The Remagen Incident (Part 1 of 2)
Today’s 72nd anniversary of V-E Day (which also coincided with then-President Harry S. Truman’s 61st birthday) is an apt occasion to recall one of the climactic World War II clashes of Allied and Axis forces, centering on the strategic Ludendorff Bridge, which spanned Germany’s Rhine River, beginning on March 7, 1945. On that date, American troops converging on the town of Remagen discovered in the course of their eastern push across Germany that the bridge, counter to Hitler’s orders that any infrastructure that could aid enemy forces should be destroyed, was left intact, affording a key route for U.S. 9th Armored Division forces to advance and accelerate the ending of the war two months later. Fighting was hard and costly across 10 bloody days as the Germans mounted a last stand to rectify their error and beat the Americans back before their bombardments finally collapsed the structure – but the struggle at that last “forgotten bridge,” which allowed the transport of thousands of troops and critical weaponry and vehicles, helped secure the victory. A veteran of that engagement, future West Virginia U.S. Representative Ken Hechler, chronicled the story of that episode in his 1957 book The Bridge at Remagen: The Amazing Story of March 7, 1945. Producer David L. Wolper employed screenwriters Richard Yates and William Roberts to adapt it for the screen as The Bridge at Remagen (1969), and John Guillermin, who had already earned his stripes as a master of cinematic warfare with I Was Monty’s Double (1958), Guns at Batasi (1964) and The Blue Max (1966) to direct. George Segal, Ben Gazzara, Bradford Dillman, E.G. Marshall and Bo Hopkins were cast as American combatants and commanders while Robert Vaughn, Peter Van Eyck, Hans Christian Blech, Joachim Hansen and Richard Münch personified the German resistance forces. As Wolper recounted in his 2003 memoir Producer (written with David Fisher), “I spent several months searching Europe for a bridge that resembled the original. We found one in the town of Davle, Czechoslovakia, which was not far from Prague. With the construction of towers at either end, it was an almost perfect match for the Remagen bridge.” Filming began in June 1968, and Wolper described the anticipation of the project. “This was a good time to be in Czechoslovakia. Although it was still a member of the Soviet Communist bloc,…the country was experimenting with a rudimentary form of democracy, a period known as the Prague Spring.” He noted with amusement among the enterprising locals that “one of the freedoms in which the Czechs were already expert was the art of the bribe” to acquire particular services and execute filming logistics, and also recalled that he and Guillermin locked horns in some testy moments vying for ultimate authority on the production. But there were some disturbing unexpected developments. “The first hint of the problems to come appeared in an East German newspaper article, which alleged that the military equipment I had brought into Czechoslovakia was not for a movie, but, rather, was being smuggled in by the CIA to support a subversive movement. ‘Russian Discovery of U.S. Arms Cache in Czechoslovakia,’ read the headline. Among the weapons found, the story reported, were World War II rifles, machine guns and tanks. I was called a CIA operative and my crew was accused of conducting counterrevolutionary activities. Of course we laughed at the story….We shot for two months. The picture was proceeding well. We blew up the town [an abandoned industrial city sold by the government to the production] and completed about half the filming on the bridge….There were, however, some ominous signs. When we began shooting outside Prague on July 22, Russian troops began maneuvers just across the border. The set was buzzed by Russian helicopters and MiGs, ‘just to let you know they are nearby,’ I was told. Believe me, this was still in the middle of the Cold War – I didn’t need to be warned the Russians were nearby.” Within a month, contemporary events would overtake historical recreation. The unnerving details as recalled by memoirists Wolper and co-star Gazzara follow tomorrow. With Elmer Bernstein’s reverberant score on an Isolated Music Track, The Bridge at Remagen debuts June 13 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open May 31.