60th Anniversary: Remembering 'The Forgotten War' Through Film — Part 5

Friday, June 25th, marked the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Coming just five years after the end of World War II, the fighting would last three years and cost the lives of 34,000 Americans, 17,000 soldiers from other UN nations, and several million Koreans and Chinese — both military and civilian.

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You would think with such serious statistics and the pain, suffering, sacrifice and drama they imply, that Hollywood would have been drawn to the Korean War as a setting for a bevy of war movies. But sadly there are only a few films that tackle the subject. Still, some notables do stand out. So if you are looking for a way to honor the veterans of what has been called “the forgotten war” (apparently by Hollywood, as well), I hope you’ll look back at the previous chapters of this series in which I humbly presented my five favorite Korean War films, starting with the most recent one produced.

My thoughts on the war and its meaning (especially since my dad fought there) can be found at Big Government. Here at BH my interest was in Hollywood’s treatment of the subject matter as expressed through the motion picture medium.

And so I conclude my series with my personal favorite below. God bless all who served in that war. And if the Marines who read this will pardon this respectful civilian’s use of their motto just this one time, I offer my father, 2nd Lieutenant Jack Schaeffer, 1st US Marine Division, Purple Heart – Korea, now storming the great beachead in the sky, Semper Fi.

The Bridges At Toko-Ri (1954): Based on the novel of the same title by James Michener, the film stars William Holden as naval aviator Harry Brubaker, a veteran of WW2 who practiced law after the war but then was recalled as a reservist to fly missions over North Korea. Stationed on a carrier, his command is tasked with taking out the heavily defended title bridges.

The film features a stellar supporting cast that includes Grace Kelly as his concerned wife Nancy (who meets him in Tokyo), Frederick March as the paternal Rear Adm. Tarrant, and Mickey Rooney as CPO Mike Forney, a selfless if eccentric helicopter rescue pilot. Brubaker is suffering combat fatigue and yearns desperately to return to his civilian life and family, but his sense of duty keeps him flying–even as he suspects his death in combat is imminent.

Sadly his premonition comes true. The movie’s tragic ending, where Brubaker and Forney are overrun by Chinese and killed after the former crashes and the latter is also downed trying to rescue him, is emblematic of the war in which Brubaker lamented fighting in such a far away place that seemed to matter little, save to those who were there. Waiting in a ditch for the Chinese onslaught, Brubaker poignantly reflects on Adm. Tarrant’s take on the whole war (which coincidentally echoed Harry Truman’s words):

“The wrong war in the wrong place and that’s the one your stuck with…I can see now he was right. You fight simply because you’re here.”

The film ends with Tarrant famously commenting on his pilots’ deaths which hits him hard. He poses a question to himself that rings as true today as it did sixty years ago when thinking on that war: “Where do we get such men?”

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