I had a chance a few months ago to see (twice, as a matter of fact) the movie “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” on television. These were the first times I had seen the movie since it came out in December, 1954. As an impressionable junior high school student with an interest in flying and with a father in the US military, it became one of my favorite movies, though I never had a chance to see it more than once back then. Since such a long time had passed since I’d first seen the movie, I’d forgotten a lot of the details about it, especially the ending. It was that ending that made such an impression on me as I watched it earlier this year (2018). And it is that ending I want to comment on here.
The movie takes place during the Korean War, and concerns a US Navy fighter pilot, a Lt. Harry Brubaker (played by William Holden) ordered—as a part of a lager force of jet fighters—to attack and destroy a group of bridges a the North Korean town of Toko-Ri. The bridges carry a major part of the traffic of supplies and materiel the North Koreans need to sustain their invasion, and they’ve become a major target for the UN forces. The planes attack and the bridges are destroyed. Then they continue to an second target and bomb it. But here, in this attack on a somewhat less important target, Holden’s plane is damaged, and he’s forced to crash land in North Korea. He can’t make it back to the aircraft carrier. A helicopter from the carrier arrives to try to pick him up, but the helicopter is shot down too, and now two more Navy guys are stuck on the ground with Holden, with no way to escape. This is where the ending takes an unusual turn. All three Americans are killed. Not rescued. Killed.
Why is this so unusual? Lt. Brubaker, the protagonist of the movie (and of the book by James Michener from which it was adapted) dies in the end. And in a rather gruesome way. He doesn’t make it back after going through so much to destroy two targets. He does what he’s asked to do by the US Navy, yet he doesn’t get a hero’s welcome. In so many books I’ve read, and perhaps the most common ending for novels, especially action/adventure stories, the hero lives. His/her return may be to the accolade of comrades, or it might be a quiet return with little fanfare and no recognition, but he/she returns alive to fight another day. Picture the ending in the first “Star Wars” movie. Hip-hip-hooray. Uplifting martial music. Highly polished droids. Happily ever after. Princess Leia as you will never see her again.
But in Toko-Ri, Brubaker is dead. And two other guys, too. And in an ugly, sewage-filled ditch in North Korea.
That type of ending surprised me, though I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s different. It’s not wedded to a stereotypical ending of “happily ever after.” It represents the triumph of imagination over the standard or conventional. The hero in a novel doesn’t always have to win and live to fight again. Sometimes he’s blown away in a hail of bullets. I suggest taking this type of ending into consideration. Even if you’re not writing a military book. Heroes do die.