The Remagen Incident (Part 2 of 2)
In his 2004 autobiography In the Moment: My Life As an Actor, Ben Gazzara (1930-2012) recalled hearing a tumult outside his apartment at the International Hotel in Prague, where in August 1968 he was filming The Bridge at Remagen (1969) with co-stars George Segal and Robert Vaughn. “I called the front desk to ask what was going on. The kindly telephone operator told me, ‘It’s the Russians. They’ve come like the Germans did in 1939. They’ve come to kill our freedom.’ She was crying. ‘Poor Czechoslovakia,’ she said.” Gazzara wrote that the production cast and crew were massed in front of the hotel the next day to be shuttled to safety in Vienna. “The Russians were not about to let us continue to make our war movie with bombs bursting, machine guns rat-a-tatting, and American and German tanks rolling through the countryside. We had to get out.” In the movie, Gazzara played a hard-bitten Army Sergeant who rode tanks, shot light and heavy weapons and ducked a lot of enemy fire. (“That picture got me into good physical shape.”) Now with Russian troops occupying the nation and several Soviet tanks arrayed in the streets in front of the hotel, reel life suddenly approximated real life. “A young Czech woman who had been part of our production sprang up and screamed something at the Russian soldiers. In no time at all she was on the second-floor terrace where the flags of all nations were flying, with the Soviet one smack in the middle. She tore it from its pole and flung it into the street below. It landed at our feet. She was saying some nasty things to those Russian boys. Then I saw it, but I couldn’t believe my eyes. The tank on our left was turning the cannon on its turret toward us. ‘Holy Christ,’ I said to Robert Vaughn, ‘they’re going to kill us.’ You never saw people run so fast. Most of us headed to the back of the hotel and prayed. We heard later that the Soviets got a big kick out of their little joke.” After the Russian invasion, producer David L. Wolper recounted in Producer: A Memoir (written with David Fisher), “the United States Information Agency asked me to appear on Radio Free Europe to reiterate that I was not a CIA agent and my movie was not funded by the CIA to get arms into Prague….I was making a movie about World War II and people were accusing me of trying to start World War III.” Once the actors, crew and equipment were extricated – via delicate and nervous negotiations – from harm and/or confiscation in the newly subjugated Czechoslovakia, Wolper scrambled to keep the production about a crucial confrontation between Allied and German forces at a strategic German bridge in the desperate final days of the war alive. “We scouted desperately for locations that we could match to the film we’d shot. We needed to shoot some scenes under a bridge, and we found a bridge in Hamburg, Germany, that, from the bottom up, might pass for the bridge in Czechoslovakia. We rented studio space in Germany. We found a location in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, the pope’s summer residence, that resembled our old location.” Acquiring access to that Italian site required some cagey maneuvering involving (as in Czechoslovakia) cash outlays to an elderly landowner holdout, but a deal was finally worked out for the brutally and blazingly realistic depiction of a besieged bridge spread far and wide, shot in Panavision by the formidable Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, The Night of the Hunter). “The completed film is an extraordinary example of movie magic,” Wolper concluded. “The actors get on the bridge in Czechoslovakia, remove explosives from under the bridge in Germany, and get off the bridge in Italy. That’s some impressive bridge. But it is done seamlessly. It’s impossible to see the difference.” As Andrew J. Rausch later summarized in The Greatest War Films of All Time: A Quiz Book, “Unlike most films that preceded it, The Bridge at Remagen is a gritty picture that realistically examines the tensions felt between comrades who have spent too many days and nights together. This isn’t a jingoistic film that expresses the battlefield camaraderie of an eager platoon; while these tired, reluctant warriors will lay down their lives for one another, they don’t always see eye to eye. The direction of journeyman helmer John Guillermin is effective, the special effects are well done, and the cast delivers solid performances. It’s a thoroughly engaging film that deserves a second look.” With an Isolated Music Track of the great Elmer Bernstein score, The Bridge at Remagen is called to duty June 13 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open May 31.