The Bridges at Toko-Ri is the best movie I've seen this summer.
Adapted from the novel by WWII Sailor James Michener, The Bridges of Toko-Ri tells the story of LT Harry Brubaker, a Reservist called to active duty to fly and flight in the Korean war. It's a serious film, one that grapples with the realities of family separation, mortal peril, and profound loyalty that are the weft and warp of naval aviation. The Navy cooperated in its production, granting access to USS ORISKANY and USS KEARSARGE, as well as extensive opportunities to film its mighty F9F-2 Panthers in flight. Its star, William Holden, had a personal link to the material: his late brother, a naval aviator, had given his life in the Pacific.
Pedigrees, however, don't guarantee a great film. The Bridges of Toko-Ri succeeds not because of its authenticity, but because it's a thrilling and gripping tale. It begins in the best possible way, with a helo bubba (played by Mickey Rooney) pulling a jet bubba (Holden) out of the water following an ejection. As a former Navy helo bubba, I could have spent the next ninety minutes watching Rooney rescue people. That's not the way the world works, however: the world cares about jet bubbas.
This particular jet bubba has a beautiful wife (Grace Kelly), two charming daughters, and every reason to get home alive. The Bridges at Toko-Ri is built around the early warning, planning, execution, and aftermath of a mission that puts that eventuality very much in doubt: an airstrike on a cluster of North Korean bridges deemed vital to the war effort. Because the film walks us through all the steps in the runup to and execution of this mission, we in the audience get time to bond with its characters both at sea and ashore. Because the film takes pains to achieve maximum authenticity in its depiction of life afloat and airborne, we get to live vicariously in another world at another time. Because the mission itself is so hazardous, and filmed so well, we get to spend the last half-hour of the film on the edges of our collective seats, rooting for Holden's character to make it back to Grace and the girls.
This is a great film. It's close enough to real life to stand in for historical footage (though the F9F-2 wasn't flown in the Korean War – the filmmakers had to work with what they had). Its characters are compelling enough to make us care about them. Its story is tight enough to keep us on the hook for two hours and reel us in at the climax. The Bridges at Toko-Ri belongs at the top of your queue.