THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI (Mark Robson, 1955)
U.S. Navy reservist Lt. Harry Brubaker (William Holden) is summoned to active duty for a key mission during the Korean War in THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI. Harry struggles with the reality of being pulled from his job, home, and family, but he soldiers on with the knowledge that he has the rare skills necessary to complete a tactical air strike.
Harry’s mission has two equally dangerous components. First he and another pilot must make a reconnaissance flight over the targeted bridges and area. Then they will lead others in a risky attempt to destroy these strategically vital passageways.
Harry’s harrowing return to military duty begins when he must abandon his plane while flying over the ocean. Coming to his rescue are the hotheaded helicopter pilot Mike Forney (Mickey Rooney) and his assistant Nestor Gamidge (Earl Holliman). Rear Admiral George Tarrant (Frederic March) fears for Harry’s safety, especially since he reminds him of a son he lost during the war.
Harry receives a bit of good fortune when his politically connected wife Nancy (Grace Kelly) finagles her way to Japan. She brings their two daughters, and Harry gets to spend some time with his family before the mission commences. While this break raises his spirit, it also weighs heavily upon him as the flights loom.
Based on James A. Michener’s novel, the film tells a story modest in scale but large in impact. THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI effectively depicts the sacrifices and courage of those who went to war. An air of doom lingers over the film, and two of the most powerful scenes acknowledge the coiled despair felt by those involved. Admiral Tarrant speaks to Nancy of his losses in war and what her husband and she will be facing. This sets the stage for a melodramatic bedroom conversation she has with Harry. Kelly, luminous as always, displays the barely concealed fear that any spouse would feel in such a situation.
Holden has a silent, tragic quality that suits him well for the part. Harry recognizes the importance of his task and the inherent danger. He has difficulty reconciling the two, but ultimately he is dedicated to fulfilling what is asked of him.
Harry’s actions are brave and noble, but THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI doesn’t bludgeon us with blustery displays of patriotism or swelling string sections on the soundtrack. Instead it captures the loneliness and fear these courageous men experience. Fairly long stretches are silent except for radio transmissions. A lot of actual footage was obtained with the help of the Naval Air and Surface Forces of the Pacific fleet, and it dramatically underscores the plight of the men. Whether it’s a special mission or a comparatively routine accomplishment, such as landing a plane on an aircraft carrier whose deck may be bucking like a bronco, they must have nerves of steel to succeed and keep themselves alive. The real footage is more impressive than any CGI-created effects could have been.
(This is a revised version of my DVD review. Follow the link for more information on the quality of and features on the DVD.)