This is my contribution to The Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema blog. Please visit and take a look at the other postings.After watching this powerful and haunting Korean war film, I belatedly realised it wasn’t really a good choice for a Grace Kelly blogathon. Kelly’s screen time is all too limited and her part doesn’t give her much scope as an actress. However, her character, Nancy, is important, giving a glimpse of the life that the reluctant hero, her husband Harry Brubaker (William Holden) has been wrenched away from.
Based on a book by James Michener, whose work also inspired South Pacific, this film has hints of the musical’s mood of disillusion over war. Despite being released only a short time after the end of the Korean War, and made with the co-operation of the US Navy, it isn’t the gung-ho propaganda piece I was half-expecting. The movie pays tribute to the courage of the individuals caught up in the conflict, but suggests that many of them didn’t really know why they were there. Although there are many exciting and stirring scenes, which won the film an Oscar for best special effects, they are often undercut by the sadness and weariness of the central character. This element gives this glossy action picture a surprisingly downbeat feeling at times.
The main characters of the film were based on real people, and the central mission was inspired by real attacks on bridges. It centres on the lives of naval bomber pilots serving aboard an aircraft carrier commanded by Admiral Tarrant (Fredric March). At the start of the film, Harry, is forced to land his plane in the sea and is rescued by helicopter pilot Mike Forney (Mickey Rooney, relishing a role worlds away from his Andy Hardy films) and his devoted sidekick Nestor Gamidge (Earl Holliman). Tarrant is worried about Harry, who reminds him of his own lost son, and overjoyed when the pilot survives – but he warns Harry that there is another major task ahead, as he will have to bomb the bridges at Toko-Ri. These bridges quickly take on a symbolic significance, embodying defiance of the enemy, and Tarrant spouts the party line about how destroying them will send a strong message to the Communists – a key speech which underlines the film’s support of the war, on the surface.
However, undercutting this, it’s plain that Harry isn’t really convinced, or even listening. He is understandably more interested in his forthcoming reunion with his wife, Nancy (Kelly), who has somehow managed to travel to Tokyo with their two little daughters for a three-day reunion while Harry takes leave. Kelly wears a glamorous succession of outfits designed by Edith Head, and it’s not easy to believe that she has really travelled thousands of miles to be with her husband. But her cool and elegant appearance, if hard to swallow in factual terms, does help to suggest the huge distance between Harry’s life at home and the one he is being forced to lead in the Navy.
His character isn’t a volunteer, but a Second World War veteran who has been called up to fly again, and who angrily wonders why he has to go through it all instead of going home. Although Harry is supposed to be about 30, Holden here is several years older and looks it, helping to give the character a feeling of tiredness. ‘I’m a lawyer from Denver, Colorado’, he says in one key scene – and, when asked what he is doing in Korea, replies ‘I was asking myself that same question.’ Also, towards the end of the film, he whispers to himself the famous line of General Bradley’s about “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time”.
We never see his life as a lawyer – but we do see his strong relationship with Nancy, as they discuss whether to arrange piano lessons for their daughters and take the girls on a swimming trip. I’d have liked a bit more detail about their home and family, but there isn’t time for more than a few broad brush strokes here. The swimming trip is a strange scene where, as the family is swimming in privacy in the pool, after booking the whole area, a Japanese family comes in and starts to undress, apparently about to swim in the nude. At first it seems as if this is a bit of stereotyped comedy – but, once the Japanese family has plunged into the second pool alongside the one where the Brubakers are swimming, the mood changes and becomes rather touching, as the two families realise that they are in a way mirror images, and the four little girls begin to strike up an instant friendship.
Nancy has tried to keep things normal for her family by largely ignoring her husband’s war-time role and not asking him about what he is doing. However, when they meet up with Tarrant, he talks to her about what is going on and makes her realise that she must work to understand all of her husband’s life – and also confront the reality that he might die. Tarrant tells her some horrifying stories of what his own family has gone through, with his sons’ deaths and his wife sinking into depression. All this sadly shows what the future might hold for the apparently idyllic, golden young family we have just been watching. Fredric March is great as Tarrant, with his haunted eyes saying much more than the dialogue does.
One of the least successful aspects of the film is the attempt at comic relief through the character of Mike (Rooney), who is always getting into brawls and has relationships with stereotyped Tokyo bar hostesses. There are some great scenes of Mike flying his rescue helicopter and insisting on wearing a non-regulation green hat so that the soldiers on the ground, or in the water, can see him – but some of the humour surrounding him isn’t very funny, to me anyway!
The movie’s most powerful section comes after Harry has returned to service and said goodbye to Nancy. There is a tense mission where he almost has to ditch another plane in the water, and after that he starts to lose his nerve – just as he is trying to gear himself up for the bridges raid. This isn’t done in a melodramatic way – Harry doesn’t start shouting and screaming, and when he looks at his own hands they aren’t even shaking. Or only a tiny bit. But, just like March, Holden is able to express the character’s inner torment through the expression in his eyes. It’s plain that Harry is in an impossible position here – he is told that if he reports he is sick, it won’t reflect on him, but how can he refuse to take part in the crucial mission which the whole film has been leading up to? He thinks about Nancy at this time and tries to write her a letter, but he can’t find the right words.
This next bit discusses the ending.
Inevitably, Harry does manage to overcome his fear and exhaustion, or at least he overcomes them enough to head off on the bridges’ mission. This is compellingly portrayed, with some of those Oscar-winning special effects, The bridges are successfully destroyed – but, with bombs left over, the pilots are sent on to attack ‘secondary targets’ – and at this point Harry’s plane is hit. Losing fuel, he tries to make it to the water so that Mike and Nestor can pick him up again, as they did at the start of the film – but this time the fuel doesn’t hold out long enough. He crash-lands behind enemy lines and finds himself in a muddy ditch, where he tries to hold off Korean troops until he can be rescued. However, when Mike and Nestor arrive, their helicopter is soon shot up and Nestor is killed.
Then it’s just Harry and Mike in the ditch, exchanging a few last lines of courageous banter. I must admit I expected them to escape even at this stage, and was rather shocked when they both die. Even though this is the realistic ending, somehow in a glossy war film like this I was expecting a miracle and for Harry at least to get through. But he doesn’t, and now it’s Tarrant who is struggling to find the right words for a letter to Nancy. Although Nancy isn’t seen again after bidding farewell to her husband, the film ends with mentions of both her and him – as a haunted Tarrant asks what he can say to such a woman, and then goes on to ask “Where do we get such men?”
I was surprised to learn that in reality the shot-down aviators who inspired the characters survived and were taken prisoner, but they were thought to be dead when Michener wrote his book. All in all, this is a moving war film which celebrates heroism and yet has a surprisingly dark, downbeat feeling.
Most of the photos are taken from Doctor Macro.