Bridges at Toko-Ri, The (1955) - full review!
Directed by Mark Robson, with a screenplay by Valentine Davies (Miracle on 34th Street (1947)) that was based on James Michener’s novel, this above average Korean War drama not only features Oscar winning Special Effects, but also earned editor Alma Macrorie her only Academy Award nomination. The cast include solid performances from William Holden, Fredric March, & Mickey Rooney, and a rather weepy one from Grace Kelly (who had just earned her only Best Actress Oscar opposite Holden in The Country Girl (1954)). Robert Strauss, who plays the flight deck flag man nicknamed Beer Barrel, and Earl Holliman (among others) also appear. While reading the opening credits about the Navy's cooperation in the making of this film, I was struck by the fact that these kind of movies aren't, and indeed couldn't be, made any more given the animosity that's been cultivated by Hollywood liberals towards our military and the men who serve our nation by protecting our freedoms each and every day. What a shame! The closing comments made by Rear Admiral George Tarrant (March) should be taken to heart by every present day American, regardless of the media's left-wing bias.
Lieutenant Harry Brubaker (Holden) is a fighter bomber pilot that flew dozens of perilous missions during World War II. He's a little bit put off that he's been called up to serve in Korea given the fact that he had an inactive status. But he serves, nevertheless, because it's his duty. While returning from his most recent mission, Harry's plane runs out of fuel before he can land it on the aircraft carrier, so he has to ditch it in the freezing waters a few miles away. His flight commander Lee (Charles McGraw) stays with him, flying overhead, until helicopter pilot Mike Forney (Rooney) and his assistant Nestor Gamidge (Holliman) can retrieve him. Forney’s an Irishman who wears a great top hat and scarf to signal his presence and amuse his frozen pilot passengers, despite the Admiral's (March) presence & Captain Evans’s (Willis Bouchey) disapproval. Harry, of course, is thrilled to see Mike and Nestor, who jumps in the water to help the pilot grab the copter's lifeline. Later in Tokyo, when the two rescuers get into an extensive brawl over Mike's girl Kimiko (Keiko Awaji) with another serviceman to whom she's become engaged, Harry demonstrates his loyalty by traveling 60 miles one way to bail Mike out of jail, despite the fact that he was enjoying his first night in more than a year with his beautiful wife Nancy (Kelly). She had broken Navy regulations to travel to Tokyo with their two young daughters to see her husband. The Admiral, who had a son like Brubaker that was killed and has taken a special interest in Harry, overlooks the violation.
Nancy has dinner with the Admiral, who had just joined the Brubakers before Nestor came to get her husband. He discusses with her the critical, upcoming mission - taking out the Bridges at Toko-Ri - that Harry must undertake upon their return to Korea. In order to successfully bomb the bridges, the pilots must run a gauntlet of enemy anti-aircraft artillery as they fly through a canyon towards their targets. (The scene is similar to the last action sequences in Star Wars (1977)). The Admiral tells Nancy that she too must face those bridges and, for the first time (when her husband returns), the Brubakers discuss one of Harry's missions. Fortunately, they have a lighthearted moment the next day when Harry, Nancy, and their daughters are bathing nude in the hotel's public bathhouse. Harry had insisted to his modest wife that the baths were reserved exclusively for them and that he had locked the door, but a Japanese couple with two similarly aged daughters join them in an adjacent bath. Despite the language barrier and racial differences, everyone seems to get along grandly. When returning to the carrier, Mike gets in another fight with Kimiko’s fiancé, causing he and Nestor to be transferred to another assignment, picking up stranded pilots behind enemy lines. The sequence which features the destroyer pulling into a position alongside the carrier on the high seas (e.g. to set-up a transfer line) is spectacular.
Back in Korea, Commander Lee and Brubaker first fly a reconnaissance mission to photograph the bridges for the other pilots that will make the bombing run with them. The replay of the tape for the men causes Harry to leave. He writes a letter to Nancy and then goes to the front of the carrier to sweat and think about the mission. Although the special effects of the successful mission aren't up to today's standards, they're still pretty terrific. With fuel left, Lee orders his still full division (twelve?) of fighter bombers to the secondary target, a fuel depot. That mission is also a success except that Brubaker’s plane gets too close to the explosions and is hit, causing his fuel tank to begin venting. Lee flies with him and helps Harry find a place to put his plane down, behind enemy lines, when he can't make it over a ridge before the ocean. Once Harry successful crash lands, he quickly runs and jumps into a ravine for protection from the enemy troops who immediately begin converging on his plane. His fellow pilots fly several strafing runs to slow the advance of the communist soldiers. Naturally, Mike's helicopter is assigned to retrieve Harry. But it too is disabled by enemy fire and Nestor is shot & killed as soon as he exits the copter. Mike, however, makes it to the ravine and joins Harry. Unfortunately, the fighter bomber squadron is running out of fuel and must return to the carrier, and Mike and then Harry are shot by the advancing troops.
In the post mission discussions on the carrier, the Admiral questions Lee about the need to go on to the secondary target, but the Commander defends his position saying it was a good mission, despite the loss of three lives. The Admiral weighs the remarks and decides that Lee is right, that he's due the promotion he'd questioned earlier, and ponders "Where do we get such men?" Indeed!