Friday, February 11, 2011


BACK-STORY: “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” is a war movie based on the novel by James Michener. The movie was released in 1955, just one year after the book was published. The movie was a hit and got an Oscar for Best Special Effects. The producers had the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy which allowed the use of nineteen ships. The credits mention that the movie was made as a tribute to U.S. Navy pilots. William Holden and Grace Kelly had an affair during the filming.

Panthers taking off
OPENING: Task Force 77 is patrolling off the coast of North Korea in November, 1952. The fleet is centered around the U.S.S. Savo Island (actually the U.S.S. Oriskany). A rescue helicopter launches in preparation for returning flights. One of the F9F Panthers has to ditch and the helicopter crew of Mike (Mickey Rooney) and Nestor (Earl Holliman) pick up Lt. Harry Brubaker (William Holden) before he freezes to death in the very frigid waters.

SUMMARY: Brubaker meets with Admiral Tarrant (Frederic March). Tarrant views Brubaker as a surrogate son because he reminds him of his son who was killed in the Battle of Midway. Brubaker is bitter because his reserve unit was called up and he had to leave his wife, two daughters, and his law practice. He is a veteran of WWII and a crack pilot, but he shows signs of being a pilot about to crack. Brubaker sees no good reason for the war (echoing the feelings of most of America in 1952). Tarrant spouts the party line that “if we don’t stop the Koreans here, they’ll be in Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and then on to the Mississippi”. And you thought the Domino Theory started with the Vietnam War. The admiral thinks that knocking out the strategic bridges at Toko-Ri could win the war.

     The Task Force arrives in Japan for some R&R. The air group commander Lee visits the admiral to complain about the captain of the ship using the airplanes props to help maneuver the ship into its berth. He feels the pressure on the engines will reduce their effectiveness. He backs down when Tarrant points out the bigger picture is what’s best for the carrier. When he leaves chastened, the admiral decides not to recommend him for promotion because he backed down.

     The stay in Japan allows Brubaker’s wife and kids to visit him. Romantic music swells. Tarrant visits them in the hotel bar. He reveals his career has been blocked ever since he blamed the Russians for supporting North Korea. He is now persona non grata in Washington. Brubaker is called away because Mike is in jail after a ruckus he created upon learning his Japanese girl friend has jilted him. Mike is Irish, so he is a mean drunk, of course. Plus, everyone knows that sailors on shore leave always get in trouble with the MPs ( war movie cliche #34).

     While Brubaker is gone bailing out Mike, the Admiral has time to deliver some pearls of wisdom to his wife. Mrs. Nancy Brubaker (Grace Kelly) is your typical clueless, fear-stricken pilot’s wife. Tarrant senses this so he gives her one of the great pep talks in war movie history. He tells her when his son was killed his wife and daughter-in-law went insane. This could be you, too. His point is you must face the reality of the war and maybe you won’t be like them. You women are “ignorant and defenseless”. You can’t understand why men go to war. The best you can be is supportive and prepared for your husband’s death. Mr. Sensitivity, he ain’t. When Brubaker returns, Nancy insists on finding out about the bridges. Harry pulls no punches in describing the dangers of the mission.

tell me about the bridges, darling

     Back at sea, Lee has to go on a recon mission with Brubaker as his wingman to get photos of the bridges. They fly over beautiful mountainous scenery. Lee makes his pass and they head back. Landing on a bobbing postage stamp is difficult so Lee has a rough touch-down. Brubaker’s is even scarier as he has to land on a shortened deck. Up the anxiety level going into the big mission. Watching the film shot by Lee doesn’t do much for morale, either. Tarrant is aware of Brubaker’s fragile psyche and since he loves him like a son, suggests he sit this one out. Brubaker admits he is a coward and accepts the offer – just kidding. Brubaker is a red-blooded 1950s movie American warrior so he knows what duty means. Those two cute daughters will understand.

      The attack on the bridges is anti-climatic as they knock them down without a scratch. What to do with these unused bombs? Let’s go on to the secondary target – an ammunition dump. Good idea considering what awesome Hollywood explosions you get with the blowing up of an ammunition dump! Cue explosions, courtesy of Brubaker. Unfortunately, our hero gets a bullet in the fuel tank and the leakage prevents him from making it back to the carrier. He crash lands in a commie field. It’s go time for Mike and Nestor.

      The Irishman arrives, but is promptly shot down. Nestor is shot and killed upon exiting the chopper. Mike manages to join Harry who is hiding in an irrigation ditch. Communist troops are closing in. Things look bleak.

CLOSING: Brubaker gets philosophical and tells Mike “you fight simply because you are here”. Although in a hopeless situation, they vow not to be taken alive and open fire on their potential captors. Of course, having witnessed the strafing of lots of their mates by the rescue patrol, these commies might not have been in a prisoner taking mood anyway. Mike is killed by a grenade and Harry is gunned down, but not before he opines “The wrong war in the wrong place, and that’s the one you’re stuck with.” These words echo Omar Bradley’s famous sentiment about Korea.

could you throw us a rope?
     Back on the carrier, we see a role reversal as Lee breaks the news of Brubaker’s death to Tarrant. Tarrant is questioning the mission’s worth until Lee stands up to him pointing out it was a good and worthwhile expenditure of human life. (After all, the destruction of the bridge wins the war, remember.) Tarrant promotes him because he has learned to put the missions ahead of the men. The movie closes with the famous question by Tarrant: “Where do we get such men?” (Perhaps overlooking the fact that, in the case of Brubaker, the nation got him by forcing him to leave his family and law practice.) Luckily, patriotic music drowns out any cynical thoughts.

you take the fifty on the right and I'll take the fifty on the left

war is hell


Action - 7

Acting - 9

Accuracy - 7

Realism - 8

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Yes. I think women would be able to relate to the Grace Kelly character. She is meant to represent a typical military wife. However, they might be offended by the condescending treatment of her by the men, especially the admiral. This movie was made before women’s lib. The action is not bloody or graphic. The story is not overly macho.

ACCURACY: Michener was on board the U.S.S. Essex and U.S.S. Valley Forge as a war correspondent during the Korean War. He based his novel on two rescue missions of downed pilots which were similar to the two referenced in the book and movie. The two rescues occurred on the same day, however. And the year was 1951, not 1952. Also, the second one did not result in the deaths of the pilot and helicopter crew. They were taken captive, but presumed to be dead at the time by the Navy and thus Michener.

     The attacks were based on bombing raids on bridges at Majoni-Ri and Changnim-Ri. They were not bridges over the Yalu River as was the bridge in the movie. They were in central North Korea and downing them would not win the war. The attack aircraft were Skyraiders, not Panthers.

     The landing and take-off scenes are accurate and very instructive of carrier operations. The rescue tactics are well done. The incident where the planes are used to berth the ship was based on an actual occurrence.

CRITIQUE: “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” is a good, but not great movie. The plot is interesting. It is not overly patriotic or gung-ho. The main character is a reluctant warrior. This probably reflects the fact that the movie was made after the war was over and had in the public’s mind been labeled a misguided effort. In which case, Brubaker would have represented the general feeling of the public. One wonders how the audiences in the theaters felt when Tarrant opines that the fall of South Korea would have a domino effect.

     There is welcome comic relief from Rooney. He was a good actor and he gets into the role with gusto. Holliman also turns in one of his better performances as a loyal yokel. Holden is Holden, nuff said. Kelly is asked to look lovely and vulnerable and succeeds. March is good as the paternal admiral. He brings gravitas to the role and the picture.

     The action is crisp and realistic. The carrier operations have a tutorial feel to them. The aerial scenes are exciting and do not have that fake look common for old air combat movies. The movie does not get overly melodramatic with the downing of Brubaker. It is treated stoically as would be true for an American pilot’s crash in the Korean War.

CONCLUSION: Although the novel is short, if you do not like to read this movie will give you the classic novel’s plot in cinema form. It follows the book religiously. It also accurately reflects the novel’s themes of self-sacrifice, loyalty, and the senselessness of war. But most significantly, the movie does not change the downer of an ending just to suit the audience. Kudos for that! In some ways it is the “All Quiet” of the Korean War.

the trailer
the ending

Next up:  #72 -  Twelve O'Clock High


  1. I am not sure at all if I would like this. It sounds somewhat unspecific, nothing seems to really stand out and make it memorable. What do you think? I will always remember Gallipoli, as flawed as it may be but this sounds like something in which I would attribute bits and pieces to other movies. I doesn't seem to add anything important to the genre. But maybe I am really wrong.

  2. Since you enjoy movies with an aerial theme, I definitely think you should see it. The air stuff is very well done. No CGI. Also, the book is a classic and the movie is true to it.

  3. My deceased father, Lt. Cmndr. Ernie Maguire, was an attack pilot and flew A1 Skyraiders in Korea with VA-923. They were based aboard the USS Bon Homme Richard and this story was partially based on his squadron. He was a section leader and made several bombing strikes against those bridges. (The gun-camera footage is the real deal). The book (and movie), are fairly accurate, but as pointed out, the real "Brubaker" did not die in that drainage ditch - he was taken as a POW...

    Mike Maguire
    St. Louis, MO

    *I want to purchase the DVD if anyone can point me in the right direction*

  4. Thanks wmb...

    Any thoughts on where the DVD can be purchased?


  5. Did you check Amazon? I see they have it for $25.

  6. Just received the DVD as a birthday gift. It came from Amazon, but was actually shipped from S. Korea! As commented on above, my father, Lt. Commander Ernie Maguire, made several strikes against those bridges in the A1 Skyraider.

    Recently, the local newpaper did a story on my dad in their "Veterans Voices" feature. Here is the link:

    Mike Maguire
    St. Louis, MO

  7. the war movie buffAugust 6, 2011 at 8:37 AM

    Thanks for sharing. It is an excellent article and I am sure you are justifiably proud of your heroic father.

  8. Why don't you compare this movie to Men of the Fighting Lady. Another carrier picture based upon Michener's Korea writings

  9. Great idea! I'll put that on my TBR list.

  10. Hey Allen -

    2nd the great idea! I am not familiar with "Men of the Fighting Lady". Do you have any details (like who the actors are, plot, etc.)?

    - Mike Maguire
    St. Louis, MO

  11. It is about an incident that took place during air combat operations over Korea. Van Johnson was in it. Doesn't it seem like he was in a lot of war movies?

  12. The filming originally included a clip near the end when a group of Korean civilians come upon Brubaker:he tries to wave them away but he can't stop them being killed by the aircraft that are trying to give him air-cover.This bit of the film seems to have been cut out of the version that is seen today (on t.v., say) and you wouldn't know that it had ever been there.
    It seems that the Panthers were used instead of the Oriskany's Banshee jets because the Grummans were better-looking than the rather angular MacDonnell planes.In reality, it would have been unlikely that the covering Skyraiders, with their reputation for load-carrying,couldn't have carried enough fuel and ammo to remain over the crashed pilot for more than the few minutes required by the plot.

  13. I had never heard of that clip, but I can certainly see why it would have ended up on the cutting room floor. The war was already very anti-war, it did not need to become anti-American at the last moment. My take on the final scene is that if I was the North Koreans (Chinese?), I would have killed the Americans too. Considering what the air cover had done to my mates.

    You are right about the Skyraiders. But after reading a book about the relationship between Hollywood and the military, it is poosible that the Navy did not provide Skyraiders for the production. Possibly because the Navy wanted the movie to highlight the role of jets and get Congress to fund more of them.

  14. "Red Scarf" - the Korean version:

  15. I enjoy the scenes of postwar Japan and interactions between Japanese and Americans. Most of it is positive but Mike's behavior is pretty cringe-worthy and I can easily understand why locals might become annoyed at having an American base in their backyard. But there were also some neat scenes of people getting along as people. The bath scene was very cute!

    1. I lived in Japan for three years as a kid and remember the Japanese people being very nice to Americans. Of course, I was cute back then so maybe that had something to do with it.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.