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The Bridge at Remagen (1969)

DIRECTOR: John Guillermin

CAST:

George Segal, Ben Gazzarra, Robert Vaughn, Bradford Dillman, E.G. Marshall, Hans Christian Blech, Joachim Hansen, Peter Van Eyck, Heinz Reincke, Richard Münch, Günter Meisner.

REVIEW:

Director John Guillermin and an American and German cast brings us this exciting, fast-paced, and remarkably even-handed account of the desperate struggle of two small groups of men, the Americans to capture a bridge leading into Germany, and the Germans to destroy it, in the final months of WWII in Europe.

March, 1945: The Germans are in full retreat across the Rhine, blowing the bridges behind them under orders from Hitler that not one foot of their native soil will be yielded to the enemy.  Only one bridge remains, leading across the Rhine into the German town of Remagen, and the loyal Field Marshal von Sturmer (Richard Münch) orders General von Brock (Peter Van Eyck) to destroy it before it is captured by the advancing American forces. But von Brock is reluctant to cut off the only escape route for 70,000 German troops on the other side of the Rhine, and sends his old friend Major Kruger (Robert Vaughn) to Remagen with “treasonous” orders to hold the bridge open as long as possible. Kruger must contend with the tide of refugees streaming across the bridge, inadequate and demoralized forces, and the sharply contrasting attitudes of the local commanders, Captain Baumann (Joachim Hansen), who is determined to fight to the last bullet, and Captain Schmidt (Hans Christian Blech), the film’s most sympathetic German character, a weary soldier who sees the futility and waste of life in continuing a lost war. Meanwhile, a veteran American unit under the equally war-weary Lieutenant Hartman (George Segal) is racing to capture the bridge, whipped on by an ambitious and obsequious officer (Bradford Dillman) and General Shinner (E.G. Marshall), who is determined to bag the 70,000 German soldiers before they can escape across the Rhine.

With a much smaller cast of characters than some war classics like The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far, and focus on a small campaign, The Bridge at Remagen has a more intimate feel, and we get to know the characters a little better. We see the tension between Hartman and a fellow GI (Ben Gazzara), whom he despises for looting dead German soldiers, but also how they come out the other side of the battle having forged a stronger connection with each other. Likewise, the German Army is not a monolithic single-minded entity. While von Stumer and Baumann are loyal to the Führer until the end, von Brock and Schmidt put their men at a higher priority than “stand or die” orders from Hitler. And then there is the ambiguous figure of Kruger. A stoic professional soldier who keeps his true feelings mostly to himself, he silences Schmidt’s talk of deserters with threats about penalties for “defeatist rumors”, but offers no objection when his driver deplores the SS death squads executing German soldiers by the roadside for real or perceived cowardice. He holds the bridge open as long as possible in defiance of Hitler’s edict, but personally guns down two soldiers who attempt to escape. We get the impression Kruger is probably more of a professional military man than a Nazi, but he may be the main character we don’t quite get our finger on.

George Segal is surprisingly credible in a serious role as the borderline burned-out Hartman, and Ben Gazzara is at least as good as his uneasy comrade-in-arms. The one cast member who’s a bit hard to take seriously is Robert Vaughn, who’s (mis)cast as a German for some reason, makes no attempt at a German accent, and sticks out like a sore thumb even more so considering the other German characters are all played by actual German actors.  Four German cast members (Hans Christian Blech, Heinz Reincke, Peter Van Eyck, and Richard Münch) had previously appeared in 1962’s The Longest Day, while the ever-sinister Günter Meisner pops up in a bit part in his usual role of a fanatical Nazi.

Considering the time at which it was made, The Bridge at Remagen is remarkably honest, with little whitewashing to be found. In how many other war movies do you see American planes bombing refugees, or a scene which maintains an impact, in which a GI guns down a sniper only to discover he has just killed a young boy?  The Americans are not uniformly portrayed as noble harbingers of righteous liberation, and the Germans are not uniformly portrayed as goose-stepping fanatics.  As cliched as it may sound, the phrase “fair and balanced” could be used. There’s even a flash of an exposed breast. The Bridge at Remagen could be seen as at least the early stages of the transition from flag-waving, glorifying, cut-and-dried war flicks of the 40s, 50s, and sometimes 60s, and the beginning of something more gritty, unromanticized, and closer to reality that would lead to the likes of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers far down the road.

Which is not to say The Bridge at Remagen skimps on action. In fact, the action sequences are exceptional, featuring plenty of tanks, extras, and realistic explosions, and the film shows nice attention to detail. We see rare authentic German WWII half-tracks, the Czechoslovakian locations easily stand in for Germany, and the majority of the German soldiers are accurately shown to be either elderly or very young, reflecting the desperation and collapse on the German side by this point. The film conveys the basic history of the battle accurately, but the names have been changed, and some details altered for dramatic effect. Lieutenant Hartman was really Lieutenant Karl Timmermann, who was ironically a German-American whose family was originally from a small town near Remagen. The looting GI with whom he maintains a love-hate relationship was a composite of several soldiers, Major Kruger was really Major Scheller, and Field Marshal von Sturmer who relays Hitler’s order to blow the bridge is based on Field Marshal Model.

The Bridge at Remagen is for its time an exceptional and even-handed war film which provides plenty of superb war flick action while acknowledging the darker side of war.

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