With the exception of Grace Kelly (the only significant female character in the film), none of Bridges at Toko-Ri’s main characters are ever explicitly scrutable. Even when the admiral, Fredric March, muses about the nature of war and the men who wage it, the film’s already established March’s thoughts don’t betray him. He’s not cagey; if anything, he’s a conversational duelist, on the offensive. It’s a very interesting development on the character, who’s initially set up as a sad old man with a dead son who latches onto those officers with similar demographics in his command, in Toko-Ri’s case it’s William Holden. Holden’s a disgruntled lawyer from Denver, Colorado who got called up ahead of activist reservists because of his WWII experience. He’s got Kelly and two daughters at home; he’s miserable at war, living on the carrier, flying missions; he’s trying to grow a drinking problem and he’s thought through faking mental issues to get out of flying those missions.
And he’s not quiet about it either.
One of the strangest things about Toko-Ri’s script, other than it really being a grim, tense, terse war movie with a bunch of character drama shoehorned in to utter perfection, is how little the film is concerned with establishing Holden’s character. The movie opens with March, then goes to Mickey Rooney, who’s fourth lead in the first half, third in the second… maybe second in the second. March is the admiral, Rooney’s the rescue helicopter pilot (Earl Holliman is Rooney’s sidekick), Holden’s the pilot, Kelly’s the wife. Holden never gets a scene to himself until into the second half of the movie, after he’s been introduced through Rooney’s lens, March’s lens… maybe not Kelly’s lens. She doesn’t really get a lens. She gets the dramatic music and she gets to speak plainly about her feelings, though she’s also adorably small c conservative—the one full, sweet scene we get with Holden, Kelly, and the daughters is when they’re in their Japanese hotel and they go to the steam baths and there’s a Japanese family there too. It’s cute but not pandering; mostly thanks to Robson’s direction and Holden but also editor Alma Macrorie, who’s just as good doing the comedy as the fighter jets.
The movie opens with Holden crashing into the ocean, Rooney saving him, March bonding with Holden and telling him Kelly and the daughters are waiting for them in Japan. Then it’s three days ahead and we only get hints of how they passed from Holden’s expressions and how he interacts with the other guys on the ship. The point of that very soft character development technique becomes clear later, in the second half of the film, when it’s just Holden shutting all the guys out on the ship after they’re back to sea, headed to a dangerous mission. Bridges gives its characters their own politics, identifying most with Holden—who’s slowly buying into March’s take, but March also just sees Korea as a diversion from Soviet Russia… but for progressive reasons. Sort of. Kelly’s living “Donna Reed Goes to War.” Rooney’s a sociopath we find out. A lovable one, but a complete sociopath.
The film is character studies but fits them into the epical war drama frame. While mostly being tense action and preparation for action. Valentine Davies writes a really tight script; Bridges is based on a James Michener so who knows where that efficiency is from. Because there’s also Robson. He opens the movie with this very practical look at the way aircraft carriers work. The film opens with a thanks to the U.S. Navy for their participation, but it’s not clear how much participation Bridges is going to get. It gets a whole lot. There are big action set pieces, both in and out of fighter jets. Macrorie and whoever did the miniature effects startlingly match the actual jets. It’s a beautifully edited film.
Including on the opening “welcome to an aircraft carrier” montage sequence. It fits into the narrative eventually, but for a while it’s just Robson displaying this world. Very quickly the grandiosity of the carrier becomes mundane. Very quickly. In fact, I think Robson just cuts away from the carrier setup and never comes back to it. So he truncates it, because Robson keeps a brisk pace through the Japan sequence. Yeah, there’s the cutesy bathhouse scene but there’s nothing else. Otherwise the film’s always working toward the second half, where it slows down and puts Holden through a wringer and the audience never really gets to understand exactly what’s going on with him. Because even though the narrative distance is fairly firm on being about what happens to Holden and around Holden, it also seems like it could toggle over to being about what Holden’s going to do, which would change reads on how previous events unfolded. The Bridges at Toko-Ri doesn’t tell the audience what kind of the film they’re actually watching until around the third act; from the start, it promises to tell them, then keeps building to it. For at least an hour. It’s kind of breathtaking how well Robson and Davies pull it off. They don’t do it for the benefit of the genre—the early lefty-ish war movie—but for the film’s. Instead of going big, Robson and Davies keep it about the four main characters. It’s a tricky finish and the film’s very nimble in the execution.
The best performances are Holden and March. Not to knock Kelly or Rooney, they just don’t get the parts. Holden doesn’t really get to talk about his and March doesn’t talk about his when he’s talking about his. Robson cuts to their close-ups and waits for their reaction, in expression or dialogue, the film unable to continue until they’ve had their moment. Bridges hinges on them. Kelly and Rooney are both excellent, but the film doesn’t hinge on them in the same way. Because Kelly does get to talk about her experience; arguably her learning to speak up for herself is the film’s only traditionally successful character arc. She doesn’t suffer in silence or obfuscation. Rooney’s an entirely different case, initially set up as comic relief (or near to it) he’s actually something quite different. While still retaining some of the comic quality. But just as tragic as everyone else in their mutual delusions.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri takes the pieces of a war action movie and a war melodrama and assembles them into something very special. Great work from Robson, Davies, Holden, March, Kelly, Rooney, editor Macrorie, and photographer Loyal Griffs (save a rear screen projection shot here and there). It’s a phenomenal piece of work.