Monday 21 December 2009

The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)

Director: Mark Robson
Stars: William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March and Mickey Rooney
Based on a novel by James Michener, The Bridges at Toko-Ri is a well respected Korean war yarn, even though the rear projection work is terrible and we quickly find Mickey Rooney in a green top hat and scarf. I thought I was done with the Rooney leprechaun routine after The Secret Invasion, but this predates it by a decade. No doubt there are more examples out there that I haven't even found yet. Where this one shines immediately is in the detail of everyday life in the Naval Air and Surface Forces of the Pacific Fleet, the servicemen of which lent their assistance to the filmmakers during production to no small degree: 19 real US Navy vessels were used and who knows how much other working machinery. Michener spent time on the USS Essex soaking up the atmosphere and detail and it shows. It feels very authentic to a ignorant layman like me.

The title refers to a mission that the fleet commander believes will turn the tide of the Korean War, demonstrating in no uncertain terms that the Americans won't quit. It gets mentioned early on, floated as an idea to a Navy fighter pilot, but we have a lot of atmosphere and tone and detail to work through first, all of it as good as the rear projection work is bad. In a few well written scenes, we really get to see what makes some of our key characters click, chief among them Lt Harry Brubaker, a Navy pilot played by top billed William Holden, and the fleet commander, Rear Adm George Tarrant, in the able and always welcome form of Fredric March. In between them in the credits is Grace Kelly, closing out the greatest year of her career.

Tarrant is a capable man doing a difficult job, but he's got a lot of misery to contend with. His two sons are dead, lost in the service of their country, incidents that lost the women in his life too: his wife was hardened beyond redemption and his daughter-in-law became little more than a whore. He pays special attention to young officers who remind him of his son and Brubaker fits that description. He's a seasoned pilot who served during the Second World War but left the forces afterwards to go back to his civilian job as an attorney, only to be called back to duty as a naval reservist. His real challenge isn't the specific mission he's facing, it's the war itself, so far away and with so little apparent relevance.
Throughout all these early scenes we don't see the bridges of the title and we're not told much about them, but they're a constant presence because we know they're going to come. This is a great way to play out the story because that's how the pilots come to the bridges too, not to mention the war as a whole. There's always something round the next corner, some new dangerous mission that has to be faced, and it's not going to mean anything in itself. It's simply a job that has to be done and these pilots are there to do it. That's what sits behind every scene here, whether it be routine tension on board the aircraft carrier or supposed relaxation in Tokyo, on a couple of days furlough where Brubaker tries to spend a couple of days with his wife for the first time in a year, only to be interrupted to bail Chief Petty Officer Mike Forney out of jail for brawling over a girl. That's Mickey Rooney, just in case you hadn't guessed.

There's much to appreciate here, if you can get past the annoying inconsistency on the technical side of things. It isn't that it's all bad, it's that some of it is bad while some of it is great. With that annoying habit of many fifties Hollywood movies, we're often given shots that are obviously the real actors in real locations, only to be followed by others that are obviously rear projection shots of precisely the same locations. I never could understand that concept and it's rampant here, made even more obvious through considerable use of real Navy personnel running through their paces, new footage too rather than stock material. The tension builds powerfully as the mission begins, no doubt partly through the skill of director Mark Robson, who had begun his career making suspenseful horror movies for producer Val Lewton, films like Isle of the Dead and Bedlam.

Holden is solid, though he doesn't get as much opportunity to really act here as he had in a previous war movie, Stalag 17, which won him his only Academy Award, or even another 1954 film, The Country Girl, which won an Oscar for his co-star Grace Kelly. Kelly gets very little to do here, but she's fine doing it. She was certainly due some relaxation time at the end of a year that began with Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, and followed up with this film and a far lesser one called Green Fire, but she and Holden both shifted straight over to The Country Girl, released before this one but made afterwards. Fredric March is superb, as utterly at home leading a fleet from an aircraft carrier as he was struggling to return from the war to civilian life eight years earlier in a very different war story, The Best Years of Our Lives. He was one of the greatest American actors of his era, who unfortunately played his characters so naturally that it was often easy to forget he was actually acting.
The best thing to my mind, though, is the message. This film aims at a message that many war movies try to provide, namely that the men with whatever particular branch of the services a particular film is about are really tough hombres who you don't want to mess with. The problem with most such movies, especially when they're American, is that they take the arrogant John Wayne approach, striding in, taking one for the team but wiping out the enemy in the process and striding out regardless. It's usually easy to dismiss them as propaganda or just dumb action, however much fun they often end up.

This one thankfully takes a somewhat different approach, one that plays out far more believably. Brubaker is a man in the process of becoming scarred by his experiences, not through any personal weakness or invalidity of the conflict at hand, but through combat fatigue. He's simply been there for a long time dealing with more than most men could deal with. He doesn't need to strut and stride and wipe out a couple of battallions with his fists, he just needs to not quit, to tough it out and carry on and get the job done, however much it hurts and whatever sacrifice it takes. That's real tough, believable tough and the sort of tough we don't see enough of in the movies. It could appropriately be described through the title of a later film, a true story that featured as a character a Navy pilot who was serving on the USS Essex when Michener researched this story. He's Neil Armstrong, often regarded by his peers as the best of them all, and like Lt Brubaker, he had The Right Stuff.

1 comment:

Robert said...

I love this film. The ending gets me every time. I keep hoping that they make it.