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The Bridges at Toko-Ri

The Bridges at Toko-Ri
Paramount Home Video
1954 / Color / 1:37 (unmatted; should be 1:66) / 104m.
Starring William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, Mickey Rooney, Robert Strauss, Charles McGraw, Keiko Awaji, Earl Holliman
Cinematography Loyal Griggs
Art Direction Henry Bumstead, Hal Pereira
Film Editor Alma Macrorie
Original Music Lyn Murray
Writing credits Valentine Davies from the novel by James Michener
Produced by William Perlberg, George Seaton
Directed by Mark Robson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

James Michener's The Bridges at Toko-Ri told the sad story of yet another clash between East and West, to add to the dozens in his Tales of the South Pacific.  Immediately after the Korean conflict, Paramount put together this exciting aviation film, with a suitably dour tone that was the only possible way to approach the recent police action.  However, with Grace Kelly and William Holden in a clinch on the posters, the picture had no trouble becoming a boxoffice smash.  The spectacular, academy-award winning special effects helped too.


U.S. Naval Reserve Lieutenant Harry Brubaker (William Holden) is a lawyer who finds himself 'voluntarily drafted' into flying missions over Korea, which creates major morale problems with his wife Nancy (Grace Kelly).  She doesn't see why he should be the one to put his life on the line: he already served his country flying in the World War, after all.  Having an equally rough time trying to keep Harry on the beam is his tough flight commander Wayne Lee (Charles McGraw), and paternalistic Rear Admiral George Tennant (Fredric March).  After a close call, when helicopter rescue pilots Mike Forney (Mickey Rooney) and Nestor Gamidge (Earl Holliman) pull Harry out of the Japan Sea, Tennant gives him some R&R in Tokyo, and arranges for Nancy and his girls to meet him there.  But marital tensions just grow stronger: Nancy wants him to quit, yet Harry feels obligated to carry through on the hazardous mission coming up.

On the dramatic level, The Bridges at Toko-Ri has aged just fine. The conflict is simple: Harry agonizes over why he's fighting in peacetime, for a country that barely acknowledges a war is going on. And with Grace Kelly there to give him grief over his decision to stick with the Navy, the film is an accurate assessment of the nation's attitude in 1952. Containment politics are soaked into every speech, unquestioned and unchallenged. This is understandable for the time, even appropriate, but mixed signals in the script leave the logic of Toko-Ri stranded in a muddy ditch, just like Harry Brubaker.

The book didn't clarify things any better, and Toko-Ri's zinger lines of wisdom, like "You fight the war you're stuck with," might as well be " A stitch in time saves nine", for all the sense they make. The hero's problem is still the bourgeois whine, "Why me?", which sounds altogether too much like Homer Simpson's immortal, "Can't somebody else do it?" The wisdom of being in Korea is never questioned, and the Admiral seems at a total loss to be fighting a shooting war, while having to wheedle to keep his officers in uniform. Toko-Ri never gets around to phrasing the questions it nevertheless makes obvious: "What are we doing in Korea in the first place?"

The movie has great action backing up its denial melodrama. Full Naval support was apparently granted. The aircraft carrier footage is authentic and the flying scenes some of the best and most accurate. The editing in the raid on the bridges  1 is first-class, including some repeated shots of diving jets, whose cadence was copied for the Death Star sequence in Star Wars. The large-scale model planes, pulled on wires through a hail of miniature explosions, look thrilling in most shots. When a very large miniature of a plane is made to crash in a gulley, its alloy wings convincingly buckle and shimmy.

The sentiment in the story is also very well-done, and ex-Val Lewton director Mark Robson keeps things reasonably focused most of the time. An obvious but charming scene in a bathhouse does indeed reveal the stiffness and stuffy elitism of 'Grace Kelly chic': she frets like an embarassed country club matron before warming up to the intrusion of a mirror-image Japanese family in the communal bathing pool. It's interesting that the only intrusion of Asians (or non-Americans) in the show happens here, and even though there is some rudimentary communication, a tiled wall keeps the two races apart. God forbid that Japanese daddy Teru Shimada (who we all know as Osato in You Only Live Twice) should get close up and naked with our homegrown goddess Queen Kelly. Actually, the Navy's enlisted men in the story do interact with the Japanese, but at the level of the club tarts and good-time girls to be found in servicemen's dance halls. The brawling sailors basically buy the willing favors of a defeated nation's women.

If The Bridges at Toko-Ri were made today, there'd be all kinds of script concessions to make sure audiences knew that the filmmakers were sensitive to both sides of the story. What makes the movie fascinating now is the story it doesn't tell. The Koreans fight back with guns and cannon. Apparently there is little aerial resistance, and the Navy planes have complete control of the skies. In Korea, there was often no military target to be had except for the hidden Communist troops themselves, but here we have a clear objective, a cluster of impressive bridges in a country that barely has railroads. Now, anyone who exercises any judgment can tell who the underdogs are in this situation: daily raids bomb the bejesus out of the Koreans, using technology most of them probably don't even comprehend. But when they have the nerve to shoot back, they become the Evil Villains. It's always been difficult to make bombing missions into heroic efforts, both in movies and for real. Usually the raids are justified as direct retribution for 'barbaric' onslaughts elsewhere. Toko-Ri makes them realistically remote and emotionally isolated, but can't avoid creating the impression that American rage against the Koreans basically boils down to, "How dare you duck when I throw things at you?" 2

So the film falls back on the dramatic 'given' of any war movie: our soldiers are valiant (true) and we love them, so all other considerations aren't important.  Helicopter jockey Mike Forney (a no-nonsense Mickey Rooney) and a rum-bucket comic relief sailor played by Robert Strauss have our immediate sympathy. But our adorable Andy Hardy gets fragged, a development that must have really sobered up 1954 audiences who expected a happy ending. Momentary rah-rah vengeance is afforded when (I'm sure this was a main point with the Navy cooperation people) the particular faceless Koreans who shoot at our downed pilots are chopped into hamburger by ground support propeller aircraft. The movie isn't quite mature enough to place their deaths on an equal ground with our beloved Navy flier.

But tragedy and irony are very well conveyed in the finale where Brubaker actually has to fight in the mud like an enlisted man, instead of push buttons and return to a steak dinner on his ship. His, "Why me?" is a line meant to impress the average American viewer, but Brubaker already knows he's screwed five ways from sundown: every combat aviator is aware that once he's lost his wings and his guns, he's plumb out of luck. Like the possibility of burning up in a crash, it's equally obvious that he might get poked full of holes, by peasants who aren't going to be understanding about his reasons for dropping bombs on their country. 3

Harry Brubaker is used as a symbol of futility, which splits the film against itself. The hardware and the speeches say 'Join Up and live the Navy life with cool guns and jets', while everything else in the show encourages the reaction, 'Hell no, get some other joker.' The The Bridges at Toko-Ri is very interesting for its relative sincerity. Its attempt to play fair with its subject keeps it from becoming a moral atrocity, like Douglas Sirk's Battle Hymn, or Tay Garnett's One Minute to Zero.

Paramount's DVD of The Bridges at Toko-Ri is a solid presentation of an action favorite. The movie is presented flat 4x3, but looks far better matted off to 1:78 on a widescreen television: there's always acres of space below the action, and the picture would have been sharper and bigger-looking if presented 16:9, in adapted 1:66. 4 There are several thousand original Technicolor movies, and so far only a handful have been restored from their original 3 strip negatives. The picture looks good, even if it has not been restored from Technicolor sources ... purists might have a problem with the contrast and grain levels.

If it were made a few months later, Toko-Ri would almost certainly have been a VistaVision movie. The punchy soundtrack has not been remixed and retains its always-good mono mix. A trailer is included. In what might be a case of Paramount following the good lead of Anchor Bay, the insert slip contains a reproduction of the film's poster art.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Bridges at Toko-Ri rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 20, 2001


1. this raid was lampooned in the 1980 comedy Airplane, of course, as "The Raid on Macho Grande" which as we all know, made a posthumous hero of George Zip.

2. apologies to Matt Groening, from whence this gag was taken : his comic strip "Life in Hell".

3. In LA there were a series of 'computer school' TV ads that showed a computer professional slamming the door on a data processor, and turning his attention away from the minimum wage grunts surrounding him. He spoke to the camera: "Do you like pushing buttons, but not getting your fingers dirty?" he said, and proceeded to outline the benefits of becoming a skilled computer person, an 'officer' who doesn't have to work in the 'grunt' data entry trenches. The ad pretty much sums up what military PR people told us the modern army would be like. Sam Peckinpah disposed of the issue of the perks of an officer's commission in a brief scene in Major Dundee, where Lt. Brannin is found roasted alive by the Apaches: "It goes with the pretty girls and the pension."

4. One has to look at pictures from 1953 to 1955 individually to figure out how they were expected to be seen. If the titles are arranged in a narrower rectangle than the 1:37 film frame, as in Toko-Ri, then it was meant to be matted.

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