For those of you looking for a realistic depiction of Korean War-era naval aviation look no further than The Bridges of Toko-Ri (1954). The film focuses on a group of pilots preparing for a treacherous strike upon a heavily guarded set of bridges located deep in North Korean territory. With the help of the U.S. Navy, the filmmakers were able to present one of the most accurate and detailed portrayals of carrier life ever put on film.
Writer James Michener served with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater during WWII. After the war, Michener shared his experiences in South Pacific -- first a book, then a Broadway play, both Pulitzer prize winners. South Pacific had a profound impact on American popular culture, spawning what became known as Tiki Culture. A few years later, Michener published his book The Bridges of Toko-Ri. Like South Pacific, the book was informed by first hand experience: Michener served aboard the USS Essex during the Korean War. It's Michener's commitment to detail that gives this movie the authenticity that sets it apart from most other war films.
William Holden stars as Naval Reserve Lietenant Harry Brubaker, pilot of a Grumman F9F Panther. Brubaker's wife and two children are visiting him in Japan as he prepares for a dangerous assault on the strategic bridges at Toko-Ri. The ever-beautiful Grace Kelly co-stars as Brubaker's wife and plays the part expertly. Unfortunately, the film doesn't focus much on her emotions; the film belongs to Brubaker and his inner and outer struggles. A family man at heart and a lawyer back home, Brubaker questions why he is at war and is a far cry from the gung-ho pilots of other military films. It's Brubaker's inner dilemma that is at the crux of the film.
Mickey Rooney offers some welcome comedic relief as the foibled yet heroic helicopter pilot, Mike Forney. The Forney subplot where he is dumped by his Japanese girlfriend is one of the more lighthearted and enjoyable moments in the film. It's in this sequence that we follow Forney and Brubaker to the mesmerizing SHOWBOAT Club. The Showboat was a real club that catered to US Sailors during the post-WWII period. It had an outstanding street presence (pictured below), and the interior had three floors to party on. The house band played on a rotated elevator platform that constantly moved between floors and drinks were served from a miniature rollercoaster-like car that travelled around the three floors and brought the bar service directly to the patrons. It doesn't seem to exist anymore, but if anyone has anymore info about it, please do get in touch.
The films strongest points are it's unfailing dedication to accurately portraying naval life and its spectacular special effects and aviation scenes. The numerous carrier take-offs and landings would be exciting enough for military aviation aficionados But it's the climactic raid on the Bridges at Toko-Ri that steals the show. The raid sequence must've been the most exciting air combat footage ever put on screen at the time of the film's release. The footage has aged very well for the most part and is still thrilling to a modern audience.
The film ends on thoughtfully melancholic note that contemplates the nature of service, heroism and warfare. After the raid, having lost several of his men, Rear Admiral Tarrant closes the film with this these words, "Where do we get such men? They leave this ship and they do their job. Then they must find this speck lost somewhere on the sea. When they find it they have to land on it's pitching deck. Where do we get such men?". To those men who have answered the call of duty of yesterday and today, we salute you.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri, 1954, 103 minutes, Directed by Mark Robson.
All images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
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