Monday, October 22, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Bridge at Remagen" (1969)

By 1969 American attitudes about warfare had changed considerably due to our being mired in Vietnam, and it's hard not to miss how this was reflected in war films about previous conflicts.

"The Bridge at Remagen" wears the clothes of a heroic war picture, but it's got a hippie-pacifist bent to it. And it's not just that the soldiers are depicted in a more realistic way, or that the story focuses more on the madness of war rather than the "band of brothers" ethos that had ruled heretofore.

What's most notable is the way the soldiers, both American and German, talk back to their superiors and defy orders that they consider inhumane or illogical. At one point, a surly sergeant belts a major after he's ordered them to undertake a dangerous mission that will cost many of them their lives. The major lies on the ground sputtering ineffectually about a court-martial, while his attacker ignores him and turns away to go about his duty.

I.e., in these sorts of pictures the soldiers do what's expected of them, but not before letting everyone know how they really feel.

In a John Wayne picture, this would be played out as the cowardly youngster cracking under pressure and taking a swing at the officer bearing the lonely burden of command. (The Duke probably also would've blocked the punch or decked the kid in retaliation.) In "Remagen," it's a rah-rah moment where the righteous upstart gives it to The Man.

George Segal plays Lieutenant Hartman, a young and effective platoon leader who's sick to death of the war. He and his men have been the bleeding edge of the Allied advance for awhile now, and they're bone-tired and fed up. When they get picked to lead the assault on the Remagen Bridge, Hartman can barely contain his anger.

Hartman is respected by his men because he's a cautious leader who strives to keep casualties to a minimum, but is not well-liked. And that's because he does little to curry their favor or loyalty. When one of his underlings calls him a cold bastard, he wheels on him and demands to know how much the man owes him in gambling debts. "$78.50 ... that's all you're worth to me," he sneers.

Of course, in the end Hartman manages to start behaving more in the mold of a kindler, gentler commander. As they take the bridge inch by bloody inch, the pain of every man who falls is etched on his face. In the end he "captures" the bridge head by wandering in a daze toward the German line, and is greeted by the enemy commander waving a white flag.

It's an act of resignation, not heroism, but the result is the same.

His right-hand man and antagonist is that surly sergeant, Angelo, played by Ben Gazzara. Angelo has a habit of raiding all the dead corpses for loot which he then sells to his fellow soldiers, bragging that he intends to come out of the war a rich man. Hartman expresses his disgust, but doesn't lift a finger to stop him. He also stops Angelo and the other men from raping a French woman they stumble across, and in return she offers herself to him as a reward -- which he refuses. He's just too exhausted to summon up even lust. Then comes the order to take the bridge.

Speaking of that bridge. Remagen was notable because it was the last intact bridge over the Rhine River, with the German fatherland lying upon the other side. A later, superior WWII movie, "A Bridge Too Far," would chronicle a failed plan by the Allies to capture other bridges leading into Germany in 1944. By the spring of 1945 as depicted in "Remagen," the Germans had destroyed all the other bridges and were waiting to blow up this one only because a large part of their army was still trapped on the wrong side.

Robert Vaughn plays Kruger, the German major who's tasked with destroying the bridge. His commanding general, a friend, secretly gives him an order to hold the bridge for as long as possible so the retreating German forces and civilians can get across. Kruger is promised 1,600 men and prime weapons and explosives to do his job, but upon arrival finds only 200 soldiers, most of them wounded or reserves who are green boys or old men, and weak industrial explosives.

This was another reflection of the times in which the movie was made. Rather than portraying the Germans as all vicious Nazis, or even as noble enemies, "Regmagen" shows the Germans as being a reflection of the Americans. Though the footmen don't give lip to their officers quite like the Americans do, the officers do question and twist their orders if they deem them inappropriate. Vaughn plays Kruger as a man of steely conviction whose resolve is drained by the ordeal.

Director John Guillermin stages some well-crafted battle scenes, including complex sequences involving tanks, mortars and artillery. It was interesting to me in that it actually showed how the foot soldiers interacted with the heavier arsenal. Usually we just see things from the perspective of the dogfaces on the ground. The tanks also move incredibly fast -- I'm not sure if I've ever seen another film where the steel beasts are shown rumbling along at breakneck speed like that.

The screenplay by Richard Yates and William Roberts is pretty much all Hollywood hooey, with the exception of what happened to Kruger and his superior officers -- they were executed for allowing the bridge to be taken by the Americans. Their intentions were good, trying to save countless thousands of German lives, but they still failed in their mission, though largely through no fault of their own.

As Kruger is about to be shot, he hears planes flying overhead and asks, "ours or theirs?" Told they are those of the enemy, he ponders, "But who is the enemy?" It's a heavy-handed moment, where one of the characters essentially blurts out the entire theme of the movie. Always better to show, not tell.

2.5 stars out of four

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