The Bridge At Remagen Review
There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of war movies. The first kind, epitomised by Platoon, Attack! or Hell Is For Heroes emphasises that war is hell. The second insists that, no, war is a lot of fun - remember The Dirty Dozen and Kelly's Heroes ? Then we have the third kind, best represented by M*A*S*H, Catch 22 and Apocalypse Now which suggest that war - be it World War 2, Korea or Vietnam - is neither hell nor fun but just a vast, absurd joke. The Bridge At Remagen, made in the same year as Altman's classic black comedy M*A*S*H looks towards this third category while trying to maintain a vaguely realistic sense of war as a violent waste of life.
Set during the spring of 1945, The Bridge At Remagen is about the end of the war when Hitler's scorched earth policy demanded that nothing be left for the Allies when Germany was defeated. This frequently meant sacrificing soldiers, civilians and industry and was regarded by most of the army - and the Armaments Minister Albert Speer - as further evidence that the Fuhrer had finally lost it completely. The XVth Army was left on the wrong side of the Rhine with only one place to cross - the eponymous bridge - but orders came down that the Bridge was to be destroyed before the Allies could use it. The film suggests that an ambitious officer, Major Kreuger (Vaughan), decided he should try and hold the bridge instead of simply blowing it up, just at the moment that a small force of US troops was heading towards Remagen. This group, led by Lieutenant Hartman (Segal) initially intends to destroy the bridge themselves with the aid of air power, but their commanding officer (Marshall) and the ambitious Major Barnes (Dillman) decide that it would be far more useful if the Allies were to take control of the bridge.
The film has delusions of grandeur, rather like John Guillerman's previous film The Blue Max. That film was an exciting aerial adventure that pretended to making serious comments about the psychology of German glory-boy pilots during the Great War. This one tries to use the bridge as a metaphor for the madness of war - vast resources being squandered over a bridge that no-one really cares about and that has no great strategic significance at a time when the Russians were already steaming towards Berlin. The specter of Catch-22 hangs heavy but there's no evidence that anyone hear realised that Joseph Heller's book managed to be both shocking and funny. German and American commanders are reduced to the same thing - glory-seeking idiots who don't care who gets killed as long as they have their little meaningless triumphs. Now, there is some evidence to suggest that there might be some truth in this idea but it would have to be presented far more subtly if it were to be dramatically convincing. As it is, the performances of E.G.Marshall and Bradford Dillmann are so horribly overstated that we lose interest the moment they open their mouths. Underneath loud-mouthed idiot officers we have cynical company leaders, in this case Hartman and Kreuger. Luckily for the film, Segal and Vaughan give considerably more engaging performances and they manage to make it seem that something might really be at stake. Segal is especially good, refusing to be either sympathetic or sentimental during the early scenes and his self-righteous refusal to wallow in pity when a young Captain dies, in an ambush that Hartman might have faced himself had he agreed to ride point, is very powerful. Vaughan isn't as good an actor as Segal but he underplays his rather obvious role and makes the character seem halfway believable. The main flaw, not his fault, is that he isn't given a German accent but the other German soldiers - played by native German speakers - do, thus rendering him something of a sore thumb. The rest of the soldiers lack much character, with the exception of Angel (Gazarra), a profiteering thug who, predictably, turns out to be just as honourable as his superior officer.
The cliches are laid out like corpses and presented in a pompous manner which pretends that it's being brutally realistic. This is true for both the narrative, which is a long series of expected events that you can almost tick off in your head as you watch it, and for the visuals. Stanley Cortez provides some superb photography but most of the camera angles and, in particular, the use of aerial footage are indebted to many other Hollywood war movies. Guillerman seems to think that aerial shots swooping towards the bridge are exciting in themselves without always having to tie them into particular narrative moments. When he does, it's usually so he can blow something up. When he doesn't, it's just time filling at its most blatant. There are also the more dubious cliches in the characterisation. I can just about accept the cynical American - a role which was forever patented as far as I'm concerned by William Holden in Stalag 17 - but its the portrayal of the Germans which I find more insidious. As ever, we're asked to believe in a two-tier German army where some were sympathetic to Hitler and others despised him. There is some evidence for this, and I'm grateful to John Hodson and DamienB on the forums for their corrections which you can read here. But the problem with the film remains that this isn't used dramatically, it's just a hook upon which to hang the plot. I appreciate that the aim was to make the German army more characterful and give guest stars more attractive roles to play but the 'Good German/Bad German' stereotype was played out by the 1950s and was positively antediluvian by 1969.
The Bridge At Remagen looks beautiful throughout, thanks to exceptional location shooting by the great Stanley Cortez who shot Night of the Hunter and worked for Samuel Fuller on Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor. The smoke-riddled scenes of destruction are especially atmospheric and the night moments are beautifully lit. Unfortunately, the rest of the filmmakers were obviously on auto pilot. The screenplay is a collection of familiar lines - handed out in strict rations to the aforementioned stereotypes - courtesy of Richard Yates (this was his only work) and the archetypal Hollywood hack William Roberts. Even the reliable Elmer Bernstein seems to have been having an off-day when he came up with the brass-heavy score. As for John Guillerman, this film typifies the problem with all his films. He's fine when it comes to things burning, collapsing or exploding but he can't direct an interesting scene in which people are simply talking. This lack of ability would scupper parts of The Towering Inferno and was disastrous on the dialogue-heavy Death On The Nile. His basic flaw as a director of character and dialogue means that all the pretensions of The Bridge At Remagen are cruelly highlighted and that it only comes alive when the special effects people are given their head with the pyrotechnics.
This is a standard MGM back catalogue release; an average transfer and a trailer are all you get for your money.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It's a mixed bag which veers towards being impressive but doesn't quite make it. There are splendid colours throughout - the lush photography of the European countryside comes across beautifully - and the level of detail becomes very good after a poor start. Nor is there too much artifacting, although some is visible during the dark exterior scenes. The main problem is the grainy appearance of some scenes. Sometimes this isn't too distracting - the battle scenes tend to have a lot going on in the foreground and cover the grain to some extent - but in the landscape and, particularly, the aerial scenes it can be very unsightly. One moment, with a allied plane bombing the bridge, looks like its coming from a television with bad reception.
The soundtrack is disappointing. Ignore Play's assertion that this has a 5.1 soundtrack, it's really 2.0 mono. Now, I have no particular problem with this in itself and, in fact, I prefer to have the original soundtrack of films on the disc because the remixes tend to be unbalanced, giving undue weight to ambient effects and sometimes drowning out the dialogue. However, what I do object to is a track which has as much distortion as this one has. Explosions fade in and out, dialogue is sometimes difficult to hear and the music thumps along with little variation in tone. I found this a poor soundtrack and it impaired whatever enjoyment I was getting from the film.
The only extra is the overlong theatrical trailer. There are the usual 16 chapter stops and a range of subtitles.
If I've been over-harsh on The Bridge At Remagen it's because it's a film which pretends to be important and struts around making points which are usually self-evident while preening itself at how clever it's being. George Segal is a fine screen actor, as is Ben Gazzara, but they can't make bricks out of straw. The DVD is average, at best, and only recommended if you really love the film and want a widescreen copy of it.