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The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)

download-10The Korean War (1950-1953) is not a war I am as familiar with. It is sometimes called The Forgotten War and unlike WWII, Hollywood made very few movies about the conflict – during or after. But in some ways, that is what The Bridges at Toko-Ri is about: men fighting a forgotten war.

Based on the popular novel by James Michener, which was in turn based on several different true stories, the movie focuses on Lieutenant Harry Brubaker, jet pilot in the Navy, stationed on an aircraft carrier and flying fighter-bombers. He is bitter, however, because he also fought during WWII and cannot understand why it had to be him who was called up again to fight. He would rather be back home with his wife, two daughters and his successful business as a lawyer.

The story is more like a slice of war-life. There is no overarching point, per se. The bridges at Toko-ri must be destroyed, says Admiral Tarrant (Fredric March) to show that the US will never give up in the war. He believes in the fight, but most of the men are simply doing a job. There is the loyalty the men show to each other. Mickey Rooney and Earl Holliman play two men whose job it is to rescue downed pilots in their helicopter. Charles McGraw is commander of the the pilots, a tough man, but one who takes care of his men.

There is a lot of footage of the carrier, the planes taking off and landing, flying and bombing, and it is impossible not to have a feeling of awe at what they do and the dangers they face, even the work that Mickey Rooney’s Mike Forney rescuing pilots.

The Bridges at Toko-ri has a very different feeling than the war films made during WWII. There was a sense that America was 100% behind the men fighting during WWII, but in The Bridges of Toko-ri, there is a sense that America is largely unaware of what is going on. This is also true for Brubaker’s wife, Nancy (Grace Kelly), who Admiral Tarrant warns will have to face the reality of the dangers her husband faces.

toko-ri-3At first, I was a little surprised to see Grace Kelly’s name in this film. It’s such a small role; she is only in the film for maybe twenty minutes, but she actually makes the most of it. Nancy has come to Japan to see her husband, having cut through all the red tape and regulations that usually prevents the wives from coming. What she represents in the story is everything that Brubaker left behind and regrets: his home, his job, his life, his children, and of course, his wife. She has to represents everything and she does it very well, bringing a fair amount of passion to the role that makes the sense of what Brubaker could lose by dying all the greater.

William Holden is excellent and it is his film entirely. He’s bitter, but not in a broody way. He mostly does his job, is deeply grateful to Forney for saving his life early in the film, deeply touched by his wife’s presence, scared at the prospect of attacking the bridges and simply doing his work. Admiral Tarrant asks in the end of the film, “where do we get such men?”

The cast is all good. This is the first time I’ve seen Mickey Rooney in anything other than his MGM musicals and comedies, but he’s actually great as the scrappy helicopter pilot who can’t seem to keep out of brawls. Fredric March plays a profoundly sad admiral, who already lost both sons in WWII and has a soft spot for Brubaker, who reminds him of one of his sons.

Spoilers – the movie does not end happily for anyone, though the mission to blow the bridges is successful. It’s a surprisingly gripping tale, though it is not the kind of film I usually watch. It seems to suggest that the reason these men fight is because that is what these men do. If they were home, they would have been working to accomplish the task at hand. Because they in Korea, they are working to accomplish the task at hand. The film is essentially a homage to these men.

toko-ri-4I didn’t intend it this way, but I just realized that this film was the perfect film to review today. It is Veterans Day in America and I wanted to thank each and every veteran – and their families.

This post was also written as part of the 2nd Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. In honor of Grace Kelly, I wanted to pay special attention to her role, despite it being small. In many ways, you could argue that she is wasted in this role, but the character is all the better for her performance. It’s the kind of role that could easily get lost, but she demonstrates what good acting (and sheer star magnetism) can do for a small role. I’ve been wondering recently how her career would have developed if she had kept on making movies. What would she have done in the ’60? What kinds of roles would she have taken on (I read that Hitchcock wanted her for Marnie)? But I am at least grateful for the films we have.

Thanks so much to Wonderful World of Cinema for hosting and be sure to read all the rest of the entries, which can be found here.

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Posted by on November 11, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

1943 – Starring Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook – Directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell – Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell

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The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp manages to be a little bit of everything, and what blew me away was how good each bit was and how well it hangs together. It’s about friendship, love and war, a great romance and a satire of the British military leadership, as well as a reminder that Nazism must be defeated at all costs.

It was made in 1943 by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell and it really stands out, during a time when most movies were not particularly subtle about their patriotism. It’s not that Colonel Blimp is an unpatriotic movie, so much as it offers a far more complicated perspective on war; it was not made as a rallying cry. You can’t help but feel in this film that war is a terrible event in which sacrifices of human decency are inevitably made, not exactly a message for people who were being bombed (as the British were, at that time)…but it is a powerful human message nonetheless.

Winston Churchill did not actually want the movie released and the government refused to loan Powell and Pressburger any military equipment for their filming (Powell and Pressburger said they stole some). The reasons were the title (Colonel Blimp was a satirical cartoon that made fun of military and political leaders as reactionary buffoons) and that there was a sympathetic German character in the story (Germans are almost always portrayed as bad in movies made during WWII, no matter what time period the movie was supposed to occur, which was not the case five years earlier in films).

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Theo and Clive

The movie follows the life of Clive Wynn-Candy (Livesey), from the time of the Boer War to WWI to the then-contemporary time of WWII. He first meets Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Walbrook) in a duel and the two forge a close bond, despite Theo winning the woman (Kerr) that Clive hadn’t realized he loved until it was too late. Clive and Theo reunite after WWI, when Theo is a prisoner of war, and later during WWII, after Theo’s wife has died and he is a refugee from Nazi Germany.

Clive represents the old school of war, were he assumes that everyone, including the enemy, is playing by the same gentlemanly rules that he is. He makes me think of Don Quixote, occasionally a buffoon (especially when he is older), definitely not wise to the world, but with tremendous dignity and human warmth. It’s a very human movie, with very human emotions and experiences.

Theo is the one to remind him, during WWII, when Clive is discovering that he is considered essentially useless by the government, that England cannot afford to fight the Nazis with a sense of fair play; they must be willing to use the same tactics as the Nazis.

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Clive and his wife, Barbara

Despite making the case that Clive’s code of conduct and military experience are outmoded, there is a definite sense of loss of human dignity. The new war and the new enemy and new ideologies have a dehumanizing affect.

The story is also about aging and loss and it is heartbreaking to see Theo and Clive age throughout the story; by the end they have very little to offer their countries, but still face the world squarely.

Deborah Kerr is the one person who does not age in this film, because she plays three different women, all of whom are the same age. She is the English governess who writes to Clive to come to Germany and put a stop to the lies being written about England and their war with the Boers. She likes Clive, but he can’t see it and she marries Theo. Next, we see her as a nurse, serving in France during WWI, who looks exactly like the governess. Clive seeks her out and they marry; only for her to die young and in childbirth. Finally, she plays Clive’s driver, who has been assigned to chauffeur him about on his duties in home defense during WWII. As Molly Haskell says, Clive never gets over his first love of the governess and spends the remainder of his days looking for that love in other women…representative of his eternally young love.

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Theo, Clive, and Clive’s chauffuer “Johnny”

There are some wonderfully striking and emotional moments in the film; for example, when Theo recounts his reasons for leaving Germany to an immigration officer and speaks of the suffering after WWI, the death of his wife, and how his sons became Nazis. It’s a scene so quiet and yet far more powerful than if we’d actually seen any of what he describes. In fact, it is notable, as Haskell points out, how the tragedy and serious events do occur off screen in this film. It’s part of the film’s power to make one feel, but still leaves room to be thoughtful.

Notes: It’s not a well known movie at all, although recently it seems to have enjoyed a surge of serious enthusiasm and appreciation and I have heard it called the Citizen Kane of Britain. Part of the reason for it’s obscurity is because it wasn’t released in America until 1947, and then only in black and white and not in it’s full length. Martin Scorsese saw it, however, and was a huge fan and proved to be instrumental in having the film restored in its full Technicolor glory and complete length.

Molly Haskell wrote an essay for the Criterion Collection’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, where she analyzes the film in more detail, discussing the attempts to ban the movie, the myriad elements of the film, from romance to critique of righteous war, how the film was rediscovered and restored, as well as a bit about the producers/writers/directors Powell and Pressburger.

Also on Criterion’s site is a video by Martin Scorsese of how the film was restored, which was especially difficult because of the three-strip Technicolor technique, which he describes briefly.

The film made Roger Ebert’s lists as one of the Great Movies and talks particularly about the aging process and the wisdom and youth of Candy.  He writes “Rarely does a film give us such a nuanced view of the whole span of a man’s life. It is said that the child is father to the man. “Colonel Blimp” makes poetry out of what the old know but the young do not guess: The man contains both the father, and the child.”

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Posted by on May 1, 2014 in Movies

 

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