The most glamorous movie about the Korean War experience lauds the bravery of Navy aviators while spelling out the downside of fighting an unpopular war. William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March and Mickey Rooney turn in sharp performances, and Charles McGraw gets his best character part as a no-nonsense flight commander. Paramount’s special effects department outdid themselves on this one — the illusions are beautifully matched to the live-action filmmaking. Heaven help the good civilian soldier that finds himself asking how he ended up getting shot at in a ditch in some far-off foreign country.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri
Viavision [Imprint] 30
1954 / Color / Open Matte flat 1:37 (should be 1:85 widescreen) / 102 min. / Street Date February 24, 2021 / Available from Viavision / 34.95
Starring: William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, Mickey Rooney, Robert Strauss, Charles McGraw, Keiko Awaji, Earl Holliman, Richard Shannon, Willis Bouchey, Teru Shimada, Dennis Weaver, Corey Allen, Gene Reynolds, Roger Pace.
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs
Visual Effects: John P. Fulton, W. Wallace Kelley, Paul K. Lerpae
Film Editor: Alma Macrorie
Original Music: Lyn Murray
Written by Valentine Davies from the novella by James A. Michener
Produced by William Perlberg, George Seaton
Directed by Mark Robson
Hollywood was keen to embrace James Michener’s various best sellers about the South Pacific, some of which were written while on Navy duty in WW2. Big movies resulted, among them the musical adaptation South Pacific, the bittersweet Return to Paradise in Technicolor and the somewhat sad epic Hawaii. All addressed Michener’s recurring themes — race prejudice and the obliteration of Pacific cultures.
Former editor Mark Robson got his big career boost from producer Val Lewton. Robson had a checkered directing career but his first independent film away from RKO was a commercial home run, Champion with Kirk Douglas. Robson had just directed and co-produced Return to Paradise, a show that really deserves a serious remaster — an unseen version reportedly exists that is twelve minutes longer. John Milius said he was greatly influenced by the drama, which stars Gary Cooper and Barry Jones.
We’re impressed that the mostly downbeat The Bridges at Toko-Ri could be made at all. Even as it lauds the professionalism and bravery of Navy aviators its overall tone is dispiriting. The bleak ending is almost unheard of in a film with major Pentagon cooperation, based on recent military events. Michener’s slight original book sticks closely to the personal experience of a fictionalized pilot flying carrier-based attack missions over Korea late in 1952. That personal through-line was emotionally devastating in 1955 and is still affecting now.
The U.S. Navy cooperated as if Toko-Ri were a major recruitment booster. The Pacific Fleet provided full access to an aircraft carrier in operation. Star William Holden reportedly learned to taxi a jet plane on the flight deck, a claim difficult to take at face value … yet it doesn’t seem to be publicity baloney.
Navy aviator Lt. Harry Brubaker (Holden) runs out of fuel returning to his carrier and must ditch in the frigid Yellow Sea. The helicopter team of Mike Forney and Nestor Gamidge (Mickey Rooney & Earl Holliman) rescues Brubaker from the water. Harry is a reserve officer pulled back to active duty, and Admiral Tarrant (Fredric March) would like to see him renew his commission. But Harry has already done ‘his part’ in WW2 and resents the interruption of his civilian law career. Tarrant appears to see Brubaker as a replacement for the sons he lost in WWII. He is estranged from his wife and daughter-in-law, who both suffered psychological damage. Harry’s wife Nancy (Grace Kelly) and their young daughters are waiting to share his two days’ leave in Japan. But when Mike Forney is arrested for fighting over a Japanese woman, Emiko (Keiko Awaji of Kurosawa’s Stray Dog) Brubaker runs to bail him out of the brig. Nancy is concerned, but Harry won’t discuss the more dangerous details of his work.
Back on the carrier, Flight Commander Wayne Lee (Charles McGraw) tells Brubaker more about an upcoming bombing raid on the Toko-Ri bridges. His ‘good luck charms’ Forney and Gamidge are transferred off the ship. Harry’s dread for mission grows when he again narrowly escapes disaster in an emergency landing. A photo mission over the bridges shows a formidable anti-aircraft defense. Commander Lee notes Harry’s conflict and reminds him that he can opt out of flying the mission. But Harry doesn’t feel that he has a choice.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri was a shock to the system for us ’50s kids that saw it on TV in the early 1960s. Most of our war movie experience was with morale builders where John Wayne prevailed over the Japanese. Things usually turned out well, at least for the heroes. More importantly, even realistic accounts like Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High and William Wellman’s Battleground never doubted the absolute rightness of the fight. Korea was a different story. Some of the movies supporting it proposed radical military strategies, like Howard Hughes’ One Minute to Zero. Ross Hunter’s Battle Hymn (soon to be reviewed here) was a weird mix of ‘kind and gentle’ warfare supporting a strained religious message. Toko-Ri pretty much plays the war straight and honest, as a job that just has to be done. Michener’s pilot holds his professional life in reserve, and doesn’t share his doubts and fears with his sheltered family.
Toko-Ri is written and produced with great sensitivity. It neatly balances personal issues with high-powered air-war spectacle. Grace Kelly is on screen for fewer than twenty minutes. Glamorous Nancy Brubaker may have been a bobby sox teenager when Harry was flying in WWII. She is acceptable as a Navy reserve officer’s wife, not fully aware that Harry is flying very hazardous missions. The scene in the Japanese bath house is certainly unusual for a Hollywood movie of the time — Nancy’s near-panicked reaction is believable. The cultural tension is interesting — bathing naked is one thing, but it’s also with a former enemy. The Yankee-Japanese interplay is friendly, but kept to a minimum.
The drama on board ship is excellent even if Fredric March’s Admiral Tarrant seems too psychologically damaged for command. Having lost his family life to war tragedy and Navy realities, Tarrant’s singular interest in Harry Brubaker doesn’t seem healthy. But Harry’s his own man. He’s serving on principle, as a matter of duty and personal integrity … and Tarrant’s patriotic arguments don’t induce him to change careers. Charles McGraw’s Commander Lee is a professional ‘thirty year man’ committed to Navy flying. He’s not some cigar-chewing, Commie-hating Sam Fuller invention, just a capable man doing a tough job as best he can.
Harry Brubaker is no Rambo. He’s an ace fighter pilot with little experience with ordinary firearms. Dunked in the ice-cold ocean in that heavy flight suit, he’s completely helpless. He considers his rescuer Mike Forney a good luck charm, and Forney’s emerald green scarf and hat reinforce the good luck angle. The show expresses the ‘I’ve got your back’ commitment of the armed forces: when a comrade is in trouble and needs help, one doesn’t make excuses.
One member of the flight deck team is near-untouchable: aviation specialist Beer Barrel (Robert Strauss) directs the crucial deck landing maneuvers with his signal flags. Beer Barrel is essential — if he were caught with his golf bags full of beer, he might not suffer harsh discipline. The show also acknowledges that sailors like Mike Forney get involved with Japanese good-time girls. We don’t need a depressing exposé like Shohei Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships to understand what that’s all about. A garish nightclub caters to shore-leave Romeos, and the many local women greeting the ship can’t all be ‘steady girlfriends.’
Those in the know can point out technical inaccuracies. Most of the public address commands heard on the deck are inauthentic, simplified exposition for the benefit of the audience. The candid radio chatter exchanged in flight is bogus for a second reason — the North Koreans and Chinese would be listening to every word spoken. Tarrant says this particular harbor can’t use tugboats, a line that’s contradicted when we see tugs docking the carrier — but that detail supports an important scene with Charles McGraw’s Commander Lee.
We’re even told that the specific jet aircraft flying the bombing raid are inappropriate — they don’t carry large bombs. The attack sequence is in every other way impressive. Audiences in 1955 felt they were watching ‘the real thing.’ They were accustomed to wartime aviation films, in which a single bomb might sink a battleship, followed by a pilot shouting a snide remark: “Sayonara, sucker!”
Let’s digress with the special effects!
Paramount’s effects department fully deserved its Oscar for Toko-Ri, although the award went to the studio, not the effects experts themselves. One impressive shot shows Brubaker’s plane making a short-deck landing and almost hitting a heavy vehicle used as a barrier. It’s a John Fulton special: the entire plane is a model optically matted into the shot. Another shot always impresses me even more: the first sight of the tiny bridges is a high-altitude viewpoint advancing over a pointy mountain top. Even on Blu-ray we must look twice to realize that the whole thing is a matte painting trick, like something in a Powell-Pressburger film. It’s a multi-plane animation move with the mountains painted on different sheets of glass. The quality of the painting is just sensationally good. If you doubt this, look at the trailer encoded on Viavision’s disc. An alternate take is used, and the camera move betrays a tiny, telltale wiggle.
The studio certainly didn’t go cheap on the special-effects raid. To represent the canyon with the target bridges, a vast ‘miniature’ landscape was constructed outdoors. Everything in the aerial sequences match — the miniature landscape is photographically identical to the actual aerial photography, filmed with jets from the San Diego Naval Air Base. Over the giant landscape miniature large models of jets ‘fly’ on wires, exactly as A.D. Flowers and Logan Frazee did for the airplanes in 1941. Hiding the wires is a tough job that involves trial and error. I was told that one technique to reduce the ‘shine’ was to etch the wires with acid. That roughed up the shiny surface but also made the wires more prone to snapping. They become detectable in only one or two angles.
Filming in slow motion smoothed the action and added scale to the pyrotechnics. The plane models zoomed down the wires very quickly while the pyro technicians set off the squibs and miniature rockets (roman candle- like fireworks) to represent the anti-aircraft defenses. The bridges had to be rigged to blow up as well. To get the pilot POVs, a 35mm camera was ‘flown’ down the same path, perhaps suspended below stronger cables. Other down-views blur past the exploding bridges. In ‘54 the salient precedent for this raid sequence was the equally breathtaking bomb run scene in MGM’s Thirty Seconds over Tokyo. Many audience members believed they were seeing ‘the real thing.’
Both raid sequences succeed by adhering to an important design idea: the angles we see are restricted to what might be captured in a real raid, if there were cameras in chase planes or watching from stationary viewpoints around the bridges. Forty years later, CGI enabled spectacular action to be tracked from ‘digital cameras’ that could be anywhere and do anything. Thus we got a Pearl Harbor battle that looks like a video game, and a Saturn moon launch seen from a camera that dances around the rocket like Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell. By sticking to credible camera views, the Toko-Ri raid almost fools the eye.
Another beauty of these shots is that they are first-generation camera work … with no duping of film in an optical printer. They were probably running six cameras on every take, and all could be seen the next morning in dailies. The full effects team likely attended dailies, pooling ideas for improvements. When one of those spectacular runs became a ‘keeper’ it was likely a time to serve drinks. Showcase sequences of this kind became a great source of pride for the (usually un-billed) effects cameramen.
Other isolated miniature shots are the best of their kind as well. Brubaker must ditch his plane twice, once in the sea and once in a dry ravine. Yes, we see flashes of the wires pulling the jet models, but the crashes look great — the aluminum wings warp and buckle with each bounce, as might those of a real jet. When the editor cuts directly from the model to a medium shot of William Holden in the cockpit, the match is excellent.
The bad news for Brubaker comes with a dull ‘clunk’ heard as a piece of flak hits his jet’s fuselage. From that point forward Harry is just plain out of luck, the one guy in a hundred who gets the raw deal: “What am I doing in a ditch in Korea?” Harry takes time to verbally reflect on his situation, which I suppose helps keep popcorn-munchers with the program. Some momentary rah-rah vengeance is afforded when the particular Koreans that shoot at our downed pilots are chopped into hamburger by ground support propeller aircraft. Their deaths are not given a human value equal to that of our beloved Navy flier.
On an uneventful mission Harry Brubaker would drop his bombs, finesse a smart landing on the carrier and enjoy a steak dinner. This time he must make a desperate stand in the mud, like an ordinary soldier. Every combat aviator knows how badly things can go. If Harry avoids burning up in a crash, he might still get poked full of holes by peasants uninterested in his reasons for dropping bombs on their country.
The inter-cutting of authentic naval footage, Japanese location scenes with doubles and process work back in Hollywood is extremely good. For the film’s most dramatic transition, former editor George Seaton employs what was considered a ‘classy’ cinematic device at Paramount in the early 1950s. When our view returns from the muddy ditch to the aircraft carrier at sea, Seaton uses a very long dissolve, straight from the stylistic playbook of George Stevens.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri is a thoughtful film but yet still a product of its time. It ends as does the short novel, with Admiral Tennant asking ‘Where do we get such men?’ The question doesn’t seem to be ‘why did this guy have to buy the farm,’ and it’s certainly not ‘what am I going to tell his wife?’ When Tarrant’s boys made the supreme sacrifice he didn’t rearrange his own career to tend to his wife. Even now, few military-themed movies do more than give dependent survivors a flag and send them on their way. Tarrant’s vaguely self-serving question ‘Where do we get such men?’ begs for an answer. Not that Robert Altman’s Korean war comedy M*A*S*H has a higher moral purpose, but its sincere Father Mulcahy’s comeback hits it right on the nose: “He was Drafted.”
William Holden is in top form in this first of his two ‘Bridge’ war movies, the second of which would make him a very rich man. Holden brings everything Brubaker needs: integrity, frustration, vulnerability. Grace Kelly comes off as perfection, as usual. It’s not really fair that Nancy Brubaker should be chastened for sniping at Harry’s errand to spring Mike Forney from jail — many military wives are kept ignorant of everything. Fredric March looks the part of a poised but weary Admiral; Tarrant gives us confidence in the Navy’s resolve, but not in the war’s aims. Coming across extremely well in a handful of scenes is Charles McGraw’s Commander Lee, the conscientious professional. McGraw’s scenes with Holden and March are just excellent — they directly confront combat leadership issues, where decisions cost men’s lives.
The second surprise standout in the cast is Mickey Rooney, who at this point in his post-MGM career was spinning his wheels in films and TV projects that didn’t always reflect his talent. Rooney’s Mike Forney is an eccentric hothead, not Andy Hardy in a green top hat. The fact that the tough little copter pilot is the one stuck in the ditch with Brubaker doubles our anxiety. Earl Holliman is fine as well, as the rescue frogman emotionally attached to Forney.
Back in that clothing-optional bath in the Japanese hotel, should Harry Brubaker have been suspicious of the Japanese father that joins them? The un-billed Teru Shimada is best known as Mister Osato, the duplicitous Spectre agent in You Only Live Twice. Shimada is in dozens of Hollywood films; he followed Sessue Hayakawa to Hollywood just as sound came in. He spent the war interned in a relocation camp.
Viavision [Imprint]’s Blu-ray of The Bridges at Toko-Ri is a very good encoding of this exciting, high-quality ‘different’ contemplation of the raw realities of Cold War combat. It’s a quantum improvement on the old Paramount DVD from 2001. The image looks good all around, with excellent color. The matching of live action and miniatures, open ocean and studio tank, live action and rear-projections, is excellent.
The big question mark is the aspect ratio — Viavision gives us an open-matte encoding. The film was shot in 1954, months after all Paramount productions had shifted to a 1.85:1 widescreen shape. Toko-Ri’s titles and credits text are grouped to fit a widescreen frame, and the open matte leaves head and foot room throughout. Not cropping the effects scenes lets us see ‘more’ action. But on a modern widescreen TV we miss the correct framing. Proper matting would have improved the traveling matte of Brubaker’s jet almost hitting the tow vehicle — in open matte we can see that the nose wheel isn’t attached to the deck.
Normally I’d squawk louder but the show still looks good in this (theatrically) incorrect screen shape. I sympathize with the naysayers, who like me, have seen Toko-Ri only on TV broadcasts, non-widescreen.
Viavision [Imprint] gives Toko-Ri two very good special features. Kat Ellinger supplies a 30-minute examination/appreciation of the career of Grace Kelly, using newsreel shots and film clips from Kelly’s Paramount pictures. Ellinger does the famous actress justice, impressing us with the endorsements of co-workers and crew people: Kelly is variously described as ‘down to Earth,’ serious and hardworking, gracious and unpretentious.
Film history authority Alan K. Rode is an especially good choice to comment on this particular movie. In addition to divulging reams of interesting facts about the production and the stars, Rode brings his own experience as an officer in the U.S.N.. He has a high time pointing out situations and bits of business that diverge from shipboard protocols as he remembers them. We get just as much time with discussions of actor idiosyncrasies and production details. That landscape miniature for the bridges was a full two hundred feet long. William Holden insisted that the film stick with the book’s downbeat ending: his brother was a flier killed in WWII.
Alan also brings up the Star Wars connection — George Lucas used cutting patterns from this movie and the English The Dam Busters to give his X-Wing attack on the Death star a classic war-movie feel. I recognize as similar three cuts of Navy fighters diving at about a 45 degree angle — two or three X-Wing shots in the Star Wars sequence do the exact same thing.
Rode points out the absurdity of a scene in a crowded hotel lobby where Admiral Tarrant yaks about the important Toko-Ri mission with the wife of one of his officers. Did North Korean spies overhear and rush extra armaments to Toko-Ri? Harry & Nancy’s subsequent bedtime discussion of the ‘secret’ mission surely inspired Zucker, Zucker and Abrahams’ parody of Toko-Ri in their manic 1980 spoof Airplane! Robert Hays’ anxious flier rattles off the full plan for the attack on ‘Macho Grande’ — and then won’t relate some innocuous detail, because it’s all top secret! The joke of course also references movies that simplify war stories by concentrating on a single concrete goal — like blowing up a bridge. The Do Long bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now pegs the same war movie convention, reducing the goal of holding a bridge to a Lewis Carroll-like absurdity.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Bridges at Toko-Ri
Video: Very Good but the Wrong Aspect Ratio
Supplements: New audio commentary with Alan K. Rode; new video essay on Grace Kelly by Kat Ellinger, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: March 9, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson