July 27, 2013

Movie Review: The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)

Where do we get such men? - Rear Adm. George Tarrant (Fredric March)

Director: Mark Robson

Writers: Valentine Davies, James Michener (novel)

Producer: William Perlberg, George Seaton

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Major Stars: William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, Mickey Rooney

Note: There are SPOILERS in this review. 53 years is long enough to have seen it already. But in case you haven’t, you may want to skip this until you do.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri is often held up as an example of either a pro-military movie or an anti-war movie. I’ve seen more than one argument about this. What these people don’t understand is that Toko-Ri is both. The skill and emotion with which it advances both these viewpoints is why Toko-Ri is on this list.

William Holden plays Lt. Harry Brubaker. A lawyer from Denver with a wife and kids, he’s a WW2 vet dragged back into service flying Navy fighters during the Korean War. After he crashes in the ocean and nearly dies, he’s questions the fairness of being pulled away from all he holds dear to fight in this war. But in the end he does his duty, flying a near-suicidal mission to take out the bridges at Toko-Ri. And it ends up being his final mission.

Fredric March plays Rear Admiral George Tarrant, Brubaker’s commanding officer. Grace Kelly plays Brubaker’s wife, Nancy. And Mickey Rooney plays Mike Forney, Brubaker’s friend who has the unenviable job of flying the rescue helicopter. All these roles were played beautifully. March conveys the steel a commanding officer must have when ordering men to their likely deaths, and the pain they feel in doing it. Kelly is heartbreaking, wanting to hold Harry back from the dangers of war. And Rooney is equal parts grave and comical, which must be the mindset a rescue pilot carries to stay sane when every rescue attempt could be your last.

But the film is about Brubaker, and Holden knocks it out of the park. After his first crash into the ocean, he is so livid that he has to go through this again. He did his part in World War 2. He has a wife and kids. Why does he have to risk his life again instead of some other guy? Hasn’t he done enough?

But in the end, he shoulders the responsibility. Because not everyone can or will do what Brubaker does; put their life in jeopardy for their country. That warrior ethos was one of the reasons the US Navy contributed so heavily to the making of this film. The scenes on the aircraft carriers were shot on real aircraft carries. Those are real, active-duty F9F-2 Panthers that you see in the film. No other film has had this level of cooperation, which is why Toko-Ri won the Best Special Effects Oscar in 1956.

Realistic Demand:
William Holden agreed to play the role of Lt. Brubaker on the condition they kept the ending of the book, where Brubaker died, instead of a “happy” ending.

So in that aspect, this is a very “pro-military” movie. But the film ends with our hero alone and dead in a muddy North Korean ditch. And you cannot help but take away an anti-war message from that.

Brubaker is asked to fly a mission of questionable value because it might turn the tide of the war. When he is shot down, he tries to hold on for a rescue. As the North Koreans swarm in, Marine Skyraiders pound them from the sky while Forney flies in the rescue chopper. But then its shot full of holes, so Forney and his assistant are stuck with Brubaker. The Skyraiders have to return to base. And the three men are left to die.

“Where do we get such men?” the admiral asks. Where do we get such men who are willing to sacrifice all they have in service to their country? And how much more tragic is it when they are lost to us in war, never to come home again?

There is a scene before Brubaker goes back to war where he gets some R&R with his family in Tokyo. The love they all have for each other is so obvious that you can’t help to flash to that at the end of the film and mourn that loss. It makes an already painful death even more so. Because we are reminded that there are casualties of war back home that we don’t see.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri balances respect for the soldiers and scorn for the wastefulness of war in a way few films do. It shows that one can recognize war for the awful waste of life that it is and still honor the men (and women) who sacrifice everything they have to fight in it. It’s a remarkable film, and I urge you to see it.


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