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The Bridges at Toko-Ri

by on January 4, 2010
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The Korean War has been called “the forgotten war,” and the 1955 film “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” is an early look at the disillusionment of the men who fought it.

As I’ve discovered more war pictures from the 1940s and ’50s, I’ve been struck by how anti-war — and often downright cynical — they can be. Most people consider the Golden Age of cinema an era of unquestioning patriotism when it came to movies about armed conflict. But in point of fact, filmmakers were quite capable of delivering harsh, sobering glimpses of war.

William Holden plays Harry Brubaker, a Navy lieutenant pilot who as the story opens is forced to ditch his jet in the ocean when he runs out of fuel returning from a mission. He nearly dies in the frozen sea, but is saved by the plucky rescue helicopter pilot Mike Forney, memorably played by Mickey Rooney.

We soon learn that — like the Jimmy Stewart character in “Strategic Air Command” — Brubaker was a reservist called back up to active duty, and he’s none too thrilled about it. He had a successful law practice going, a wife (Grace Kelly) and two young daughters. Now he’s risking his neck doing bomb runs over a country most Americans back home couldn’t find on a globe.

Fredric March has a great role as the grizzled old Navy admiral who brutally assesses his men’s grit and abilities while also extending a paternal hand toBrubaker . He sees much of his dead son in the brash young pilot, and even looks the other way when Brubaker’s wife brings his family to Japan to see him, despite regulations to the contrary.

The film is based on a book by James Michener, based on his real experiences with an air command unit in 1951-52. The bridges of Toko-Ri are fictitious, but based on some real key bridges in the North Korean mountains that American air forces badly wanted to destroy.

The flight scenes are thrilling and realistic — the film won an Academy Award for special effects — but director Mark Robson doesn’t romanticize the notion of combat or fetishize all the military gear. It’s simply the backdrop to a great story about warriors that is less concerned with the war in which they find themselves.

There are numerous references to the war being a wasted effort, and something of which the Americans safe at home are barely even cognizant — pretty radical stuff in late 1953 and early 1954, when the film was made.

I rather liked the Mike character, and how Rooney played him. He’s an impish little hot-headed Irishman, who’s an ace behind the yoke of a chopper but hell on wheels on land. He gets thrown in the clink when he learns his Japanese girl fell for another sailor while he was at sea, resulting in a huge brawl. Brubaker bails him out, and Mike eventually makes it back onto the ship, but not before nearly getting thrown in jail twice more.

Mike wears a bright green tophat and scarf while he’s piloting his helicopter, despite the consternation of the captain. Mike is an interesting character, who flourishes in the tightly regimented society of the Navy, despite being a bornhellraiser.

Brubaker becomes unnerved when a second low-fuel scenario nearly ends with him ramming his plane into a huge crane on the landing deck of his “flat top” — aircraft carrier. He starts to lose his nerve as the big Toko-Ri mission approaches. But he does OK in the end.

The film ends with Brubaker and Mike dying in a muddy irrigation ditch in a Korean field. Brubaker completed his mission but took flak damage, and had to crash-land. Mike comes to rescue him but his helicopter is damaged.

“The wrong war in the wrong place, and that’s the one you’re stuck with,” Brubaker intones just before perishing. It’s a grim, unglamorous portrait of war, and one well worth catching.

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