In the history of cinema, some scenes are so iconic they leave cultural imprints for multiple generations of viewers. The climactic car chase in “Bullitt” is one such scene. This exciting automotive duel is one of the most celebrated cinematic action scenes of all time.
Personifying quiet grit and determination, McQueen’s Bullitt character is a testament to the enduring strength of the tall, silent protagonist. It was Steve McQueen’s cool, collected performance that made “Bullitt” a hit in 1968. At the same time, it is easy to see why critics have long referred to Lieutenant Bullitt’s green Mustang as the main co-star of the film.
In the film, the famous chase scene has a simple but effective setup. Lieutenant Bullitt is a plainclothes California police officer who has just seen a star witness brutally assassinated. After spotting the killers by chance on the city streets, Bullitt is bent on exacting justice. Over seven minutes of classic cinema, Bullitt and his 1968 Ford Mustang chase the assassins with exhilarating flair and panache. Closely following the bad guys’ Dodge Charger, the Mustang GT deftly weaves in and out of traffic while hounding Bullitt’s quarry into a gut-wrenching finale. From the standpoint of today, it is refreshing to see exciting stunts performed by live human beings. Instead of using computerized animation, “Bullitt” uses the raw talents of Hollywood professionals to create a pristine cinematic world.
To create this classic automotive vignette, filmmakers employed two matching Mustangs and a pair of Chargers. Additionally, all cars were mechanically revamped to improve onscreen performance. Engineer Max Balchowsky was one of the talents involved in shooting this classic chase scene. Balchowsky was the go-to professional in charge of maintaining and developing the cars used. The engineer’s projects included installing racing cams on all cars and bulking up suspensions. Stronger suspensions could better handle the rigors of the taxing stunt shoot.
Today, the 1968 Mustang GT-390 represents a mythic time of big cars and big ideas. Although Ford continues to develop its Mustang line, they may never release a more iconic Mustang than the car made famous by Steve McQueen. In his private life, McQueen was an avid race car driver and had fond feelings for the Ford Mustang and the Dodge Charger. Popular at the time, both of these muscle cars have aged well through the years. Watching the classic cars in “Bullitt” is like taking a time machine back to an era of excitement and potential.
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