsabered to death on a bridge.

Bridges are present in movies so the combatants have someplace to fall. This is true of Robert Downey’s putrid reimagining of Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes (2013) and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s geriatric comeback, The Last Stand (2006). Even the animated Kung Fu Panda (2008) gives us a cartoon fight on a rope bridge that tries to activate our sense of vertigo and primal fears of falling.

As someone who actually suffers from gephyrophobia — the fear of bridges — I should find these perilous bridge fight scenes utterly terrifying. I should have to watch them through half-shut eyes or with fingers pressed close to my face the way I watch any scenes where needles pierce skin or knives slice flesh.

I don’t. I endure them with eyes wide open if they don’t put me to sleep first. Bridge fights are false drama, the worst kind of filmmaking. They show utter contempt for the audience. Whether it’s the dangerous bridge of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) or the deadly serious fantasy confrontation between Gandalf and the Balrog in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), all bridge fights offer are the empty calories of cheap thrills. That’s because the outcome is binary. One or the other of the combatants will hurtle to his or her death, but before this happens there will usually be an obligatory combination of grappling, losing of weapons, perilously hanging over the edge by one party or another, and maybe a dramatic last second rescue. The bridge will probably also start to break apart at some point, but the important characters will make it across in the nick of time. This is all supposed to be exhilarating entertainment. Instead, it’s an exhausting litany of predictable cliches. Any director who resorts to them should be shot — or thrown from a bridge.

When Roger Moore as James Bond wrestles Christopher Walken off the top of the Golden Gate Bridge in A View to a Kill (1984), it could represent the villain’s fall from grace or power. But the movie is so idiotic and campy up until that point, no greater meaning is attached to Walken’s plummeting death, other than trying to wow moviegoers. The fall has no meaning, it’s just dumb visual spectacle. The same can be said for almost every cinematic bridge fight scene, whether it’s in Iron Man 3 (2013) or the Norwegian dark fantasy film classic, Trollhunter (2010). The falls contain no moral or thematic significance. A more thoughtful director might use a bridge fight scene to signal an allusion to God’s fallen angels.

The worst kind of bridge fights are the epic battles on bridges, usually the Golden Gate Bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge is the most destroyed bridge in the history of film.

It’s been fought on and fought over in movies from X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) to Terminator: Genisys (2015), to name but a few. The key elements to a Golden Gate Bridge battle are missiles, machine guns, mayhem, helicopters, and clogged traffic. Yet, all the epic Golden Gate battles have the same yawning dullness to them. This speaks to the larger bridge battle conundrum. Bridge battles are boring because they’re pointless exercises in special effects. The physical confinements of a bridge mean we’ve seen the limited number of battle scenarios countless times before. This often involves a bus or large truck flying towards us as the bridge is destroyed.

There is an old saying, “let the punishment fit the crime.” This means we most enjoy seeing justice done with a measure of symmetry, even irony. “An eye for an eye” carries the same idea. The big problem with the bad guy dying by falling from a bridge is that it’s impersonal. It’s not really about the villain. It’s not about their weird evil character or quirks. And it doesn’t feel like the end has come in a special way just for them. Real writers, like Shakespeare or Stephen King, understand this. Hollywood hacks take a shortcut to a boringly familiar route: the high bridge.

Eric Coyote earned his Master of Arts degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.

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