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The Bridges at Toko-Ri

Posted on the 09 November 2014 by Christopher Saunders
The Bridges at Toko-RiThe Bridges at Toko-Ri (1955) is a typical old school war movie. Director Mark Robson competently balances action and melodrama, in a movie remarkable mainly for its ending.
Lieutenant Harry Brubaker (William Holden), a Naval aviator serving in Korea, ditches after an intense battle. He's rescued by Mike (Mickey Rooney) and Nestor (Earl Holliman), two goofball helicopter pilots. Brubaker earns a reprimand when his wife Nancy (Grace Kelly) visits him in Japan, though kindly Admiral Tarrant (Frederic March) shield shim. Tarrant views Brubaker as a surrogate son, enlisting him to join a bombing raid against several railroad bridges. But the heavily-fortified target proves a tough nut to crack.
Adapting James Michener's novel, Robson marshals an impressive show blending real carriers and Naval aircraft with undetectable special effects. Between the Naval scenes and its Japanese setting, Bridges is nothing if not picturesque. But Valentine Davies's script seems compromised: Brubaker ventures token antiwar sentiments, but accepts Tarrant's resignation towards "fighting the war you're stuck with." We're reminded of The Caine Mutiny, which smoothed the rough edges of Herman Wouk's novel to earn Navy approval.
Bridges suffers most in its interminable second act. Brubaker, a Reservist, whines about being dragged from civilian life. Tarrant condescendingly lectures Nancy on military camaraderie, dismissing her as "ignorant and defenseless." Too bad Mike and Nestor are such obnoxious chuckleheads that the Admiral's argument goes AWOL. Alongside their trite running gags (three drunken brawls?), Bridges stages silly domestic scenes and a bizarre sequence where the Brubakers share a partitioned pool with a Japanese family.
Unsurprisingly, Bridges picks up in its last act. After an hour's build-up, the bombing raid makes an excellent centerpiece. Robson blends impressive combat footage with striking matte effects and miniature work. It's a breathtaking scene, still among the best of its kind. After these flyboy heroics, Brubaker's shot down and trapped in a ditch. This makes for a tense finale, Brubaker fending off dozens of enemies with a pistol and slowly diminishing air support. His inglorious fate presages Holden's later Bridge on the River Kwai.
William Holden does fine work balancing cynicism, heroism and romance. Fredric March provides patronizing paternalism while Grace Kelly pouts photogenically. Mickey Rooney's obnoxiousness wears thin through repetitive fights and shameless mugging. Charles McGraw (Spartacus) gets a rare heroic role as a hotshot aviator.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri is entertaining yet superficial. Its characterization and plotting are strictly rote, despite the game cast. But the military hardware is impressive and its action scenes remain awe-inspiring. No harm slamming this one back on a Saturday night.

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