1945: The Allies are making their final advance into German territory, and only one strategic bridge on the Rhine River remains in Nazi hands. Both sides have much to gain: the Germans, the lives of 50,000 soldiers stationed on the wrong side of the bridge; and the Allies, a quicker end to the war with fewer lives lost. Though both armies would fight valiantly, only one could win the heart-rending battle for The Bridge at Remagen.
With various generals on both sides of the war, harrowing battles, and personal stories about heroes in the line of fire, there has never been a shortage of WWII films worth bringing to screens. From the Blitz to the Bulge, famous battles have provided the foundation for harrowing personal stories about the men on the ground. 1969's The Bridge at Remagen -- from director John Guillermin and starring George Segal, Robert Vaughn, and Ben Gazzara -- charges forward with an action packed recreation of one of the most important battles towards the end of the war - but frequently gets bogged down by repeatedly reminding the audience that war is hell.
For Lieutenant Phil Hartman (George Segal), his unscrupulous pal Angelo (Ben Gazzara) and the rest of the 9th Armored Division, the war has gone on long enough. The men are practically asleep on their feet making their new glory hungry Major Barnes' (Bradford Dillman) decision to volunteer for an important mission a real blow. The men need rest, but instead of getting sleep, they have to try and take a bridge and outflank the retreating German army from crossing back over the Rhine.
On the other side of the bridge, Major Paul Kreuger (Robert Vaughn) has been tasked with securing the bridge. Hitler and his officers want that bridge destroyed lest the Allies manage to secure an easy route into Berlin. General Von Brock (Peter van Eyck) sees the folly in that plan. If they blow up the bridge as Hitler intends, the retreating German forces will have nowhere to go and would be trapped. As Kreuger also sees the folly of Hitler's thinking, he too opts to keep the bridge open as long as possible. When both sides meet at the Rhine, the battle could very well decide the outcome of the war.
Obviously, with any retelling of historical events, you have to cut the filmmakers some slack for needing to take some dramatic liberties in order to make a personal and human-focused film. After all, you can't just have battle footage with artillery, machine gun nests, and mortar explosions before the whole thing starts to feel meaningless. You got to get in there and get personal with the men; give the audience someone to hang their shingle on. With The Bridge at Remagan, I appreciate the lengths at which director John Guillermin and his screenwriters Richard Yates and William Roberts went to personalize the story through the eyes of George Segal's Lieutenant Hartman and Robert Vaughn's Major Kreuger. However, there are several stretches where the film just gets stuck in the mud.
The true story of the allies capturing the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen was intense and featured of the largest anti-aircraft battles of the war as U.S. forces fought to prevent German bombers from destroying the bridge. It was days of heavy combat that ultimately saw the Allies on top enabling them to move some 25,000 troops over the bridge before it finally collapsed. Obviously, it would be very difficult to recreate the ground and air battles, so the filmmakers kept the boots on the ground so to speak.
The dynamic of Lt. Hartman and Major Kreuger is an interesting one as both men are frustrated with the state of things. Hartman wants his men to see some down time and recover from their exhaustion. He's tired of the chain of command only seeing numbers of fighting men and not caring for the state they're in. They've seen enough fighting to last several wars and they need a break. On the other side of the coin, Kreuger has to deal with the strict narrow-minded bureaucracy that is actually hurting the war effort. If his meager defending forces were given just one division of reinforcements, he'd have enough firepower to keep the allies back and allow the trapped German troops to cross the river and regroup. This material is great stuff and works to give the battle human faces, but these interludes stutter the pacing of the film making the front two-thirds feel a bit bloated while the last act is all action.
It's the numerous scenes of moralizing and philosophizing where The Bridge at Remagen gets a bit muddy. One or two scenes of this are fine. It establishes themes, character conflicts within the ranks, and sets the stakes for the big battle to come. But when you're spoon-fed scene after scene of it, the film starts to drag more than it should. That isn't to say the film is boring, just a little bloated. At 117-minutes, that front end can run a little longer while the back end can feel rushed and shortchanged. The characters keep telling the audience of the urgency of getting to the bridge as soon as possible, but the filmmakers decide to take the longest route possible.
Aside from the pacing, The Bridge at Remagen is an engrossing and entertaining war film. The battle sequences are well executed and put the audience right into the fight. Especially when Allied forces move onto the bridge, those are some damn impressive and well-executed action sequences. Performances all around are solid as Segal and Vaughn lead the show, while in keeping with his character, Ben Gazzara gets to steal the limelight every now and again. My only small gripe is the bloated front end. If you can get through that, the rest of the film works to create a satisfying whole. It's not a perfect film, but The Bridge at Remagen is certainly a worthwhile watch and a must for genre fans.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Bridge at Remagen arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time in a limited edition run of 3,000 units. Pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a clear sturdy Blu-ray case. Also included is a booklet containing stills from the film as well as a terrific essay from film historian Julie Kirgo. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
The Bridge at Remagen arrives with a beautiful 2.35:1 1080p transfer. Film grain is intact giving rise to some terrific details. Facial features, the men's ragged uniforms, the war-torn towns, and the intricate furnishings of German high command are all on display. Colors are bright and bold with terrific primary pop. Flesh tones are healthy, perhaps a bit on the tan side but not too brown or too sickly. Black levels are even throughout most of the film allowing for a nice sense of depth. There are a couple scenes where the black levels got a little murky and would flatten the image, but nothing too serious. Damage is minimal, speckling and scratches are few and far between. The only issue of damage I spotted was some very brief staining that crops up just after they take the farmhouse from the German soldiers. It's really only a couple frames but against the white-grey sky it stands out. Otherwise, this is a very good looking transfer that should please fans.
The Bridge at Remagen arrives with a strong and effective English DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono track. While imaging may be hampered by the single channel presentation, this audio track still packs a wallop when it counts. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout without any interference or any hiss or pops to contend with. Sound effects are well layered providing a great sense of atmosphere and dimension. Scoring by the great Elmer Bernstein really punches things up, action scenes or moments with men on the march have a typical jaunty touch to them, but when the dramatics kick in the low tones provides some nice deep LFE marks. Again, the only real shortfall here is that it's a mono track. While the big action sequences sound great and are still very effective, they could have benefitted from a spaced out stereo mix just a tad so things don't sound so front loaded. Levels are spot on and you won't need to adjust the volume once you've got it comfortably set.
Unfortunately, there really isn't much to write home about here. Just a trailer and the Bernstein isolated score track that I've included as an exclusive.
Theatrical Trailer (HD 3:04)
The Bridge at Remagen may get a little heavy handed with moralizing and thematic conversations, but when the action starts, it doesn't let up and can be a visceral experience. Twilight Time brings The Bridge at Remagen to Blu-ray with a terrific A/V presentation. Aside from a fantastic isolated track of Elmer Bernstein's score, this release is void of any genuine bonus features. Fans will be pleased with the A/V presentation making it worth the price of admission. Newcomers should strongly consider giving it a look.