War Movies III

(This the third in an occasional series. (Previously here and here.))

By way of preface, I should say that I saw many, many war movies on TV up to 1981, growing up outside of Boston and watching Channel 56, which had a small but decent stock of films which it re-ran continually. Channel 38 and Channel 10 in Providence also had a decent supply of old movies. Since then I have, mostly voluntarily, not had regular access to a TV, and I don’t own one now, though I do occasionally watch a dvd on the “small screen” — our laptop. So, thinking about war movies is at least as much about childhood impressions of old war movies as it is about any mature appreciation of any of these.

The Korean War, the so-called forgotten war, has indeed largely been forgotten by Hollywood. But it did produce two good war movies which had a strong influence on me. Pork Chop Hill is a well-crafted combat film, with a stoic Gregory Peck at the center of a remarkable collection of character actors (Norman Fell, Robert Blake, Harry Guardino, Martin Landau, Rip Torn, George Peppard) playing the American grunts who capture the Hill and then have to hold off swarms of counter-attacking Chicoms. Gregory Peck’s troops are sent forward into battle, and then abandoned when the back-office decides it has lost enough men for a worthless hill. This cinematic depiction of betrayal and discarded courage and suffering has, I believe accurately, shaped my vision of authority ever since. The Bridges at Toko Ri is the tale of Navy aviator Harry Brubaker (William Holden) who served in World War II, and who voluntarily returns to service, leaving behind his lovely young wife (Grace Kelly) to go back into harm’s way. I first saw this movie when I was about eight years old. Holden is under-rated as one of the last, great Hollywood leading men. Mickey Rooney is solid as a brawling sailor who has saved Brubaker’s life once already, and dies trying to do so again. The movie drags a little in the middle, but all is forgiven for the closing minutes. Gripping scenes as the aircraft are launched, and streak toward the target. The planes fly into a narrow valley, through a hail of flak, to take out the bridges. Brubaker’s F9F Panther is hit. He cannot make it over that last ridge to ditch in the sea. (A little kid in pajamas is sitting on the couch saying “oh no, oh no, oh no …”, but the Navy aviators on the TV are all business.) His buddies try to keep the chicoms away from his crash site, strafing with guns and rockets. The closing scene, set in “a muddy ditch in Korea,” has stuck with me ever since as the true face of the sacrifices made for freedom.

Sometimes the good guys die.

14 thoughts on “War Movies III”

  1. A quibble: I don’t think Holden’s character would have flown a Skyhawk (introduced 1954). More likely he flew something like a Phantom I or Panther.

  2. Your probably right. But I’m just going off of memory here, so I’ll leave it. Go rent the movie and confirm your intuition.

  3. Grace Kelley was never more luscious than in The Bridges of Toko-Ri. That scene with her and Bill Holden in the steamy Japanese swimming pool can only be described as delicately yet maddeningly erotic.

  4. Yeah, yeah… but what about Creature Double Feature? ;-)

    I agree about Holden – truly great. I haven’t seen either movie, but obviously will have to. Thanks for the reviews.

  5. Not Phantoms or Panthers either. F2H Bansee. ;) I have a very old copy of the book. Read it in the early 70s.

  6. Joe is wrong (Grumman’s F2H Banshee came later), Jonathan is right. The answer is Grumman F9F Panther. Check the individual aircraft that appeared in Bridges at Toko-Ri here. The movie is one of my favorites and it was the biggest factor in my choosing to be a pilot.

  7. I don’t know what the plane was, but I do recall that the Holden character had not voluntarily returned to service. He was, in fact, somewhat bitter about having been recalled (at least that was the case in the book–I read it and saw the movie so long ago that I could have them confused in the details).
    The end of that movie is a fascinating glimpse at the differences between Hollywood then and Hollywood now. The movie was clearly intended to close with the image of Holden and Rooney sprawled in the ditch, but instead, a final Frederic March speech was tacked on praising their patriotism and wondering “where do we get such men?” Today, I think the movie would end in the ditch.

  8. Funny Val. Grumman didn’t make the Bansee. McDonnell Douglas (now owned by Boeing) did. Vendor page with a nice reference to the book:

    A link to the Panther doesn’t really show anything other than it was a plane does it? Off the top of my head, there were two versions of the F9F. The Cougar and the Panther. Straight wings versus swept. We’re way off topic now.

  9. “Grumman didn’t make the Bansee”

    You’re right on the Banshee, I checked it and still wrote Grumman, my fault. Banshees also participated in the Korean War.

    “A link to the Panther doesn’t really show anything other than it was a plane does it?”

    Yes it does, if you scroll down on the second link I posted, you’ll find the individual Panther serial numbers that appeared in the movie. Can’t get more factual than that!

    You’re also right in that both Grummans were F9F, Panthers (straigth wing) were F9F-2 to F9F-5; Cougars (swept wing) were F9F-6 to F9F-8. Only Panthers saw action in Korea.

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