When civil engineer Carl Miller (James MacArthur) discovers that the Madison Bridge is on the verge of collapsing, he goes to his superior (Philip Baker Hall!) and explains that the bridge has to be closed down or people could die. Since there wouldn’t be a movie if anyone listened to Carl’s concerns, he’s ignored.
No sooner has Carl been told that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about than the bridge suddenly starts to collapse. With both ends of the bridge collapsing into the river below, a diverse group of people find themselves stranded in the middle. The group is made up of the usual group of disaster movie characters and, of course, one of them is played by Leslie Nielsen. This time, Nielsen is a crooked businessman with a mistress (played by Barbara Rush) and a baby to worry about. Eve Plumb (who was a member of the original Brady Bunch) is a nun. Richard Gilliland is a wounded cop. Gregory Sierra is a landscaper. Perhaps most improbably, clean-cut Desi Arnaz Jr. is a bank robber who keeps losing his temper and pointing a gun at everyone. Carl has to figure out how to get everyone off of the bridge before the entire things collapses. This leads to many shots of chunks of concrete falling off what’s left of the bridge, as if we need to be reminded that it’s dangerous to be on a bridge that’s in the process of very slowly collapsing.
After finding success making movies about fires, overturned ocean liners, volcanoes, cave-ins, and killer bees, I guess it only makes sense that Irwin Allen would finally get around the producing a movie about a collapsing bridge. The Night The Bridge Fell Down was filmed in 1980 but it wasn’t aired until 1983. When it did air, it played opposite the series finale of M*A*S*H, which remains one of the highest rated single episodes of television ever aired. It’s obvious that no one had much faith in a three hour film about a collapsing bridge and it only aired because NBC needed something — anything — to air at a time when they knew no one would be watching.
Because of the lengthy amount of time between the film’s production and it’s airing, The Night The Bridge Fell Down is the type of serious and plodding disaster film that was popular in the 70s but, by the time 1983 rolled around, had been rendered obsolete by the satiric bards of Airplane! Airplane‘s Leslie Nielsen even appears here, giving the type of serious performance that he specialized in before people discovered that he was actually a very funny man. Nielsen doesn’t give a bad performance but everything he says is thoroughly undercut by how difficult it is to take Leslie Nielsen seriously. No matter what Nielsen says, it always seems like he’s on the verge of adding, “And don’t call me Shirley.”
The main problem with The Night The Bridge Fell Down is that it’s a three-hour movie and that’s a long time to spend with a group of thinly characterized people on a bridge. I guess the film does feature an important message about maintaining roads and bridges. Watch it next Infrastructure Week.