The Bullitt Explosion

Explosion Scene of the Dodge Charger in movie Bullitt (McQueen’s Mustang speeds by on the road)

(Note to Readers: First scroll down to the bottom YouTube image on this post and click on it and then come back up to the text right below what you’re reading now … with music.)

The spectacular fate of the two bad guys in Bullitt is usually overshadowed by the magnificent chase scenes of the movie through San Francisco. I modeled (in N-scale) a brief piece of this scene as Steve McQueen’s Mustang jumps over the intersection at the corner of Taylor and Union Street. The chase scene was incredible in large part because its star was already a race car driver who loved fast cars. McQueen was in his natural habitat more during the chase scenes of Bullitt than any other scene/place in his career. HIs life perhaps. McQueen knew the excitement of the fastest and most powerful cars from Detroit.

Chasing Bullitt – By John Fraim (April 2018)

The chase scenes were also incredible because of the almost total freedom the filmmakers had shooting around the streets of the city. Mayor Alioto allowed them to use the city as their set without spending weeks getting all of the necessary permits to do so. At no other time did the city of San Francisco open itself up to a film crew in the way it did for Steve McQueen’s movie.

They wanted the chase to continue across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the hills of Marin. Bringing a grand icon of America into the film would have been a real coup for the filmmakers. But filming over the GG Bridge and north of the city was not to be. According to several printed sources, the chase was supposed to continue across the Golden gate bridge. This proved to be the breaking point.  It was too much to ask and the filmmakers were declined and were forced to move south of the city to complete their chase scene. The Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District refused permission to film.  Even in 1968, it would have created a traffic nightmare.

So, instead of proceeding north over the Golden Gate Bridge and into the hills of Marin County for the final chase scenes of the film, the filmmakers were forced to film south of the city. After leaving the steep streets of the city, the chase picks up again on University Street near Daly City. There is a shot from the film of the chase turning out of Olmstead Street passing the intersection of Mansell and University. There is also the intersection of Mansell and University in 2002. The chase continues into McLaren Park.

The chase picks up again on Market Street in Daly City headed eastbound past John F. Kennedy Elementary school at 785 Price Street and Guadalupe Canyon Parkway. It continues eastbound on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway through a road cut which looks remarkably the same in 2002. At various points during the eastbound portion San Francisco Bay is clearly visible (here is a section in 2002 showing San Francisco Bay in the background). The direction changes and the cars are shown heading westbound, passing through the same road cut they passed through headed east. In the scene where stunt driver Bud Ekins lays down a motorcycle, there are several radio towers visible on the hill in the background. Those towers are still there, and this section looks very much as it did in the film.

Shortly after the above scene, the chase ends when the Charger crashes in flames into the tanks of a gas station at the corner of Guadalupe Canyon Parkway and North Hill Drive in the town of Brisbane, near San Francisco International Airport. The explosion is made more spectacular with the explosion of the pumps of the service station. I view on YouTube the exact moment in the film when the Charger explodes. I search for an image of this moment on Google Images and find the one above. The explosion scene in Bullitt. A truly spectacular scene itself yet one that has always seemed lessened by the city part of the chase.

* * *

Perhaps it’s an approprate time to return to Bullitt rather than my movement on to other things. Perhaps there is more work to do around these old movie memories and images – the San Francisco of the late 60s, when I visited it for the first time. It seems more of a time of reflection right now rather than one of pushing forward with more dioramas. I write a short book on the emergence of a new type of dioramic art form. The first draft of Making Scenesis completed, and I’m pleased with it so far. More than anything, it attempts to distill the journal/journalism style of the blogs/posts to Midnight Oil Studios from February through June of 2018. This is the period the book covers. Perhaps twenty dioramas created and photographed with an article about them. All posted to the site you’re on now, Midnight Oil Studios.

Sometimes it seems better (and wiser) to look around rather than just forward. It’s hard to look around though if you haven’t stopped from your gaze and movement into the future. To look around, it seems necessary to simply stop the mind from moving ahead to the next diorama, the next work of art. And perhaps just stop for a while in the moment. Take a rest in the moment. No need for new dioramas when old ideas still beckon. No less than Joseph Conrad emphasized this point when he completed his long-in-progress novel The Rescue.

* * *

A few months ago, I purchased Greenlight’s 1/43 scale models of the green Mustang and black Charger in Bullitt. Both the most supercharged cars Detroit had so far made. I had originally wanted to make another city scene with the Mustang chasing the Charger as the Charger rounds a corner almost turning over it is so much on its side. But I wasn’t interested in trying to model all the structures in San Francisco. The final minutes of the long chase scene, those minutes outside the city and into the country, are very important in the film. It needs to be at least considered symbolically as the symbolism is so obvious. In the chase scene in the film, the city of mankind (in the northern tip of this peninsula we are focused on) is contrasted with nature in the hills south of the city. Today, just northwest of the San Francisco International Airport.

I start reading about how to create the effects of an explosion in a diorama. I read the masters on the topic and everything I can. I view a lot of YouTube films on the matter. Some of the photos of the explosions are incredible. LED lights are required as well as chicken-wire, cellophane, cotton and spray paint. I feel that the explosion over the 1/43 scale Charger looks like perhaps 75 or 100 feet high. It is a huge fireball and Steve McQueen’s Mustang passes right in front of the great explosion ball. The ball of the explosion should perhaps rise perhaps 15 inches over the diorama. It is almost as if there has been a miniature atomic bomb involved in the incident. The explosion is that big. I think of the string of LED lights I have with the remote controller. The same lighting I’m using on the alient craft in the Witness diorama. There also seems to be a matter of sound associated with the scene. I download the sound of an explosion made by a few electronic musicians. I loop the sound on the iphone and think that a bluetooth sound cube needs to be placed somewhere in teh middle of the explosion being created.

* * *

The project proceeds. Much of whether we create the diorama involves how realistically we can create the fire effect of the explosion. This seems to be key to the image of this powerful scene in Bullitt. The bad guys in the film are not just killed. They are annihilated in an inferno.

The film makers were forced to go south to complete the chase scene and they created some of the most exciting footage in the film. It did have so-called (as mentioned above) continuity problems. But it is fantastic footage and makes a powerful, symbolic image of nature at the end of the film … versus the city the film has almost wholly existed in before this end.

It seems a worthwhile image to attempt to preserve in the form of some scene or dioramic art form. For my own psyche and perhaps the psyches of others. With the city chase scenes, the audience is presented with the latter middle section of the film. The end of Act II in effect. But, with the explosion, we are given a definite finality to Act III of the film. The city chase scenes are various moments in time. A montage of these moments in time. But the great explosion is one frozen moment in time. This is what makes it so powerful compared to the string of chase scenes in the film. This finality in a great explosion.

* * *

A true (old fashioned?) ending of a movie with the total annilhation of the bad guys.

Rather than their continuance in some zombiesque form between life-and-death.

I think our kids might have a clearer understanding of the world from a story ending featuring a form of annilhation. Certain things, totally wiped out to the invisibility of non-existence.

In the spaces old forms have occupied.

I wish there were more of these types of Bullittesque movies today.

A star who loved the thrill of a fast car perhaps more than he loved that craft called acting.

Put this thrill inside a car chase through the most exciting, challenging and beautiful city in America.

* * *

It seems to be a scene beckoning to be created in 3D. And within 3D, perhaps within the confines of a box diorama where the scene image could be controlled. The city has always been the focus of the scenes. But the country scenes south of San Francisco are so important to the overall structure of the film. They seem the perfect scenes of the chase outside the city. The perfect place for the annilhation of the bad guys.

As defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, annihilatied is the state or fact of being completely destroyed or obliterated : the act of annihilating something or the state of being annihilated. A few examples are provided:

  • The late 1940s and ’50s were so pervaded by a general fear of nuclear annihilation that the era was known as the Age of Anxiety. Charles Krauthammer
  • For a literary culture that fears it is on the brink of total annihilation, we are awfully cavalier about the Great Male Novelists of the last century.
  • Katie Roph and a few experts believe that either regime would risk annihilation by actually launching a nuke in anger. Michael Elliott
  • The Cretaceous Extinction, whatever its cause, was one of the two most awesome annihilations of life in the history of the world. John McPhee

What is the true symbolism of the explosion scene in Bullitt?

It always seemed an important question to ask.

Yet a question that hardly no one wanted to answer.


Thanks to the brilliant Bullitt website from RJ Smith

Below, The Bullit Chase Scene

Below, Theme Music from Bullitt by Lalo Shifrin








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