In “The Love Bug,” Herbie nearly launches himself off the Golden Gate Bridge. In the James Bond film “A View to a Kill,” Max Zorin attempts to kill Bond by flying him into the span. In “X-Men: The Last Stand,” Magneto lifts the bridge from its anchorages and floats it across the Bay before dropping it at the doorstep of Alcatraz.
The Golden Gate Bridge has served prominently as a setting, character or prop in at least three dozen major motion pictures, and played a more minor role in another 40 or so, said San Francisco historian Jim Van Buskirk. The tradition dates all the way back to 1935 with “Stranded,” a drama featuring footage of the bridge under construction.
Since then, the bridge has evolved into one of the most widely recognized architectural icons in modern cinema. Van Buskirk believes it’s the most-filmed man-made American structure, surpassing the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.
“It’s aesthetically beautiful,” he said. “The design of the bridge, the color, the surroundings, the Bay, the sea, the Marin Headlands, the skyline. It looks good from just about every vantage point.”
Beyond its beauty, the bridge is a potent symbol.
“It’s used to signify America, or the West Coast, or San Francisco as a distinct place unlike any other in the country,” said Van Buskirk, who will make a series of presentations on the subject at San Francisco libraries through June.
But there’s more to it than that. Take a closer look and one treatment emerges as particularly reliable: complete and utter destruction. An earthquake obliterates the bridge in the “10.5”
TV miniseries, robots in “Terminator Salvation,” an octopus in “It Came From Beneath the Sea” and a prehistoric shark in “Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus.”
It’s easy to see why: Destroy one of humanity’s most stalwart, beautiful structures — particularly one built during the Great Depression — and you’ve made a loud statement. The bridge is San Francisco’s Big Ben, Colosseum or Eiffel Tower, and toppling it is cinematic shorthand for knocking humanity down a peg or two.
Tom Kiely is presumably fine with all this, though he’d much prefer people just come see it in person. As executive vice president of tourism for the San Francisco Travel Association, he’s responsible for attracting tourists from around the world to San Francisco. And his No. 1 weapon is the Golden Gate Bridge.
“It has a huge draw for us,” Kiely said. “It’s key to everything we do.” The nonprofit organization’s marketing materials are plastered with images of the bridge from every angle and swathed in a glossy facsimile of international orange paint.
“It is the icon that is synonymous with and symbolic of San Francisco,” he explained. “When people around the world think of San Francisco, the first thing they think of is the bridge.”
San Francisco Travel doesn’t keep statistics on how many visitors the bridge sees every year, but estimates put the figure around 10 million.
The fascination appears to be consistent around the globe and almost always traces back to aesthetics.
“It’s got something very magical about it,” bridge district spokeswoman Mary Currie said. “I crossed the bridge the first time when I was 14, as part of a summer trip, and I remember being just mesmerized. It does draw you in. It’s a beautiful, beautiful bridge.”
The Locati family in Novato understands the appeal. Mike Locati spent 35 years working on the bridge, first as a lane-changer during college, then a tow-truck driver and eventually bridge captain. His wife, Lisa, followed a similar path to succeed him in 2009 as the bridge’s ninth overall and first female captain.
“After I got there, I understood how important the bridge was to the Bay Area and the world,” Mike Locati said. “It used to blow me away when I would see people who came to see the bridge from other parts of the world, and how people had saved up money through all of their lives to come to San Francisco. And one of the reasons was to see the Golden Gate Bridge.”