Sunday, August 30, 2015

CRACKER? The Bridge at Remagen (1969)

                “The Bridge at Remagen” purports to tell the tale of a seminal moment in WWII Europe.  In March, 1945, an American unit won a race to capture an intact bridge across the Rhine River before the Nazis could destroy it.  The bridge at Remagen turned out to be the only bridge that was captured so it was unique.  The bravery of the men who risked being blown up with the bridge was worthy of a movie.  John Guillermin (“The Blue Max”) directed a story based on the book The Bridge at Remagen: The Amazing Story of March 7, 1945 by Ken Hechler.  The movie was filmed in Czechoslokia at a bridge similar to the real bridge (but they spent $250,000 blasting out a tunnel to recreate a tunnel at the actual site).  The  filming was interrupted by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia which prompted producer David Wolper to hire 28 taxis to carry cast and crew to safety.  The movie was finished near Hamburg and in Italy.

                The film opens with an American armored unit rampaging towards the Obercassel Bridge as a German troop train crosses it.  The bridge is blown before the Americans can reach it thus establishing the fact that finding an intact bridge will be difficult to capture and the fact that a bridge could be blown in their faces.  Cut to Gen. Von Brock being ordered to destroy the bridge at Remagen regardless of a large part of the 15th Army being caught on the other side.  In spite of these orders, Von Brock unofficially tells Maj. Kruger (Robert Vaughn) to hold the bridge as long as possible.  Meanwhile, the 27th Mobile Infantry is on the way to the bridge although Gen. Shinner (E.G. Marshall) is sure the bridge will not be available.
our no-star cast of anti-heroes
                The lead element of the 27th is led by a Lt. Hartman (George Segal).  He is cynical and far from gung-ho.  It is implied that his unit has seen more than their share of combat and are a bit miffed at having to be the spearhead.  His second in command Sgt. Angelo (Ben Gazzara) likes to loot dead bodies.  They do not get along.  Actually, Hartman is one of those leaders who is a cold bastard with no friends.  When they have to take out a farmhouse and Hartman is asked what might be in the house, he snarkily responds:  “I don’t know,  but it ain’t candy”.

                The unit moves on to the town of Meckenheim where there is no resistance.  They sack out in a jail and there is a young lady!  They stay only long enough for an awkward interlude with the girl.  We get to see one breast and are left pondering what the hell that scene had to do with the movie.  The only thing I can theorize is that a late 60s war film needs to have a female character and she has to show some skin.
don't be fooled into thinking this movie
is a romance

                At the bridge, Kruger arrives to find hardly any defenders and no explosives to blow up the bridge.  But the worst thing is that his exec is Capt. Schmidt played by Hans Christian Blech.  Never leave Blech in charge of blowing up a bridge!  The bridge withstands a bombing run by one B-25 which results in numerous explosions unrelated to the bomber.  Hartmann’s men arrive in Remagen where the killing of a Hitler Youth sniper causes Angelo to reassess his thieving ways and Hartman to soften toward him.  At least something good comes from the kid’s death.  The explosives finally arrive and the wiring of the bridge begins.  When Gen. Shinner arrives, he sees the intact jewel and immediately orders the storming of the bridge.  Hartman and his men are not thrilled with what they consider to be a suicide mission and Angelo is so incensed he commits a court-martial offense.  However, they go because somebody has to do it, damn this war! 
did you know war can be exhausting?

                There are some critics who think highly of this movie.  They are wrong.  It is a lamentable attempt to attach the late 60s anti-hero vibe to a noteworthy event.  The men who participated in the capture of the bridge deserved a laudatory treatment, not cynical crap.  Basically, they would have been better served with an Old School movie.  It was wise to change the names of all the characters based on real people.  Plus it avoided likely law suits by defamed families.  Both Hartman and Angelo are based on men who received the Distinguished Service Cross for their heroism at the bridge.  They belong in a Vietnam War movie.  It is unrealistic for a lieutenant and sergeant to question orders that would have been totally in sync with the American philosophy of aggressively targeting objectives and accepting short-term casualties for long-term gains that would shorten the war.  I’m not saying Hartman and Angelo would not have been war weary, but to portray them as insubordinate is not realistic.  The basic theme is "war is tiring".  Not surprisingly, another trope of this modern war movie is the crass Gen. Shinner.  He belongs in a WWI movie, but if you pay attention to what he says, his decisions make total sense.  The movie wants us to think his order to charge the bridge is mean when in actuality it was totally appropriate and sensible.  Generals have to send men to their deaths to save lives and men have to risk their lives for the greater good.
what other terrible war epic does this remind you of?
answer at bottom
                Besides besmirching good men, the movie is just not entertaining.  The only good thing is the score which is the only thing that qualifies it as a big budget, all-star battle epic.  The cast is the opposite of “The Longest Day”.  Christ, the fourth billed is Bradford Dillman!  Segal and Gazzara look like they were directed to act like guys in a Vietnam War movie.  They don’t work hard and the script does not develop their characters beyond jerk and thief.  Weirdly, the characters we are supposed to root for are wrong and the characters we are supposed to shake our heads at are right.  The combat scenes are pretty good and the military hardware is impressive.  There are enough explosions to keep an American audience happy.  Unfortunately,  there is not  enough combat to make up for the lulls which include two scenes (the girl in the jail and the kid in the hotel) that seem to have wandered in from another movie.

                In conclusion, "The Bridge at Remagen" does not belong on a list of the 100 Best War  Movies.  It botches an opportunity to laud some heroic Americans and the inaccurate portrayal of an important historical event is shameful.

                SPOILER ALERT:  The movie gets one thing right – Americans did capture the Ludendorf Bridge.  Other than that, read a book.  This starts from the very beginning.  The failed attempt to take Obercassel Bridge was by Americans disguised as Germans, not an armored column.  Lt. Gen. Walter Botsch (not Von Brock) was in command of the area, but it was Hitler himself who ordered for all Rhine bridges to be blown at the last minute.  Of course, not timing it properly would have shortened your life.  Botsch sent Capt. Willi Bratge  (Kruger) to command at the bridge.  The bridge had been rigged with explosives, but was promised more and also reinforcements.  The 9th Armored Division was racing to the Rhine, but not with the intention of capturing the bridge.  Hell, as the movie shows, the Americans tried to bomb the bridge.  All this changed when the bridge was sighted from a ridge and Brig. Gen. William Hoge (Shinner in the movie) ordered the attack.  When Capt. Karl Timmermann (Hartman) was given the task he logically asked what if the bridge was blown, he got no answer.  However,  I found no evidence he was crabby.  As the unit approached the structure, the bridge was blown but the inferior charges only opened a ten meter hole in the middle.  Then when Timmermann’s men were on the bridge (and under it removing charges), the eastern end was blown, but rose and settled back in place.  As far Sgt. Alexander Drabik (Angelo), he was the first to cross the bridge - on the run with his squad (none of whom were hit).  Bratge and his men and civilians were trapped in the tunnel.  He ended up being captured which means he was not executed for not blowing up the bridge.   


***  Answer to the caption question:  Battle of the Bulge

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