The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)    2 Stars

“The screen’s explosively real drama of love and war!”

The Bridges at Toko-ri (1954)

Director: Mark Robson

Cast: William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March

Synopsis: A Navy fighter pilot must come to terms with with his own ambivalence towards the war and the fear of having to bomb a set of highly defended bridges during the Korean War.




This Review contains spoilers from the outset.

Often, in an older movie based on real events, the facts are altered to such a degree that the truth is virtually obliterated by a Hollywood movie machine that refused to believe people would pay to see a movie in which the heroes die. But the Bridges at Toko-Ri must be the only movie based on real events which depicts the death of characters whose real-life counterparts actually survived the event depicted. The reason for this is that when James Michener wrote the novel about the men who took part in the bombing of the strategically crucial eponymous bridges, two of the men were missing, presumed dead. Later, after the publication of the book and the release of this movie, these men were located in a North Korean prisoner of war camp and returned home. However, the movie is undoubtedly stronger the way it stands, and provides an affectingly poignant testimony to the ordinary men who fight our wars for us.

William Holden plays Lt Harry Brubaker, a lawyer turned Navy fighter pilot who provides his services only reluctantly after being called back into service with the outbreak of the Korean war. He’s something of a surrogate son to Rear Admiral George Tarrant (Fredric March), who lost his own son in WWII, and a hero to helicopter rescue pilot and navigator Mike Forney (Mickey Rooney) and Nestor Gamidge (Earl Holliman). The movie begins with Forney and Gamidge plucking Brubaker out of the sea after he’s forced to land his jet in the water. Right off we can see that Forney is a ‘character’ by the forthright manner in which he talks to superior officers and the fact that he wears a bright green top hat and scarf when flying, which make him look like an airborne leprechaun. He also has a habit of getting into fights on shore leave — in fact he’s like a pint-size Godzilla in Tokyo, taking on all comers when his Japanese girlfriend dumps him for a sailor from another ship.

Forney’s antics get him locked up in a military jail in Tokyo, and Gamidge pleads with Brubaker to travel the 60 miles to help get him out. Brubaker is understandably reluctant to because he’s just been re-united with his wife, Nancy (Grace Kelly) and children, but he feels obliged to because of the way Forney and Gamidge rescued him earlier that day. So he travels to Tokyo and duly talks Forney’s jailor into releasing him after paying out $80 in damages. Back home, he has a heart to heart with Nancy about the forthcoming mission Tarrant told him about earlier. It’s a highly dangerous one, in which the flight of the bombing planes will be confined to a narrow channel between two mountains, which will make them prominent targets for the Koreans. At this point in the movie, there’s little to distinguish it from any number of similar war movies released in the 1950s. The usual conflicts have been set in place, the strong bonds between comrades and friends established, all we need now is for one of the men to start losing his nerve for all boxes to have been ticked.

Sure enough, it’s not long before Brubaker starts getting the jitters after undertaking a torrid reconnaissance mission over the bridges. Although his sudden attack of nerves never really convinces, it’s handled in a nicely understated way by director Mark Robson. We’re spared the melodramatic devices, such as trembling hands, sweaty faces, or prolonged bouts with the bottle. Instead, the camera shows us the tension on Brubaker’s face in the rotating shadow of one of the spools of the projector showing footage from his mission. We also see a shortness of temper at the noise intruding in his cabin and his futile attempts to express his feelings in a letter to his wife.

The mission itself is superbly filmed, often from above the approaching planes as fire from below explodes all around them. By now, Brubaker has overcome his jitters, which were as much about his doubts about the morality of a war which many Americans felt was an unnecessary one (a theme which makes it as relevant today as it was back then, and which will probably always be topical to some degree) and the futility of losing lives for a nation’s morally questionable motives. This futility is emphasised by the downbeat ending in which all three lead male characters lose their lives, not while performing any feats of heroism, but merely trying to stay alive long enough to be rescued. Credit has to be given to William Holden, who gives one of his better performances here, for insisting that the novel’s ending had to be maintained if he agreed to play the role of Brubaker. The Bridges at Toko-Ri begins slowly, and takes some little time to establish its intentions, but it builds to a very cool and thought-provoking conclusion.

(Reviewed 22nd October 2013)

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