What’s the best true-story WW2 combat film for pure-grit, no-nonsense tanks ‘n’ bombs ‘n’ crazy mayhem action on a giant scale? This non-stop battle epic gets my vote. George Segal and Ben Gazzara’s infantry dogs are suitably tough, cynical and desperate, especially when they’re repeatedly sent into danger. The history is fairly accurate — there was indeed a race to seize the last bridge across the River Rhine.
The Bridge at Remagen
1969 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 117 min. / Street Date June 13, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring: George Segal, Robert Vaughn, Ben Gazzara, Bradford Dillman, E.G. Marshall, Peter Van Eyck, Hans Christian Blech, Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, G&uunl;nter Meisner.
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Film Editors: William Cartwright, Harry Knapp, Marshall Neilan Jr.
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Written by Richard Yates, William Roberts, Roger Hirson
Produced by David L. Wolper
Directed by John Guillermin
Who are these filmmakers trying to kid? We know who captured the Remagen Bridge and ‘helped win the war’ — it was Harry Bailey, the brother of the richest guy in town!
1969’s The Bridge at Remagen doesn’t tell the absolute true story of the taking of the Remagen Bridge, which was actually the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen. But the main facts are correct and the desperate battles are more detailed than any Hollywood combat show made previously. For spectacle Remagen gets an A+ — the producers obtained permission to simply blow up a large part of a Czechoslovakian town scheduled for demolition, giving the show a realism seen nowhere else.
Director John Guillermin has some good action movies in his resume (Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure) but surely won this assignment for his excellent work on The Blue Max. In this show he does well enough with the dramatic scenes, and exceptionally well marshaling the huge action set pieces. It’s one of those movies in which one wants to nominate the assistant directors for an Oscar.
By 1969 big war movies were more popular than ever, and more expensive than ever. They needed big stars and big concepts, which is what led to wild escapist war fantasies (The Dirty Dozen), James Bond adventures transplanted into the past (Operation Crossbow) and even hipster comedies (Kelly’s Heroes). Remagen plays it straight, giving us portraits of tough infantrymen pushed to the limit. The excellent script captures the essence of professional soldiers that have been fighting steadily for weeks without rest, and are so exhausted that they’re all but ready to turn on their officers. I wish that Samuel Fuller, a real infantryman in this theater of combat, had weighed in with an opinion on The Bridge at Remagen. I think that in general he would have approved.
A gruesome casualty forces Lt. Phil Hartman (George Segal) to take command of his tiny ‘spearhead’ advance patrol, which his commanding officer Major Barnes (Bradford Dillman) repeatedly volunteers for the worst assignments, without adequate rest. Hartman has issues with his Sergeant ‘Angel’ Angelo (Ben Gazzara), who has a feral attitude toward combat and is greedy about robbing the dead. In the rush to cross the Rhine and enter Germany, General Shinner (E.G. Marshall) makes speed the priority, hurling troops on the offensive in a race to capture bridges before the Germans can use them to retreat. Thus, the career-minded Barnes repeatedly lies to his men, saying that ‘just one more push’ is all he needs. Hartman’s squad must battle their way to the Rhine, where they find the bridge intact but heavily defended from the far bank. There’s no way to take it without a lot of men getting killed – and when Barnes gives them direct orders to leap into action yet again, there’s no way to refuse him.
Meanwhile, the retreating German army on the other side of the river is in a mess. The war is obviously lost but Hitler won’t let his ranking generals even admit that a retreat is happening. They order the frustrated General von Brock (Peter Van Eyck) to blow up the last bridge across the Rhine, to slam the door on the advancing American army. Von Brock conspires to disobey with another proud career officer, Major Kreuger (Robert Vaughn). They’ll wait until the last moment to blow up the bridge, so that many thousands of retreating German soldiers can first use it to escape back home. But the whole issue may out of their hands, if the needed explosives don’t arrive to do the job.
The huge undertaking The Bridge at Remagen was made possible because dealing with an entire government, in this case Czechoslovakia enjoying a brief relaxing of harsh communist rule, gave producer David L. Wolper access to entire army units and masses of vintage WW2 materiel. The first scene is as spectacular as any seen in a war film — U.S. tanks race to the river as a retreating German troop train slips across a bridge to safety. Driving at full speed along the riverbank, the moving tanks engage cannon fire from across the river. Everything is blowing up. It’s like a battle being fought inside a pinball machine, or at the Indianapolis 500.
Hartman’s unit is an all-pro group of survivors that haven’t stopped fighting since Normandy. Their forward unit makes use of enemy vehicles to avoid ambushes. They live off the land, take what they find and observe no ‘noble’ military rituals. They hate what they’re doing and hate their commanding officers. The most they can hope for is a chance to stay alive, and their brown-nosing Major Barnes seems intent on taking that away from them too. When the unit gets a chance to rest, it’s too wound-up to sleep. A woman offers to sleep with Hartman in exchange for some cigarettes, but he’s too exhausted to grab the opportunity.
Segal’s Hartman and Gazzara’s Angelo are a winning team of cynical, frustrated warriors, thrust by fate into one of the most important military actions of the century. Segal looks prematurely aged, a guy in his twenties but pushing forty. He gnashes cigars and acts sullen, and perhaps affects one too many ‘tough guy’ stances here or there. But otherwise Segal is utterly convincing as a guy who has to be a mean SOB to keep his men moving. Hartman seems particularly mad that he has to lead the platoon. He’s now the one Angel and the others complain to. He’s the one who has to deal with the dishonest, ambitious Major Barnes.
Ben Gazzara’s Angelo is a good man transformed by combat practicalities, who survives by pretending it’s all a sick game. Angelo initially comes off as a grinning ghoul, justifying his thievery by claiming that everybody profits from war, so he should too. But he is momentarily stricken when he discovers he’s shot a 12-year-old kid, a Hitler Youth putting up a stubborn last stand. Sort of a proletarian rebel, Angelo makes sense when he advises Hartman not to disturb the men’s well-deserved rest: “If we tell them to move they’ll kill us.”
He’s not kidding — these are tough men pushed to the limit. These guys must have been tough. Exhausted, filthy, miserable, they had to carry all that heavy weight and still fight. No wonder boys admire soldiers, and consider combat a rite of passage.
The picture does have drawbacks. We can forgive the fact that, as late as 1969 they’re still making war pictures where all the Germans speak English. This works fairly well, as the actors are convincingly German, and cover a nice range of attitudes to the oncoming defeat and chaos. The weak link for this viewer is the casting of all-American Robert Vaughn as the proud Wehrmacht Major who seizes the bridge defense as his moment of glory. In comparison to the realism around him Vaughn seems fake from the get-go, and in this context his introspective & sensitive acting style is even less convincing. Vaughn doesn’t look like anybody who could scream an order under stress, and elicit obedience. When he shoots a pair of deserters, he’s not a good officer cracking up, but a wimp waxing wimpier.
Is there really such a thing as an anti-war combat film? The awful truth is that a well-depicted large-scale battle is fascinating. The Remagen screenplay spells out a lot of complicated strategies, keeping us informed of what units are where and who has the upper hand. There’s also no cheating on the realism. When the actual battle on the bridge begins, both sides can hurl all kinds of fire down the center. The only way to progress is to dodge up the sides of the bridge between the girders of the superstructure.
While preparing his bridge defense, Vaughn’s Kreuger gets a positive response from his troops because he can tell them that backup is on the way. By the time he knows that no help is coming, not even the needed explosives, Kreuger’s defensive positions have been blown to bits by the scores of tanks firing from across the river. His group of holdouts must hunker down in a tunnel at the East riverbank. But they can still fire directly onto the bridge. The bad news for Hartman, Angelo & Co. is that it all comes down to them. They’re the ones who must ‘dance into the fire,’ climb onto the bridge and try to rip out all the explosive charges.
Remagen more than delivers the big-scale action goods. An entire tank corps is seen on the move. Instead of isolated action, Guillermin’s moving camera ties Hartman’s platoon in with shots of tanks smashing through walls and barricades. There’s a blitz attack on an occupied farmhouse, the taking of a town adjacent to the river and the extended battle on the river itself. Trains, trucks, tanks, and aircraft work together, without marginalizing the human element.
After seeing the picture two or three times, its superior action montage becomes more apparent. An early scene sees Major Krueger trying to get civilian refugees, in wagons and on foot, off the bridge during an air raid. Nothing is short-changed. Chaotic handheld material alternates with wide master shots showing the entire bridge engulfed in explosions and water spouts, with men and mules tumbling off into the river. Clever cutting multiplies the action without being obvious about the repetitions — those two guys jump off the bridge more than once. Go back and forth a bit and you can play the hubcap game from Bullitt: just how many hubcaps did that one Volkswagen lose in the big chase scene — six? seven? Shots even follow bombs as they fall. An interesting detail takes Remagen in a more realistic direction than older war pictures – ‘our’ Allied bombers attack the bridge when it’s packed with civilians. In an older film, only the enemy would be shown doing such a thing, with the inference that a war crime is being committed.
Much of the destruction we see is 100% real. Real stone buildings are blown apart, and tons of dirt and water are thrown into the air, so it’s obvious that powerful explosives are being used, not dummy charges. When an entire building collapses from a blast, a huge cloud of dirt fills the screen. Kreuger’s first attempt to blow the bridge fails, but it does blow a large crater at the West end. The action at the platoon level is utterly convincing, and crammed with physical details. We’re often crawling with the men at ground level, as enemy fire pins them down. Some of the best touches are perceived through the jaundiced eyes of the combatants — both Hartman and Kreuger are not pleased by an innkeeper, who puts up and takes down a portrait of Hitler depending on which side has control of the town.
The show is about the reality of warfare on what Major Barnes calls ‘the cutting edge.’ For Hartman’s men the action is an unending meat grinder. True, the real battle for the Ludendorf was more complicated, and the roughest fighting apparently didn’t take place on the bridge itself. In this account only the German side is slightly lacking, as Major Kreuger would have to be awfully naive to believe that his actions won’t get him accused of treason. The tragedy is that officers like General von Brock and Major Kreuger have to place honor ahead of reason. Neither believes in victory and both want to save lives, but neither has the luxury of doing the right thing. The realistic Captain Schmidt (Hans Christian Blech), for instance, would just like to surrender and get back to teaching school.
At the strategic end of things, the situation is almost absurd — both sides go back and forth on whether the right thing to do is hold the bridge or blow it up (the Germans) or take the bridge or blow it up (the Americans). In the end I guess the bridge had the last laugh. In reality it withstood the punishment dished out by both sides and stood firm. It finally fell only later on, as if taking its own sweet time.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Bridge at Remagen is a welcome high-quality transfer of this fairly obscure combat saga. It never seems to show up on the war testosterone rallies rounded up for Memorial Day TV movie marathons, yet it’s by far this reviewer’s favorite boots-on-the-ground combat film. The picture looks good, with Stanley Cortez’s Panavision cinematography sharp and clear. I never saw the show new so I don’t know if the colors were meant to have the subdued look we see. It’s possible that Cortez and Guillermin tried for a slight documentary look. The one bit of film damage I see is a single shot of George Segal with some serious mottling and discoloration. It’s been like that since a 1996 laserdisc, so for all I know it was always a bum shot. Elmer Bernstein’s music sometimes feels like it belongs in a western, especially when it’s coupled with one of the film’s many epic crane shots. It also sounds very much like an extension of his score for The Great Escape. Some of it is perfect and at other times it’s either overstated, or bland. Perhaps there’s a bit too much of it.
A trailer is included but no direct account of the making of the picture. George Segal might not be crazy about hashing this one around, but Bradford Dillman and Bo Hopkins are still with us, to name two. The spearhead patrol is an interesting group of actors, none of which behave like the types in old war movies. I’ve always liked Matt Clark, in particular.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes fill in plenty of fascinating information starting with the fact that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia happened right in the middle of filming, forcing the Bridge company to beat a quick retreat out and finish the filming elsewhere. Some discontinuities might be because of this — a vehicle used in the farmhouse attack changes in mid-scene. But the filmmakers must have already gotten most things in the can, for nowhere does the show seem compromised. If there are missing scenes or battles that weren’t filmed, the editors have fixed all the problems.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Bridge at Remagen
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: June 29, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson