Reflections on "The Bridge at Remagen" (1969)

Directed by John Guillermin

Screenplay by William Roberts and Richard Yates

from a story by Roger O Hirson

Starring George Segal, Robert Vaughn and Ben Gazzara

Music by Elmer Bernstein

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

According to a number of reviews of the film, "The Bridge at Remagen" is often dismissed as a somewhat run-of-the-mill war film with questionable casting and unexceptional direction. However, for me, this film is a particularly human and thought-provoking presentation in which courage, comradeship, initiative and determination are on display, but the effects of exhaustion, disenchantment and issues concerning the place of ambition and humanity are also thrown into the mix, making this a unique and highly engaging, if underrated and largely forgotten, production.

Interest is added by incorporating the points of view of both sides in the battle for the bridge, with the implication that these "enemies" may share certain outlooks and encounter vaguely similar problems with those in authority.

One of the main themes is the endurance of humanity and idealism in the face of the reality of the constant battle to survive and the ambition and pride of commanding officers on both sides of the conflict.

There is a very clear division between those giving orders and those whose job it is to undertake the action necessary to execute them. While commanders seek glory, a place in history or promotion, those under their command seek survival as they face and attempt to overcome the enemy.

Phil Hartman and his men are constantly pushed to advance the Allied front to reach the strategically important bridge at Remagen and are eventually ordered to take the bridge rather than simply destroy it.

Hartman's immediate superior, Major Barnes, is keen to gain glory and claim credit through the actions of Hartman and his men, but he shows little understanding or appreciation of the skill, effort and cost to these men of their engagements. This is in direct contrast to Hartman who is all too aware of the effects of constant action on his men and he shows little or no respect for his superior as he addresses Barnes plainly and as a fellow human being, though he recognises he must accept his orders.

Of course, Barnes is, himself, merely following the orders of his superior who, inspired by the prospect of unexpected victory, callously points out that they may lose a few hundred men in taking the bridge rather than destroying it, but that action may shorten the war and assure them a place in history.

Hartman is eventually offered a citation by Barnes for his heroic actions in this assault but he ignores Barnes in favour of joining his friend and comrade, indicating a complete disregard for personal ambition and glory, and a recognition of the importance of relationships, trust and reliance on others built up through common experience and fellowship with his comrades in arms in the course of his wartime experiences.

On the German side of the conflict, Major Paul Krueger is expected to blow up the bridge in order to protect the Fatherland from foreign invasion, but he and his immediate superior are determined to keep it open as long as possible to facilitate passage home for the remaining 75,000 German troops still in Western Europe. Krueger feels loyalty and duty toward his fellow soldiers who have fought and suffered in the name of the Nazi cause, but High Command considers their loss a reasonable price to pay for protecting Germany and Krueger displays disillusion with policies and orders issued by Hitler.

He is hindered in the fulfilment of both his official orders and his own take on the mission by lack of manpower, outdated information and, eventually, inadequate equipment and supplies, all the responsibility of his superiors. A man of honour, principle and compassion, Krueger is willing to destroy the bridge but delays execution of his orders as he values human life above immediate military and political gain, an act for which he will pay the ultimate price as his superiors do not share his priorities and deny truth, reality and responsibility.

It is ironic that Hartman and Krueger appear to share certain values and come under similar pressure from above, yet they are on opposing sides.

Humanity is also under pressure in the field, however. Hartman and his men may have lost the edge of idealism and purpose with their principles and values buried under the weight of accumulated disenchantment and fatigue as they face repeated encounters with a deadly and determined enemy, senior officers focused on ambition and advancement rather than the lives and morale of their men, and the constant grind of living in one another's pockets.

Hartman and Sergeant Angelo (known as Angel) are forced to live and serve together and are united by common experience, purpose and general culture, but are divided by an almost existential difference in attitude toward death and commerce. Hartman wearily and respectfully moves on from combat, leaving behind evidence of the struggle to survive, wreckage and bodies, while Angel adopts a far more pragmatic approach, checking out the corpses of the enemy in search of items he can sell. Hartman clearly disapproves but Angel sees no reason why he shouldn't profit from the war. Although this is a source of conflict between the two and a clear indication of a difference in temperament, there is an equally clear professional respect and trust between them which develops into friendship and brotherhood.

Angel's conduct suggests a lack of sentimentality but his implied self-interest and cynicism have their limits as he shows compassion and understanding to the girl found in the police cells and he is visibly shaken when he is forced to kill the young sniper firing on his comrades from the hotel.

Hartman regularly displays a caring and compassionate nature, showing thought and consideration for his men and an awareness of the effects on them of the constant danger and threat they face. Yet he can also be cold and heartless if that is what it takes to ensure survival for him and his men.

Toward the end of the film, after several brushes with death and having been convinced that Angel had been fatally wounded, Hartman appears to jokingly accept Angel's "foibles", as he sees them, and opts to appreciate and value the courage, self-sacrifice and spirit of his friend. Perhaps Hartman and Angel complement and support one another. Hartman provides heart, direction and perhaps even inspiration for Angel while Angel keeps Hartman grounded in reality, drives him on and even protects him.

The public or common citizens are seen as virtual victims of circumstance forced to comply with whoever is in charge in order to survive. The French girl found in the cells was arrested by the Germans and offers to sleep with Hartman to ensure her own safety. The hotel owner curries favour with both the Germans and Americans and is treated shabbily by both Krueger and Hartman, who each have their own reasons for their conduct, and it transpires that the German officer in charge of bridge security was a schoolteacher before the outbreak of war and was presumably compelled to "volunteer" for military duty.

War affects everyone and for everyone there are consequences.

In my opinion, John Guillermin's highly assured direction maintains pace, interest and emotional engagement as he handles intense and exciting battle scenes and more intimate scenes of character exposition and development with equal skill and aplomb.

Sympathetic (and sometimes unsympathetic) characters are well observed and drawn as they do their best to survive in situations and circumstances not of their making, and the script is cleverly lent breadth and a universal quality by examining similar themes and attitudes on both sides of the conflict, suggesting that ambition, power struggles and politics of all persuasions can have a negative impact on people and principle.

The performances throughout are excellent but those of the three leads deserve special mention and praise. Robert Vaughn takes a potentially difficult and unsympathetic character and makes him honourable, admirable and conflicted, while Ben Gazzara manages to make the at-times despicable Angel touching, loyal and appealing as well. George Segal is simply superb as he allows us to understand and share Hartman’s humanity, frustration, disenchantment, anger and relief.

The music by Elmer Bernstein is stirring, touching and highly memorable, and adds considerably to the whole experience.

As I suggested at the start of this video, for me this is an engrossing, entertaining and thought-provoking film which is greatly underrated and deserves a higher standing than it seems to hold in various reviews I have read.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

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