I recently took a trip down memory lane to remember something I saw when I was nine years old.
That something happened one Saturday night, I’m pretty sure. There used to be a TV show called “Saturday Night at the Movies,” sort of like a pre-cable with-commercials version of HBO. The movie was “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” based on the novel by James Michener.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the film, it’s one of the really great aviation stories. The plot revolves around a Navy squadron, flying F9F Panthers, during the Korean War. The squadron’s mission is to destroy a series of strategic railroad bridges used to ferry supplies to the North Koreans. The bridges, of course, are at a place called Toko-Ri.
The protagonist of the film is a pilot named Brubaker. If memory serves, and at this distance in time I may not have the details right, Brubaker was a WW2 pilot called back to fly in Korea. He left a law practice and a wife to do that.
The film’s climax is the attack on the bridges. I kind of forgot I was watching a movie, I think. Sometimes a story will hit you that way, you’re in the world, that world, where the characters are doing something extremely scary, and even on screen, the flak thrown up by the defenders of the bridges looked scary to me.
Scary as hell.
Accurate too, because during the attack Brubaker’s Panther is hit and severely damaged. He manages to get away from the target, turns for the coast where he can hope for rescue, but is forced to crash-land still inside North Korean territory. But hope arrives in the form of a rescue helicopter, but the helicopter is hit by ground fire. The crew makes it out, joining Brubaker in the muddy ditch where he’s taken shelter. The North Koreans close in, and one by one they kill the Americans.
All of them.
The image of Brubaker being shot to death wasn’t gory, certainly by later cinematic standards, but it was unquestionably final. Brubaker dies in a muddy ditch, covered in mud.
It was the first time I saw, even if I didn’t exactly comprehend, a good guy, the good guy, the protagonist of the film, die. What I remember was a profound sense of shock. In my nine-year-old universe, which of course encompassed all things, that was something previously unimaginable.
My parents were watching the movie. I don’t remember if I, or they, said anything. I might have said what I was thinking: “They killed him!”
The truth is that moment was seared into my mind. I remember the end of the movie, sort of, where the Admiral ponders the question “Where do we find such men?” But the story had already ended.
It was a shock I never forgot. I don’t say it was a traumatic experience, but I think it was formative. It was certainly a learning experience.
What I learned was that the good guys die, and it’s the bad guys who kill them. And the hero’s story stops right there, in the North Korean mud.
It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.