This Day In History: December 19, 1968

December 19, 1968 “Bullitt” hits the silver screen in Sweden

On December 19, 1968, Warner Brothers releases the movie “Bullitt,” starring Steve McQueen, in Sweden, some two months after its debut in U.S. theaters. Many critics consider “Bullitt” to be one of the greatest action movies ever made, not because of its script or special effects–the plot is impenetrable, the dialogue is fairly awful, and nothing explodes–but because of one sublime seven-minute car chase through the streets of San Francisco. In poll after poll, moviegoers have named that chase the best in film history.

In the movie, McQueen plays Frank Bullitt, a San Francisco police lieutenant charged with protecting a government witness in a mob trial. After his witness gets murdered, Bullitt sets off to find the hit men who did it. He spies their black 1968 R/T Dodge Charger in traffic and trails them in his 1968 “Highland Green” Ford Mustang GT 390 fastback. Once the driver of the Charger spots McQueen, the chase is on!

Moviegoers who are familiar with San Francisco will note that the chase is an implausible one, as it leaps from street to street and neighborhood to neighborhood. The two cars speed up and down San Francisco’s hilly streets and past a number of far-flung landmarks, including Potrero Hill, Russian Hill and the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway. (The movie’s director especially wanted to film on the Golden Gate Bridge, but the city refused to allow it.) The car chase is not interrupted by music or dialogue: All you can hear is the revving and clutching of the engines, whining and squealing tires, and the shots of the assassins’ Winchester rifle.

The chase sequence took three weeks to film. Stunt coordinators used two identical Chargers and two identical Mustangs; the Mustangs, on loan from Ford, had to be modified so they could keep up with the more powerful Dodge cars. (While filming, the Chargers lost six hubcaps in all; careful viewers will note that different ones are missing at different times during the scene.) Steve McQueen, an accomplished driver, did some of his own driving, but he left the riskiest maneuvers to stunt driver and motorcycle racer Bud Ekins. Viewers can tell when McQueen is driving: When the Mustang’s rearview mirror is visible in a shot, McQueen is behind the wheel; when it’s not, Ekins is driving.

In 2001, Ford issued a new Mustang model it called the Bullitt GT. Some 6,500 of the cars were produced.

D. K. Smith

D. K. Smith

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