By Tommy H. Thomason

Monday, November 10, 2008

Most Accurate Aviation Movie Ever?

Faint praise perhaps, but The Bridges at Toko-Ri has to be in the top three. It was based on a slim novel by James Michener, who was embedded on aircraft carriers in action early in the Korean War.

The only major license taken in the book and repeated in the movie was the use of glamorous jets (Banshees in the book and Panthers in the movie) to drop the bridges. They and their puny bomb/rocket loads would have been used for anti-aircraft defense suppression instead, with Skyraiders doing the heavy lifting. Oh, and the F9F-5P shown here is an F9F-5 with a camera window painted on it - the real F9F-5P nose was 12 inches longer and didn't have four 20mm cannon sticking out the front of it.

Another is a very minor marking error on the actual F9F Panther used in the final scenes. The aircraft number is 209 but the number on the vertical fin is 4. It should be 9. (I checked the airborne footage before the crash landing; it doesn't appear that any number is on the fin of the aircraft being filmed.)

However, in this scene of CAG's crash in 21PP, they've taken the trouble to include Davis barrier straps being dragged as shown in the real barrier engagement of 109D shown above in black and white. In exterior closeups of the cockpits during the landing approach, the barrier engagement post in front of the canopy is extended. Compare it to the following picture, which is of an actual incident (the pilot caught one of the last wires and the barrier operator chose not to lower it).

It would appear that all of the scenes with airplanes were shot specifically for the movie, with no stock footage of the GB crash or other foolishness. It isn't immediately obvious that the scenes done with models weren't the real thing and they were good enough to win the 1955 Academy Award for Best Special Effects - no CGI back then. And I'm sure that most fighter pilots' wives look like Grace Kelly.

If you haven't seen it or seen it in a while and have any interest in carrier-based Naval aviation history, I suggest that you go buy the DVD from Amazon. Only $10. For men of a certain age, like me, it's also a great movie.


Yves Marino said...

Maybe the most unrealistic parts in the movie are when all aircrafts in the air are F9F-2, but all planes landing or taking off are F9F-5. When I watched the movie for the first time I didn't see the difference, but later I checked all the scenes in the air and it's always the same. And of course both types of planes have the same numbers e.g. 209.
Same thing during the crash scene: the real flying planes of “Brubaker” and the CAG are F9F-2, but the “crashing” model is a F9F-5. Only the PP-21 of Cmdr. Lee is a F9F-5 when taking off, flying or landing.Unfortunately as already mentioned above not a F9F-5P.
By the way the same discrepancy can be seen in the other "Panther"-movie - "Men of the fighting lady".

TCinLA said...

Fun fact: when the movie crew went to Japan and filmed aboard Oriskany for two weeks, they got all the operating-on-the-carrier shots, which were VF-192 (after the movie came out, they changed "Golden Dragons" to "World Famous Golden Dragons"). The aerial work was done back in California (mostly over northern San Diego County) by VF-5, who were unhappy boys to have to repaint their F9F-2s as "Golden Dragons".

Even more fun fact: Mickey Rooney told me that when he was offered the role of Chief Forney, friends told him "If you do this, you won't have a career" (it was a "chancy" project to tell a story like this at the height of McCarthyism) to which he replied "I have no career to lose!" Chief Forney was his third re-birth to stardom. When he came aboard Oriskany, the Air Group pilots were there to greet them. He walked up to the CAG and said "Shake the hand that held Ava Gardner's t - -!" He was an immediate hit. After they were finished for the day, he did "let's do a show!" on the hangar deck every night for the crew and made himself a bigger hit.

And the fun fact of all fun facts: the real "Brubaker" and the real "Chief Forney" survived 18 months in POW camp and came home in 1953. VF-154 pilot Lt(jg) Harry Ettinger, and Chief NAP Duane Thorin from USS Rochester's HU-2 detachment were thought by all aboard Valley Forge to have been killed in a failed rescue attempt in February 1952, a very big sad story that Michener wrote about in both the Saturday Evening Post and Reader's Digest, and used as the basis for the end of the novel. Ettinger and Thorin walked out of Panmunjom the week after the book was sold to Hollywood, and both later went to see it together.

Every Korean War vet naval aviator I have ever spoken to says this is the best movie about naval aviation ever made.