The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Bridge at Remagen

One Memorial Day I don't know how many years back, I stumbled across a WWII movie on Turner Classic Movies that I'd never seen before, much less heard of.  1969's The Bridge at Remagen is based on a WWII battle, but because of a general lack of big names -- whether it be the director or the cast -- is not mentioned in discussions of other 1960s MGM war movies. It is a product of the times as America was fully involved by 1969 in Vietnam, but it is a very effective look at the closing days of the war.

Too often war movies pick a side and go from there, disregarding the other side completely.  Some of the better ones at least attempt to show both sides of the war.  It is said of war that 'the victors write the history books' but in many ways, the soldiers on either side are very similar.  They're fighting because that is what they're told to do, their superiors deciding what should or shouldn't be done.  Director John Guillermin splits time evenly between the Americans and Germans, giving an excellent look at one of the key battles late in WWII with an underrated cast and some great action.

It's March 1945 and the German armies are in full retreat.  The Allied forces are nipping at their heels, chasing them back into Germany.  The German High Command has ordered all bridges over the Rhine River destroyed to help slow down the Allied charge, but one bridge at Remagen remains. General Von Brock (Peter van Eyck) sees that 75,000 German troops will be cut off if the bridge is destroyed and instead sends a close friend and fellow officer, Major Paul Krueger (Robert Vaughn), to hold the bridge as long as possible. Just miles away, the Allies charge forward hoping to catch the German defenses napping, at their front an armored infantry unit commanded by Lt. Hartman (George Segal), who after weeks at the point is leading an exhausted unit.  But pressure from HQ and the battalion commander (Bradford Dillman) keeps the men going, hoping to end the war as quickly as possible.        

Where this reflects the times is the portrayal of a war near its end, the soldiers deteriorating with pure exhaustion.  The end of the war is near, and the Germans are turning on each other.  Vaughn's Krueger is promised a defense that doesn't exist and reinforcements that can't be moved.  The SS and Gestapo run rampant, ruling with an iron fist.  The ranks are thinned by deserters, and refilled with old men and young boys.  The Americans are always on the move, pushing themselves and the Germans to their absolute limits.  They're bone tired but they have no option but to follow orders.  The rules of war are gone to a certain point, and survival has taken priority over everything else.  It is a cynical story at times, the effects of war wearing men down on both sides.  Frightening at times to see the portrayal of the closing days of the war presented in a realistic fashion.

The portrayal of the opposing forces is seen through the eyes of two junior officers, both with different missions but driven to the same point.  Segal is perfect as Lt. Hartman, a company commander at his wit's ends when it comes to commanding.  He's trying to protect his men as best as possible, but HQ has their objectives.  Guest star E.G. Marshall as an American general callously states "100 may die, but 10,000 will be saved." An honest statement in the big picture, but when you're part of the 100, does it matter?  Across the river is Vaughn's Krueger, a career German officer -- not a Nazi -- disobeying orders but still trying to save as many men as possible.  The two actors don't share any scenes together, but there is a bond between them nonetheless.  They may be on opposite sides of the war, wearing different uniforms, but in many ways they're the same.

In the honest portrayal of a war in its closing days, both sides aren't shown as particularly heroic.  Ben Gazzara is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Angelo, one of Hartman's men who is a good soldier under fire but rubs the Lt. the wrong way by picking clean the bodies of dead German soldiers.  Gazzara is so good in the part that you forget at times how despicable his actions are.  He balances the good with the bad, the power of his actions wearing on him.  Forced to kill a Hitler Youth teenager, he almost snaps when confronted.  All of the Americans aren't shown in a positive light, including Hartman's unit which includes Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, Robert Logan, Steve Sandor, and Tom Heaton. Dillman's Barnes is a good officer but he has no idea how to interact or treat his men. The Germans too are at each other's throats.  Look for Hans Christian Blech in a solid supporting part as one of Krueger's officers.

Bouncing back and forth between the American and German perspective could have caused a disjointed story, but that's never really a problem.  Instead, it drives the pace at a lightning speed as the Germans fall back, the Americans pushing forward.  The action scenes are well-handled and nicely choreographed starting with the filming locations in Czechoslovakia where a bridge similar in appearance to the actual Remagen bridge was used.  There is an epic scale to the battles with the end result possibly being an earlier end to the war, but on a personal level we see Hartman's men ordered across a bridge fully expecting it to blow at any moment.  Full of tension from the beginning, the battle sequences are aided by Guillermin's camerawork, right there on the ground with the foot soldiers.

A highly underrated WWII story.  Elmer Bernstein's score (Main Theme listen HERE) borrows from some of his more notable musical scores, and at times sounds more like a western theme, but for the most part it's good. You can watch the whole movie in a widescreen version via Youtube, starting with Part 1 of 11. Don't let the lack of big names scare you away from this one. An all-around solid look at the closing days of WWII and one of its key engagements.

The Bridge at Remagen <---trailer (1969): **** /****

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