RECAP: The Bridges at Toko-Ri
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954): Mark Robson
Thirty-five thousand American soldiers died in the Korean War, but in the long shadow of the Second World War, the men who served on the Korean Peninsula are often overlooked. This was not the case in 1955, the year after the war ended and the year Hollywood released this movie, based on James Michener’s novel. This critically acclaimed film featured a vast use of the US Navy’s resources and access, and showed just how important the soldiers were during that war.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A Navy pilot, sick of war and worried about an upcoming bombing run, still has to do it, despite the protestations of his wife.
Lieutenant Harry Brubaker is a self-described “lawyer from Denver, Colorado.” Played by the hard-faced William Holden, Brubaker begins the movie in the ocean. He’s crashed his fighter jet into the Pacific, and must be rescued. This is a recurring theme in Bridges. Brubaker flies one other time in the movie and he crashes then. Is he actually a good pilot? Rear Admiral George Tarrant seems to think so, and pressures Brubaker into joining the Navy full time. But Harry is a family man at heart. If only he could see his wife and children again. Wait, they’re in Tokyo, where he’s due a five-day leave? Terrific!
Brubaker meets his wife Nancy (Grace Kelly) and their kids in Tokyo. In Japan we see the real Brubaker, sans the “Lt.” He loves his children and wife. Instead of bar-hopping, Brubaker soaks in a Japanese sauna and hot spring with them. He laments to Nancy about the upcoming bombing run at Toko-Ri. He bails out his friend clearly guilty friend from jail. All around, he’s a decent guy. What’s he doing in Korea? “I was asking myself the same question,” he says at the movie’s end.
Brubaker is the avatar of American military futility. Prior to Korea, American wars were about throwing off the shackles of European masters (Revolution, 1812, Spanish), expansion (Mexican, countless wars with native tribes), internal strife (Civil), and saving those former European masters (the World Wars). Korea (and later Vietnam and the War on Terror) were about fighting ideas. How can guns stop an idea? Enemies to the American Way must be found, no matter how loosely connected, and those enemies still have to be killed in the conventional way–by guys like Harry Brubaker.
Brubaker is actually a bad pilot, and the only people who seem to notice are the viewers. Even the Admiral doesn’t realize it. He’s too dewy-eyed over his pet because he resembles the Admiral’s dead son. Brubaker flies twice in the movie, and he crashes each time. Is this the guy you want fighting on the front lines of your war?
The villain in Bridges is the unseen, the spoken-of, the Communist-armed North Korean peasant drafted to contest a struggle between the two driving forces of the twentieth century–Communism and the United States. Someone shoots at the jets as they fly over Korea, but we only see soldiers at the movie’s end. They crawl out from the bushes to shoot at two Yankee pilots who are the only men appearing more out of place than the Koreans.
Maybe a better choice for a villain is “war.” Brubaker never considers not doing his duty as a soldier, but he often questions why he’s doing it. He’s a World War Two veteran, but the Toko-Ri run has him scared. Awake at night next to Grace Kelly scared. When something’s got your mind when you’re beside Grace Kelly, it’s got a hold on you something bad.
Shadowy Koreans and the intangible War are two nefarious parts of this movie, but they are hardly much to terrify. Bridges is more a commentary about the Korean War than the life-and-death fear felt by the protagonists. The movie becomes more interesting for it, but not more frightening.
Very little action takes place in this movie until the final bombing run against the titular bridges. What was a yawner of an action movie until then becomes must-see movie-making.
Brubaker’s fighter group forms over the Pacific. They know, from the previous briefing, that the bridges are heavily guarded. The bombers have a few primary targets and more secondary targets, should they succeed in hitting the primaries. The jets are in a strong formation as they begin to strafe the bridges. Their run takes them through a canyon, narrow and lined with AA guns.
Narrow canyons, AA guns, tighter fighter formation–if this sounds like a certain Run against a certain Death Star, you and George Lucas are of the same mind. He apparently used the bombing run as inspiration for the Luke’s triumphant destruction of the Empire’s grand weapon.
In watching the scene, it’s quite clear that the bombed landscape is a model. Tiny flares jet across the screen, simulating tracer bullets, toward the jets that scream through the canyon. The streaking, chaotic lights practically fill the screen, but they never hit an American plane. The Yanks nail the primary targets, in what must have been the war’s cleanest bombing run. Were it always so easy, why would the damn thing last three years, ?
The US Navy worked closely with the filmmakers to shoot the movie. Two Essex-class carriers stood in as the USS Savo Island. Fighter squadron 192, the Golden Dragons, flew the missions in the film.
Cooperating with the Navy paid huge dividends for the movie. The jets soar (literally and figuratively) on screen during their two fight sequences. Real navy pilots flew real formations and a camera crew filmed the extended scenes. Even today’s CGI couldn’t exceed the actual jets flying around in this film. The fighter scenes in Top Gun, for example, are, while exciting, hard to follow. Jets scream through ten thousand feet of cloudy air, and you only know who is where when the characters say so, or when the missiles start flying.
In Bridges, you have no doubt about where the planes are because they are actually there. I appreciated the verisimilitude.
If you wanted to see two-time Oscar winner Fredric March stare into the distance, have I got the movie for you! March plays Admiral George Tarrant, who partly adopts Brubaker, on account of his resemblance to the admiral’s late son. Thus, when Brubaker is out flying missions and crashing planes, March must stare at the horizon for long spells.
Grace Kelly makes a typically fine turn as Nancy Brubaker. She herds the kids and is a strong support for her husband, but is afforded more latitude than usual for wives in war films.
Mickey Rooney shines as Mike Forney, rescue helicopter pilot. He is the first character in the movie, and it seems he is always putting some CO at the end of his rope. Forney’s copilot, Nestor Gamidge, warns him that the green scarf he wears will get him in trouble. Forney tells him that the scarf is what props up the morale of the downed pilots he rescues.
Forney also has a thing for a Japanese woman named Kimiko. He’s gonna marry her, by God, during their shore leave in Tokyo. There’s just one problem, Kimiko has found another man. Forney gets into a scuffle about her and winds up in jail. He’s a feisty son of gun, but he has heart.
Forney flies into enemy territory to rescue Brubaker yet again. He’s the one who dies in the trench with Brubaker, with a smile on his face. He’s a man who lives for a fight, and the ditch will be his last one.
In a movie with barely any true villains, there are no henchmen. I award one point just for pity’s sake.
The flying stunts came courtesy of the actual US Navy. They put their planes on film, and their pilots are flying them. The filmmakers give them a lot of celluloid. The movie opens on the carrier, where a plane is attempting to land. The camera tracks the wide arc traced by the jet as it circles the carrier. For the beginning of a movie, the shot is too long. But in 1954, audiences might have felt differently, having never seen a fighter jet fly. I will not dock the movie for making this choice.
Brubaker flies the bombing run. He is a soldier, after all. They bomb all the primary targets, and the squad leader elects to pursue the secondary targets. On his way there, Brubaker takes flak. His wingman escorts him toward the ocean, where friendly carriers await, but he is unable to glide that far.
Brubaker crashes his jet in the suspiciously California-like Korean landscape. He flees to a ditch for cover as his wingmen strafe the approaching North Korean soldiers. But the jets soon scrape the bottom of their fuel reserves and must return to the carriers. Never fear, here comes Mike Forney to save Brubaker.
Forney’s helicopter is painfully slow. These are real pilots flying real aircraft, so I suspect that the agony I felt waiting for the copter to land was similar in type (but not scale) to what real pilots felt after they crashed in enemy territory but only a few miles from salvation.
Forney’s co-pilot, Nestor, is killed almost immediately, but Forney survives and joins Brubaker in the ditch. They are barely armed. The enemy closes on all sides. Brubaker laments getting stuck in the situation. “I’m a lawyer from Denver, Colorado,” he says as he faces his death. Shortly after that, Brubaker and Forney are shot to death.
If you saw the movie, I don’t think I have to tell you how shocked you were when the hero and Mickey Rooney were killed. I can count on my hand the number of movies in which the protagonist dies, and I’m still thinking of a second movie. I applaud any filmmaker bold enough to kill their heroes, so applause to y’all. This movie deserves recognition for its ending.
Shamefully, or perhaps thankfully, a movie featuring Mickey Rooney did not let him tell a bunch of jokes. Which adverb you like to use from the above sentence depends on how you feel about Rooney. Rooney’s character was a kind of joke by himself, but still one with heart.
Since the Navy cooperated on the film, many carrier takeoffs and landings were shot. I loved these scenes. I felt like they were shot for an audience that had never seen a carrier in action before, and certainly not in color, and certainly not with jets instead of propeller planes. As the carrier docks in Tokyo, we see the propeller planes using their propellers to help steer the ship. I didn’t know captains did this, but I really enjoyed watching it. Sure, the movie is practically a recruitment film for the Navy, but it’s still damn cool to watch.
Most war movies double as propaganda, apologia, revisionist, or escapist. Bridges finds another way: despair. Harry Brubaker is a lawyer and a bad pilot. Yet he finds himself flying a crucial mission in North Korea. He succeeds, but it shot down after the mission objectives are fulfilled. The rescue party comes. It’s destroyed. The hero AND his rescuer are killed. Bam. “War is hell” is the cliche. “War is stupid” works better. At least that’s what the movie is trying to say.
I give much credit to the movie for not heaping sacks of epithets onto the vanquished Japanese people only ten years after fighting a war with them. Same goes for leaving the Koreans only a year after fighting them.
- (3) The movie earns the standard war film bonus.
- Mickey Rooney can easily go over the top, difficult for someone about four feet tall. However, he managed to avoid the feat in this outing. Thank God.
Summary (37/68): 54%
The Bridges at Toko-Ri took a long time get moving. This movie broke many molds in war films: the hero’s death chief among them. We also saw an extended shore leave, occupying the middle third, during which Brubaker nearly backs out of the war. These soldiers are on active duty, but they spend most of their time fighting each other, chasing girls, and generally questioning the war’s pointlessness and wastefulness. One character complains to his admiral about the captain’s usage of plane fuel. He goes over his commander’s head, then immediately backs off. What kind of guys are fighting this war?
The movie never questions the bravery of the soldiers, only their efficacy and necessity. Most of these men had just finished fighting a global, titanic struggle with and against the most powerful forces to ever walk the earth. Hitler, Rommel, Patton, Montgomery, Stalin, Tojo–these men grew into myths as they fought. Five years later, the Americans fighting with and against these titans of war are confined to a border skirmish in Korea, in which the real backers–China and the USSR–won’t come out to play. The Korean War was the morning after the rager that was WWII.
More people should watch this movie for its message, which shies away from “war is bad,” which would be too easy a point to make. Instead, the filmmakers strive to say that war is tragic, unrelenting, and confusing. Despite my middling rating, I think you should give this movie a shot.