Breaking Away: The Building Stone Movie

Prompted by Silver Fox and inspired by Geology News, this post focuses on one of my favorite geology movies, Breaking Away.  The film takes place in Bloomington in the late 1970s and centers on four recent high school graduates: Dave, Moocher, Cyril, and Mike.  Ostensibly about the relationship between stone mill workers, or Cutters, and college kids, Breaking Away is filled with the angst and self-doubt sewn into young men who cannot follow their father’s footsteps.  “They’re gonna keep calling us “Cutters.”  To them it’s just a dirty word.  To me it’s just something else I never got a chance to be,” says Mike, the character played by a young Dennis Quaid in Breaking Away. 

With no work in the building stone industry, the guys have nothing better to do than loaf around, complain about the advantages of college kids, and swim in the abandoned quarries.  Those quarries are all in the Salem Limestone, a 330-million-year old rock unit that is the most commonly used building stone in the country.  The Salem formed in a quiet sea, which covered what we now call the Midwest and is most analogous to the Bahamas where limestone is now forming. It is a fossiliferous layer rich in crinoid stems, bryozoans, brachiopods, and forams.

Joe Palooka in Oolitic, Indiana

Out of the great beds of white rock came the stone climbed by King Kong (Empire State Building), bombed by terrorists (The Pentagon), and walked through by hundreds of thousands of immigrants (Ellis Island).  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the stone to use for grand buildings everywhere, as well as for tomb stones, statues, and many other more modest architectural features.  If you are interested in reading more about the Salem, I recommend Scott Sanders’ excellent In Limestone Country

Unfortunately, you cannot get to the quarry where the guys swam in the movie.  It is blocked by a fence and “No Trespassing” signs.  You can, however, see the hole that the Empire State Building came from.  It is near a small cemetery just north of Oolitic, Indiana.  You can also drive through the Salem-rich Indiana University campus in Bloomington, where much of Breaking Away was filmed.

The hole where the Empire State Building was quarried.

Breaking Away is a near perfect movie, at least if you want a good view of a small part of the building stone world.  One extended scene is shot in a limestone mill and features massive cutting tools called gang saws.  When the guys go swimming, you can get a feel for the size of the quarries.  The dialogue between Dave and his father is hysterical.  And Dave, the star, rides a bike, which leads to the final, uplifting moments of the movie, a bike race between our four heroes and the snotty, snooty college boys.  What more could a geology-loving, bike-riding geek want?