Wednesday, November 28, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1969): The Bridge at Remagen

By March of 1945, the German army was headed for home any way it could get there, with units all over trying to get back across the Rhine River, one of the Third Reich's last natural lines of defense. As Allied troops neared bridge after bridge, they were blown up to prevent enemy crossings until only one major bridge remained, at the town of Remagen. Producer David Wolper and director John Guillermin teamed up to create a fictionalized version of the actual battle in 1969 with The Bridge at Remagen, starring George Segal, Robert Vaughn and Ben Gazzara.

Wolper and Guillermin apparently wanted to model their movie somewhat along the lines of 1962's The Longest Day, the story of the D-Day invasion of June 1944. Segal is Lt. Phil Hartman, commanding an armored patrol trying to reach the bridge before the Germans destroy it, and Gazzara is Sgt. Angelo, one of the noncoms in his unit. But we also see some of the German side of the story, with Vaughn playing Major Paul Krueger, the German officer in command of the forces defending the bridge until it can be wired to explode.

They also seem to be much more conscious of anti-war sentiment in general, as Bridge shows us flawed soldiers and officers, operating for their own agendas and little else. No Greatest Generation legend-making here: Hartman is bitter and disillusioned with his chain of command, Angelo robs German corpses and cons his fellow GIs out of their money and Bradford Dillman as U.S. Major Barnes is a rah-rah fool who commands no respect from his men.

A movie that shows the GIs who helped save the world in the 1940s as real human beings with flaws has its place -- Steven Spielberg showed that in Saving Private Ryan. But Bridge has such a sketchy story and such clumsy casting that it can't do anything but be a series of high-energy action scenes stitched together around entire sequences of false note characterization. The characters are stereotypes but offer us nothing beyond the stereotype to dig into; they just cipher across the screen performing as needed in order to move us to the next action scene. We don't know what keeps Major Barnes from being able to win his men's respect; Dillman is nowhere near a good enough actor to pull that off using the story he has in front of him. But he doesn't, so any scenes that are supposed to show Dramatic Conflict between him and Hartman actually show Vague Staring instead.

Segal is miscast; his strength was always in roles that matched his natural urbanity and borderline smarminess and he can't give Hartman the war-weariness he's supposed to have. Vaughn's Krueger should be a complex man driven by loyalty to his nation and a realization that he is fighting a losing cause, but the script does so little to show that that he can never really bring it out. And Gazzara's Angelo is just a thug -- not too bright a one at that, as he never wears a helmet in the middle of a war zone firefight. He's too much of a creep to care about what he's doing.

In the end, The Bridge at Remagen can't decide if it wants to be a good ol' WWII rouser of an action picture or a meditation on the ugliness of war, even for the side that's in the right. And so it tries to do both. The action part comes off better than the meditation, but the marriage doesn't work and neither does the movie.

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