The Bridges at Toko-Ri is a 1954 film about a fighter/bomber pilot, played by William Holden, in the Korean War. Holden is a Naval reserve officer called back into service and he isn’t too happy about it.
While other active reserves are still back in the US, Holden was called back unfairly in his opinion, having to give up his law practice and leave behind his wife and two kids.
We are introduced to his character at the start of the film as he is trying to return to his carrier when his jet has a flameout forcing him to ditch into the ice-cold water. He’s saved by the rescue chopper, but this near-death experience doesn’t do his nerves any good.
Soon after he gets leave in Japan to see his wife and kids who have flown out to be with him for a few days. A few days with the family gives him a break from the constant stress of being a fighter pilot but it’s soon back to the war to hit three bridges heavily protected by AAA.
I won’t go any further because the last mission of The Bridges at Toko-Ri is a masterpiece of tension and anxiety.
I like William Holden a lot and this is one of the movies he really nails. There is no scene chewing but from the look on his face and the way he breaks out in a sweat, you can feel the strain of a man who isn’t a coward and is always going to do his job but can’t lose the feeling that he isn’t going to make it home alive. You get a real image of a man dealing with the competing feelings of fatalism and hope. He’s accepting the idea that he is a dead man but still trying everything to make it.
The story of the film is pretty simple but the empathy the film gives you for Holden’s character and his family is the real honey pot.
“Where do we find such men?” The Navy Admiral asks at the end of the movie.
On the downside, if you don’t care about naval aviation and how an aircraft carrier worked during the Korean war, you will have to slog through several scenes of naval specialists going about the business of launching and landing jets off a big boat. I don’t care about it myself but lots of people are fascinated by it so YMMV.
Even if you don’t care, it’s still neat to see how much the US Navy supported the movie. A lot of the technical goings-on are real aircraft on a real carrier during the Cold War.