A ridge too far

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A ridge too far

Describing the fictional Admiral George Tarrant in his 1953 novel The Bridges at Toko-Ri, James A. Michener wrote:

He was known through the navy as George the Tyrant, and any aviator who wanted to fetch a big laugh would grab a saucer in his left hand, a coffee cup in his right, lean back in his chair and survey the audience sourly, snorting, “Rubbish.” Then the mimic would stare piercingly at some one pilot, jab the coffee cup at him and growl, “You, son. What do you think?”

The movie The Bridges at Toko Ri, Paramount, 1954, reviewed by Everard Cunion in January 2014

A lawyer from Colorado, having been a pilot during World War 2, Lt. Brubaker, played by William Holden, is recalled to the US Navy. He is on an aircraft carrier with Task Force 77 off the coast of Korea in November 1952. This movie is based on a novel by James Michener.

Filmed shortly after the end of the war in Korea, the film contains some of the most scenic flying photography I have ever seen and, with the aid of amazingly realistic models, some of the most realistic action woven seamlessly into film of the real thing.



Ditching in the freezing ocean near Korea in the 1950s was fraught. If a swimmer had to jump in to attach you to the hoist, he had to be rescued by a second helicopter because the Dragonfly had no means of winching up a second person. That second helicopter, which had better not malfunction, needs to be on the scene quickly enough so the swimmer’s hands are still working well enough to get into the hoist. Usually there was no third helicopter.

(For a true story about helicopter rescue at sea, see my digression farther down this page.)

Parked A-1s obscure the returning helicopters

Parked A-1s obscure the returning helicopters

The two Dragonflies return, here partly obscured by the folded wings of Skyraiders and Panthers.

While the sleek jet-powered Grumman F9F Panther was retired after the war in Korea, the rugged piston engined, propeller driven Douglas A-1 (originally AD) Skyraider, which first flew at the end of the Second World War, continued in service to provide air cover during rescues of downed airmen in Vietnam.

Radio space

Radio space

A Panther has flamed out and, aboard the aircraft carrier, Admiral Tarrant (played by Fredric March, here in green bomber jacket and tan baseball cap) listens to the radio calls.



This Panther, possibly with a qualified man in the cockpit instead of actor Holden, is on an elevator rising to the flight deck.

Holden on

Holden on

As it nears the camera, Holden is revealed strapped into the ejector seat. If you replay it slowly, you can see the cut, but it is almost seamless. The whole film is extraordinarily well made.

The flight deck action is at least as well filmed as that in Top Gun 30 years later (and 30 years ago as I write this).

Kimiko, played by Keiko Awaji

Kimiko, played by Keiko Awaji

Kimiko is one of several good-looking women in the film.

Air-to-air filming in The Bridges at Toko-Ri is second to none

The Air-to-air filming is second to none.

Admiral Tarrant, played by Fredric March, and Nancy Brubaker, played by Grace Kelly

Admiral Tarrant, played by Fredric March, and Nancy Brubaker, played by Grace Kelly

Tarrant explains to Nancy she must understand the risks to which her husband is subject.

Meanwhile, Able Seaman Nestor Gamidge, played by Earl Holliman, Lieutenant Harry Brubaker, and Chief Petty Officer Mike Fourney, played by Mickey Rooney, manage to stir up trouble in Tokyo.

No officers allowed

No officers allowed

Mike needs Brubaker’s assistance in persuading Kimiko to end her wayward ways and stay with him.

CAG Lee, played by Charles McGraw, presents pre-strike briefing

CAG Lee, played by Charles McGraw, presents pre-strike briefing

In one scene, CAG Lee has a major disagreement with Tarrant.

Much of the air-to-air filming takes advantage of slanting evening sunlight.

Much of the air-to-air filming takes advantage of slanting evening sunlight.



The battle scenes, actual flying combined with scale model action, compete well with modern effects. Additionally, according to Wikipedia, some of it is film from actual combat operations.

Rescue helo crew

Rescue helo crew

Mike and Nestor, the rescue helo crew, are scrambled. (Wasn’t Nestor also Captain Haddock’s butler in Herge’s Adventures of Tintin?)

Communist troops reach the crash site before the rescue helo and they search for the pilot.

Last ditch

Last ditch

The helicopter has landed but is unserviceable. Fourney and Brubaker are for the moment alone in a ditch a mile from the coast. However, those propeller-driven A-1s that were parked on the deck earlier have launched and are inbound.


The helicopter sound effects are not realistic. Also, when rounds fired by Communist troops strike the edge of a muddy ditch, the sound of a ricochet is used nearly every time. Bullets don’t bounce off mud. Only aircraft nerds will notice, but the movie having been filmed after the war, while the Grumman Panthers on the deck of the aircraft carrier are dark blue (as in the war) at least some of the McDonnell Banshees are in natural metal finish, whereas during the war they were dark blue too.

CAG Lee leads the way

CAG Lee leads the way

The necessarily constructed in-cockpit views sometimes do not look quite right because of the angles.


One of the greatest books ever written – and it is so slim I read it in a long evening – is turned into one of the greatest movies ever made.

Tarrant: "Where do we get such men?"

Tarrant: “Where do we get such men?”

If you are ever asked what the best aviation movie of all time is and you answer anything other than The Bridges at Toko-Ri, you are incorrect.

— Quoted from a review by DC Agle in Air & Space, January, 2016


One evening in about 1985 the Eighteen Plus group to which I belonged (not to be confused with the Club 18-30 holiday outfit) we were given a presentation by a Royal Navy rescue helicopter crew. (The venue was an upstairs meeting room of a public house in Christchurch, Dorset, England.) First, they unrolled a rubber dinghy and activated a gas bottle that inflated it. Those of us in the front row of chairs crashed backwards in our haste to avoid being overwhelmed by the yellow rubber monster rushing at us. A slide-show followed. The helicopter pilot provided the narrative while another crewman, who had an award for bravery for rescuing musicians of the pop group Duran Duran from an upturned racing sailboat, operated the projector.

The first of the transparencies, colour cartoons, depicted two men in a raft beside a ditched airplane with its tail sticking out of the ocean. The next slide showed one of the men in the life raft firing a flare, which arced towards an approaching helicopter. “Don’t aim the flare at the rescue aircraft,” said the narrator. “Aim it in front, at right angles to its course. That way we will see a long smoke trail instead of just a tiny red dot. And…” (the slide changed) “you won’t risk shooting down the rescue aircraft.” The new cartoon showed six men, including the original two, all sitting in a large raft. As well as the original aircraft’s tail poking up out of the water, the tail of the rescue helicopter protruded upwards out of the sea. Above the horizon, a second rescue helicopter approached.


Grace Kelly in Fame by (virtual) association

Korean war plastic models, including my 1/48th scale Grumman F9F Panther

Powered flight

Righteous stuff, my review of the movie Toward the Unknown, Warner Brothers, 1956, also starring William Holden and Charles McGraw as pilots

Saving Major Tom–my review of the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice

Saving pilot Durant–my review of Blackhawk Down (2000)

T minus 15 seconds, guidance is internal—my review of First Man, 2018, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11. Armstrong flew F9F Panthers during the war in Korea.

In this Wikimedia Commons photo, Neil Armstrong is flying the Panther farthest from the camera.
In this Wikimedia Commons photo, Neil Armstrong is flying the Panther farthest from the camera.

External link

Electra Flyer of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Larry Newman, a ‘related topics menu’ on my other web site, Hang Gliding History, in which Grace Kelly also appears.

11 Responses to A ridge too far

  1. Big Jake says:

    Not convinced they played jet noises for the Skyraider scenes. The engine sounds I heard of those ADs were not jet noise. It’s a high pitched whistling sound, not low roaring jet thrust. The Skyraider whistles from certain angles and speeds (as does the F4U Corsair). That is the sound being emphasized because it sounds so cool.

    Also the Panther is the F9F, no hyphen.

    • Thanks Jake. This sounds like a reason for me to watch this great movie again.

      • Big Jake says:

        It’s a winner. A true classic.

        Notice how Cdr. Lee gives a thumbs up after engine start then later a salute for the catapult shot. TOP GUN stole this (and inaccurately compressed it). We see Cruise do it in Top Gun:Maverick but I contend it is inaccurate. Modern day cat shots are preceded by a salute alone. Maybe this artistic license is an homage to BATOR.

  2. Big Jake says:

    I went and watched the Skyraider scenes again (at the time they were ADs not A-1s, btw) and the sounds are accurate. You hear the whistling alongside the growling of the radial engines. That’s what Skyraiders often sound like. It’s a great sound.

    • I corrected the hyphen and I added ‘AD’ in brackets.

      • Big Jake says:


        Listen again. The Skyraider noises are pretty accurate. The Navy did a great job keeping accuracy paramount (pun) with this film. A rarity.

        If you like William Holden grab “Toward The Unknown” where he plays an Air Force officer and pilot post-Korean War. Charles McGraw is again Holden’s superior officer.

      • I think you are right about the sound of the ADs. I have better speakers on my computer than when I first reviewed this film. They reproduce low frequencies more accurately. As for Holden not being in the cockpit when the Panther is on the elevator, I no longer recall where I got that from, so I edited the wording to indicate it as a possibility. There is a cut, but it could just be to make the scene go quicker. What a great film though. Considering how long ago it was made, it is astounding!

      • Big Jake says:

        Well, there is one cut as the deck edge elevator is about to reach the flight deck during the launch for the bombing raid on the bridges. The camera cuts from an overhead shot to a side view and the jet taxis forward. The pilot has a mask on and I believe his visor is down. As the plane moves forward it cuts to a close up of Holden with his helmet on, mask off, and boom microphone pointed up out of his face.

        I bet that’s the cut you’re talking about.

      • I had not heard of Toward The Unknown. I found it slow to get going, but it eventually has some good action and its close-ups of those early experimental jets and rocket planes constitute a great resource for model builders. It is a rare item on region 2 DVD, but I have a Spanish version on order. Meanwhile, I watched a low-res copy on the Web.
        Bell X-2 rocket-powered airplane in 'Toward the Unknown'

  3. Big Jake says:

    Thanks, bruh. I enjoyed the article. I never noticed some of the things you pointed out—like the cut to Holden on the elevator. I always thought he was in the cockpit throughout. One of my favorite scenes.

  4. Big Jake says:

    That’s the one. It was the only film William Holden produced himself. I really liked it, especially the drag chute sequence.

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