Yesterday at the Detroit Auto Show, Ford Motor Company made news in both the auto and film press when it announced the 2019 Mustang Bullitt, a new take on the 1968 Mustang Fastback that plays as much of a starring role in the movie Bullitt as Steven McQueen. Here’s the description of the car, via USA Today:
The special model, due out this summer, will be available only in Shadow Black or Dark Highland Green. It has a 5-liter V-8 engine that packs at least 475 horsepower and tops out at 163 miles per hour – an 8 mph increase over the latest Mustang GT.
I want to go to there. I was raised a Chevy Guy, but the Mustang is the one Ford make deemed acceptable to cross religious affiliation lines for.
The news – including the fact that the release of the new model is timed for the 50th anniversary of the film – is enough of an excuse to spend some time looking back at Bullitt’s marketing, especially with an eye on how big a role the car played in that campaign.
McQueen stars as San Francisco police officer Frank Bullitt, who’s charged with protecting Johnny Ross, an underworld figure who’s agreed to testify against his former associates. While executing that duty he quickly begins to feel as if he’s being set up and that no one, even his captain, is telling him the whole story. Not only that, he suspects even members of the force don’t want Ross to live through the weekend. So he takes matters into his own hands and works to track down who’s pulling what strings and why.
The theatrical poster is a great example of pop-art late ’60’s design work as well as a representation of what was going on in the culture at the time. The main image is a photo of McQueen as Bullitt, pointing a gun at someone off-screen. The design is divided up into smaller segments, with that main photo taking up the top half and bleeding over transparently into the rest of the segments, which each show scenes from the film. There’s a car hopping the curb and seeming to go after a pedestrian, another of Bullitt holding someone at gunpoint and one him in a moment of passion with girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset). McQueen gets top-billing, just above copy reading “The word ‘cop’ isn’t written all over him – something more puzzling is.”
The audience is being told that they’re about to watch the story of a rogue antihero, someone who’s going to skirt the line between “cop” and “vigilante,” a character who’s going to do what’s right, even if he has to break the rules to do so. That was a pretty popular message at the time among a lot of films, most of which portrayed an Angry White Guy who has to go outside the system or who refuses to play within society’s guidelines. The whole design is meant to appeal to a culture that was filled with bright colors and Warhol-esque interpretations and expressions and so fits in very well on a number of fronts.
We see that ’68 Mustang as soon as the trailer begins, catching Bullitt in the middle of a fast-paced chase through the climbing and winding streets of San Francisco. Who he’s chasing is unclear but we’re soon told by the narrator how Bullitt is a different kind of cop who’s a headache for his superiors. That’s followed by him being dressed down by those superiors for causing all kinds of trouble and mayhem, consequences he couldn’t care less about. But Cathy is concerned about the toll all the violence he sees is taking on his soul. There’s more of the Mustang in another short chase sequence before the violence starts, with Bullitt being the only one who can make sense of it all. It ends with yet another pursuit where the car takes more than a little abuse.
As with the poster, the presentation to the audience is of an Angry White Guy being the only hope society has to cut through the corruption and bureaucracy to actually work for justice. McQueen is great as the stoic Bullitt while Robert Vaughn plays the mysterious influential individual who may be helping but might be the evil force behind all the chaos. It’s such a great example of counterculture “don’t trust The Man” thinking being sold to an audience that was already questioning authority on many levels and was disillusioned in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations but hadn’t even gotten to systemic issues like The Pentagon Papers or Watergate yet.
Coming back to what got me started in the first place, you can see the ‘68 Mustang Bullitt drives in the movie really was a selling point, particularly in the trailer. McQueen was a known race car enthusiast and accomplished driver in his own right, so putting him behind the wheel like this played right into his public persona. That trailer only hints at the epic, 10+ minute car chase that is the centerpiece of the film and which helped earn the movie a place in cinema history.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.