Many Are Called, But Few Are Re-Called
Having graduated from nice-boy parts to sexually charged, often cynical rôles in indisputable 1950s-‘60s classics, hard-drinking William Holden, star of The Bridges at Toko-Ri, was among the most dependable of box-office giants. The gifted actor is the focus of Lincoln Center’s “A Different Kind of Hero,” a twenty-film July retrospective of his work under some of the most respected directors. This “star that audiences could easily take for granted,” according to series curator Kent Jones, figures here in landmark films projected back-to-back as double features.
Despite competent work as editor for Orson Welles and Val Lewton, Mark Robson was regarded as second-tier yet was chosen to direct a high-profile cast for Paramount’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri, an expensive 1954 adaptation of the James A. Michener novella. Nominated for an editing Oscar, and winning one for special effects of exciting aerial and carrier landing sequences, this is a depiction of Navy pilots in the undeclared Korean conflict that harbingered later, more unpopular divisive wars. Centering on the resentment of an unwilling, pessimistic hero in Holden’s Lieutenant Harry Brubaker, it balances that reluctance by his acceptance of concerned fatherly wisdom from Rear Admiral George Tarrant (Frederic March), who has lost two sons to combat and his wife and daughter-in-law to grief but nevertheless believes that a man plays the cards he is dealt, does what he has to do.
Brubaker’s premonition of death and acceptance of duty, and others’ heroism, and some sentimental dialogue, prompted a reviewer’s guffaw, “God! no wonder we won the Cold War!” But such current cynicism misses the temper of those times, that different country in that different world. Sports fanatic Michener may have taken a cue from baseball slugger Ted Williams, too tall for the World War II fighter cockpits he squeezed into, but then called up again during Korea.
Brubaker, too, is serving his country a second time. Bottling forebodings, he has left behind his family and post-war law practice in Denver. Because she is the daughter of a former Massachusetts senator, wife Nancy (Grace Kelly) manages a waiver of rules so that she and young daughters Cathy and Susie (Nadine Ashdown and Cheryl Callaway, both uncredited) can visit him on leave in Tokyo.
Comic relief in serious jobs is provided by the non-brass. Beloved for his Broadway and then Oscar-nominated Animal in Stalag 17, for which film Holden won as Best Actor, Robert Strauss is Beer Barrel, cans of brew in his golf bags but all business flagging airmen onto pitching carrier decks. Wearing emotion and loyalty on his sleeve and a non-regulation Irish green top hat and scarf, Mickey Rooney is Mike Forney, lover of bar girls and brawls and, with helicopter sidekick Nestor Gamidge (Earl Holliman), rescuer extraordinaire of downed pilots.
The Princess of Monaco in waiting has nothing to do in this man’s world and, aside from the humor in a family skinny dip, is here to allow others to talk. In terms of plot, Nancy is the audience’s surrogate listener to the Admiral’s ideas on the sad side effects of necessary sacrifice by “the chosen few who have to lay it on the line,” and the chaste bedmate to whom pilot husband details the targeted bridges.
Spray on the bow deck cannot mask that husband’s fear-sweats about the mission and a second dunking in the icy Yellow Sea. Manfully, he refuses preferential coddling from the Admiral, the ship’s doctor, and from Wayne Lee (Charles McGraw), a Group Commander who stands up for pilots and impetuously objects to others’ improper use of their propellers, takes upon himself reconnaissance photography and rocket-bombing runs, defends as “good” an added second strike that costs three lives, and flies wingman with Brubaker towards Toko-Ri.
“Wrong war, wrong time,” for the educated hero “got out here to Korea.” Charge of the Light Brigade speeches, stirring music, and proud noble looks are not enough to disguise the futility of the war, a surprising stand ahead of its time. Less renowned than others in the retrospective like The Bridge on the River Kwai, with which it is double-billed as well as title-linked, The Bridges at Toko-Ri is still a vehicle for the quiet determination of character that once placed William Holden among the brightest of stars.
(Released by Paramount and rated "G.")