The best naval aviation movie ever. A huge commercial failure because the heroes died at the end. When my writing mentor Wendell Mayes wrote “The Hunters,” it explicitly said at the end that Clete Purcell (Mitchum’s character) died – “They caught him high over the Yalu and pursued him in the manner of hunters.” Jack Warner told Dick Powell (the director) that he wasn’t going to “release another mess “like that g**da**ed Bridges at Toko-ri” and they changed it to just have May Britt look out at Purcell at the hospital with no dialogue.
The movie made a profound impression on 10 year old me, that the heroes died. 15 years later, it showed up on late night TV and Vietnam veterans unable to sleep watched it and loved that it told the truth – a man who didn’t want to be there, who was afraid of his job, and did it anyway – and it became one of the top 5 war movies ever 20 years later.
Mickey Rooney once told me that when he accepted the role of Chief Forney, friends told him if he took the role, he’d lose his career. “Only I had no career to lose at the time!” In fact, the role gave him his fourth come-back. When they went aboard the Oriskany, Rooney walked up to the CAG of AG-19 and said “Shake the hand that held Ava Gardner’s t i t!” He was a hit with the aviators, and the crew loved him because he put on a show on the hangar deck every night for them.
The movie was based on James Michener’s novel, “the Bridges at Toko-ri”, which was based on his six weeks spent aboard USS Essex in the fall of 1951 (where he became friends with a young Ensign with a reputation for being “cool in emergencies” named Neil Armstrong) and the USS Valley Forge in January-February 1952 at the time the crew changed her nickname from “Happy Valley” to “Death Valley.” Where he met a Skyraider pilot named Donald Brubaker, who was a Reservist lawyer from Denver.
On February 8, 1952, Chief NAP Duane Thorin, a helicopter pilot who had been put off the Essex by the
Admiral for wearing a kelly green baseball hat once off the ship, and had a fleet-wide reputation for 130 pickups of downed aviators, was sent in to pick up Harry Ettinger, a pilot who had been lost in December, rescued by Korean guerillas. The helicopter was shot down in the rescue attempt. There were 78 sorties flown that day to rescue the two men, all unsuccessful. The next day, what was thought to be blood in the snow was spotted and they were given up for dead. Michener wrote a Reader’s Digest article about the failed rescue and used it in what became his novel.
In August 1953, just after the novel came out and just after it had been purchased by Paramount as a movie, Duane Thorin and Harry Ettinger were released from the POW camp they had been held in. The “blood in the snow” was from their life vests.
“Brubaker” and “Chief Forney” lived.
The movie was considered incredibly controversial when it came out in 1954, the height of McCarthyism – an American who didn’t want to be there, was afraid of his job and hated it. Not much of an “exceptional American hero” huh? Valentine Davies wrote the screenplay, and ever since the Writer’s Guild of America has had an award, The Valentine Davies Award, little given, for the screenwriter who writes “the truth in the face of those who do not want the truth told.”
When I interviewed Tom Hudner, I asked him about flying off the carriers in Korea, he responded “Did you ever see The Bridges At Toko-ri? It was exactly like that.”
This coming February, you can read the entire “true story of the Bridges at Toko-ri” in my coming book, “Holding The Line: Naval Aviation in the Korean War.”
And here’s a model of Brubaker’s Panther. And Chief Forney’s “Horse”
And sorry for William Holden fans, but major drunk William Holden (drunk every day for 40 years till he died when he tripped on the stairs, drunk, and broke his neck in the fall in 1982) never argued with the screenwriter or the director about his character. He played them as written. It was director Mark Robson, screenwriter Valentine Davies, and USN technical advisor CDR Marshall U. Beebe who argued to keep the novel’s ending that Paramount hated.
Forgot to mention, the guys in VF-5, who were originally scheduled by the Navy to do the A2A work and did all the “Over Korea” flying (over northern San Diego county) were a sad bunch of naval aviators when they had to paint their airplanes like VF-192 after the film crew went to Japan to do the carrier work and spent ten days on Oriskany. VF-192 changed their name from “Golden Dragons” to “World Famous Golden Dragons” after they were in the movie.
7 attached images. Click to enlarge.