The Bridges at Toko-RiOverview -
Combining heartbreaking realism with Hollywood gloss, The Bridges at Toko-Ri paints an admirable portrait of Navy fighter pilots during the Korean War and thrillingly depicts a critical and dangerous mission. William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, and Mickey Rooney lead a fine cast and KLSC presents this stellar war movie that won an Oscar for Best Special Effects in its intended widescreen aspect ratio for the first time on home video. Excellent video and audio and a top-notch commentary track add to the luster of this welcome release. Highly Recommended.
The explosive Korean War novel by celebrated author James A. Michener (Sayonara, South Pacific) soars to the screen in this rousing cinema classic from director Mark Robson (Bright Victory, Von Ryan’s Express). Not every Navy pilot can guide his aircraft from a wave-tossed carrier deck, seek out targets over unfamiliar Korean terrain, and then return to what looks like a speck in the sea. Naval Reservist Harry Brubaker (movie legend William Holden, Stalag 17) can. This masterful story of a war-weary World War II veteran who must leave his family to fight again combines moving drama with surefire, bombs-away aerial action. Luminous Grace Kelly (High Noon) co-stars as Brubaker’s loving wife, and rounding out a stellar cast are Fredric March (Inherit the Wind), Mickey Rooney (Ambush Bay) and Robert Strauss (The Seven Year Itch). The Bridges at Toko-Ri landed two Academy Award nominations for 1955, with Paramount’s Special Effects team winning the coveted Oscar for their thrilling, fiery handiwork.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
The Korean War came hot on the heels of World War II, and the American public just wasn't ready to get embroiled in another overseas entanglement. Maybe because the "conflict," as it was called at the time, wasn't as clear-cut as World War II and didn't involve a direct military attack on the U.S., the public didn't fully support our involvement and didn't fully grasp what was at stake. Not surprisingly, those sentiments seep into the movies about the Korean War and may explain why most don't possess the same cachet, patriotic fervor, and audience appeal as those depicting America's campaign against Germany, Italy, and Japan in the 1940s.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri is a notable exception. Yes, it's big, a bit glossy, and packed with stars, but like many other Korean War pictures of the period, it largely forgoes propaganda in favor of a degree of realism many of its rousing WWII counterparts lack. At first, director Mark Robson's film, which is based on a James Michener novella that chronicles the combat adventures of a squadron of Navy fighter pilots on an aircraft carrier in 1952, takes a dry, perfunctory approach as it documents the daily routines and crew interactions aboard the massive floating craft. Gradually, though, it evolves into an engrossing, tense, deeply human, and ultimately devastating drama that spotlights the horrors of war, the sacrifices normal men make, and the sense of duty and purpose that transform average joes into heroes.
Lt. Harry Brubaker (William Holden) is one of those average joes, an attorney from Denver who served valiantly in World War II and now finds himself risking his life again just a few years later in Korea after a recall by the Naval Reserve. His commanding officer, Rear Admiral George Tarrant (Fredric March), admires his bravery, commitment, and patriotism and regards him as a surrogate son, but beneath Harry's confident veneer lie the same fears and doubts that grip most servicemen, no matter how lofty or lowly their rank. He misses his wife Nancy (Grace Kelly) and two young daughters so much, he bucks Navy policy and finagles their transport to Japan for a brief reunion. The idyllic respite revitalizes Harry, but also reminds him how much he has to lose should his luck run out.
And he'll need plenty of luck, along with all of his skills as a Panther jet pilot to survive a dangerous mission that could turn the war's tide. Tarrant and his subordinate, Commander Wayne Lee (Charles McGraw), task Harry with leading an attack on the vital yet heavily guarded bridges at Toko-Ri, "one of the most important targets in all of Korea." The planning and execution of that critical mission comprise the film's compelling second half that hammers home several resonating themes.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri reflects the public's ambivalence toward the Korean War but doesn't go far enough to be classified as a true anti-war movie. Despite Harry's objections to being recalled and Tarrant's assessment of Korea as "the wrong war in the wrong place," Robson's film celebrates the military and its missions (it was produced with the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy) and probably spurred many young men to enlist. The script by Valentine Davies, who won an Oscar for Best Writing, Original Story for Miracle on 34th Street a few years earlier, rues the human price that's often paid to maintain global freedom while also justifying the loss of life. That's a tough tightrope to walk, but the film deftly honors both sides of the Korean War argument.
Largely filmed on location in Japan, The Bridges at Toko-Ri exudes a more authentic feel than many war movies. The battle sequences are thrilling; the impressive special effects won an Oscar and the movie received a well-deserved nomination for Best Editing. The shots of Holden on the carrier's deck wearing his leather flight jacket conjure up images of Tom Cruise in Top Gun 30 years later, and fans of Top Gun: Maverick might recognize a few borrowed plot elements. Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of compliment.
Though the characters in The Bridges at Toko-Ri are little more than stereotypes, the personal drama is surprisingly mature and affecting. That's largely due to the excellent performances and Holden leads the way with a forthright, easygoing, and deceptively nuanced portrayal that hits all the right notes while maximizing his palpable movie star magnetism. Fresh from winning his Best Actor Oscar for Stalag 17 and at the height of his immense popularity, Holden drives the film like Brubaker pilots his fighter jet - with authority, talent, and precision.
1954 would prove to be a banner year for Kelly. In addition to The Bridges at Toko-Ri, she made a huge splash in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window and played the dowdy wife of an alcoholic stage actor in The Country Girl (also starring Holden), a change-of-pace part that would win her a Best Actress Oscar. Her role here hardly taxes her, but her sincerity and beauty add luster to the film. Fredric March is especially fine and quite moving as the stalwart admiral and Mickey Rooney supplies some comic relief and more than a little heart as a rescue helicopter pilot.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri will never rank as one of the all-time great war movies, but it does stand as one of the best Korean War movies. Though more of a traditional Hollywood picture than Pork Chop Hill, it rarely allows its lofty production values to overshadow and overwhelm its story and themes. The Bridges at Toko-Ri may transmit a mixed message, but it does so with power and grace, and its technical prowess, heartfelt performances, and solid direction enhance its entertainment value.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Bridges at Toko-Ri arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a matte sleeve. For the first time, the film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Not only does KLSC unveil a brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative, it also presents The Bridges at Toko-Ri in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1 for the first time on home video. Director Mark Robson and cinematographer Loyal Griggs (who won an Oscar the previous year for Shane) shot the movie in what is called "open matte" to allow it to be screened in both theaters equipped for widescreen features as well as those that weren't. (Open matte was often employed during the transitional period after CinemaScope premiered in 1953 and before widescreen became the industry standard.) Though intended to be viewed in widescreen, The Bridges at Toko-Ri has been presented in the open matte 1.33:1 ratio throughout the home video era and as recently as Imprint's 2021 Blu-ray edition.
KLSC's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is a revelation and immerses us in the action more than ever before. Though it's too bad The Bridges at Toko-Ri was produced just prior to the debut of Paramount's VistaVision process, which enhanced both picture and sound to near HD quality (ironically, the first VistaVision feature, White Christmas, ended up being released two months before The Bridges at Toko-Ri), the movie looks mighty nice as is and flaunts a lovely film-like feel. Grain is often noticeable (solid backgrounds can appear a tad snowy), but the clarity, contrast, and color timing is so good, the picture often seems to jump off the screen.
The Technicolor is lush yet realistic. The greens of Rooney's Irish regalia, the orange flames that erupt after bombs explode, Kelly's red lipstick, and the yellow jackets crew members wear on the carrier's deck are vivid and true. Flesh tones err slightly toward the orange side, but that's a minor quibble. The inky blacks of the Naval jackets and crisp whites of Holden's bathrobe and shirts and Kelly's nightgown balance the image, while excellent shadow delineation keeps crush in check most of the time and razor-sharp close-ups showcase Holden's rugged good looks and Kelly's peaches-and-cream complexion.
Process shots abound, yet most are so seamlessly integrated into the frame the artifice often escapes notice. Ditto the use of miniatures, which are also cleverly employed. The technical prowess justly earned The Bridges at Toko-Ri the Oscar for Best Special Effects and this superior transfer makes us appreciate the well-deserved honor. Though some errant specks and marks still dot the source material throughout, they never distract from the action. A bit more clean-up would have earned this transfer five stars, but this remains a dazzling presentation that faithfully and reverently honors this stirring classic.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound. While a 5.1 remix would certainly give the battle scenes a more immersive feel, strong bass frequencies put us in the thick of combat and supply palpable rumbles when bombs and grenades explode. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Lyn Murray's sweeping score without any distortion, but a bit more fidelity is needed to maximize its impact and lyricism. Sonic accents like jet engines, whirling helicopter blades, and machine-gun fire are potent and subtle atmospherics come through cleanly. All the dialogue is easy to comprehend and any age-related hiss, pops, and crackle have been erased. A little more oomph would loft this track into the stratosphere, but it's still a solid effort that complements the on-screen action well.
A couple of supplements enhance the disc.
Audio Commentary - Filmmaker and film historian Steve Mitchell and author Steven Jay Rubin join forces for an engaging and informative commentary. Mitchell talks about viewing the film for the first time in its intended widescreen format, cites the (very few) differences between book and script, and relays Michener's high regard for the adaptation. Rubin identifies the actual Navy equipment used in the film and provides cast and crew bio nuggets. The two praise the movie's authenticity, laud Holden as an actor and movie star, outline conflicts with the Japanese during shooting, discuss the excellent use of miniatures, praise female editors, and identify locations. Mitchell also believes the film's climactic battle scene inspired George Lucas when he was shooting the attack on the Death Star in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. This is a worthwhile track that fans of war movies should definitely check out.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The film's re-release trailer hypes The Bridges at Toko-Ri as "the story of a lifetime." Previews for several other KLSC releases are also included.
Exciting, reverent, and ultimately sober, The Bridges at Toko-Ri honors Navy fighter pilots with gusto and grace. Holden's tough yet tender performance and movie-star magnetism carry this impeccably mounted motion picture that's presented in its intended aspect ratio at long last. KLSC's beautiful remastered transfer and robust audio thrust us into the action and a fine commentary track provides context and perspective. You may have seen The Bridges at Toko-Ri before, but you've never seen it like thIs. Highly Recommended.
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