A million-and-a-half dollars potentially went down the drain when, thanks to the Russian invasion two months into production, producer David L. Wolper had to shift location shooting of World War Two picture The Bridge at Remagen from Czechoslovakia to Italy and Germany. Actors and crew woke up on August 21, 1968, to find their hotel surrounded by Russian tanks. Only quick action saw 80 personnel ferried in a taxi convoy through the only remaining open checkpoint to the airport, their departure coinciding with the arrival of the Russian paratroopers.
This had not been the first international incident for the movie, based on the destruction of the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine at Remagen in Germany. Previously, Wolper had been accused of being a C.I.A. spy and reports were circulating that armaments were being brought in to support Czech leader Dubcek while rumours flew of “busloads of American troops…arriving in Prague disguised as tourists and film technicians.” Matters were so bad that the Czech army placed under lock and key the film’s entire TNT and dynamite inventory amounting to over 6,000 sticks of the former and 800lb of the latter.
Small wonder the Russians were alarmed because the production had arrived with a massive cache of weaponry – an inventory over 1,000 pieces strong – including eight Sherman tanks and over 130 Browning and Thompson machine guns, MI rifles and carbines and Colt pistols as well as 300 dummy rifles. Luckily, most of the film’s battle scenes action had been completed when production was interrupted but that still meant a month of interiors and exteriors.
Wolper was something of a Johnny-come-lately to the Remagen scene. Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, 1954), who had fought at Remagen, and his brother Stuart were first into the frame, planning in 1958 to film for Warner Brothers Ken Hechler’s 1957 bestseller on the battle, as a follow-up to their first production, Wind Across the Everglades (1958). Stanley Kubrick was being lined up to direct. When WB bowed out the Schulberg Brothers moved it first to Columbia and then United Artists. When that gamble failed to come off, United Artists assigned Phil Karlson (The Secret Ways, 1961) as director but that also hit the buffers. Although Wolper started work developing a treatment in 1965 – Irvin Kershner in his mind as director – he had Ihe had to deal with another contender in Flaum and Grinberg Productions which in 1966 announced this as their debut production.
Wolper had come to movies on the back of documentaries. Using his Metromedia outfit as an umbrella, he had struck a six-picture deal with United Artists. The first movie had been the documentary Four Days in November (1964). But the next was intended to be a “plotted dramatic film based on fact with a big star cast” known at the time as The Remagen Bridge. From the outset this was seen as a “harsh recreation of actual slogging combat with some four letter words and not a glorification of war but underlining its hellishness.”
In the event, this was overtaken on the Wolper schedule by another war movie The Devil’s Brigade (1968). Further pictures planned were Europe U.S.A. (a.k.a. If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Belgium, 1968) and All the Conquerors (never made). Wolper had also in 1965 purchased the source material for The Green Beret, that proved to be a war movie too far and the project ended up with Warner Brothers and John Wayne.
After Roger Hirson delivered a story treatment for Wolper in 1965, the screenplay of The Bridge at Remagen went through the hands of Richard Yates, paid $25,000, the uncredited Ted Strauss (a Wolper executive with writing credits on documentaries) and Sam Watson who stiffened the treatment, with input from Wolper determined to “reinforce the image of Michaels (Segal) as one of the walking dead.”
While veteran William Roberts (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) finalized many of the film’s elements, Wolper also turned to Ray Rigby (Operation Crossbow, 1965) to “deepen the characters and create scenes with more punch” and Rod Serling (another $25,000). But Hirson could lay claim to setting up the movie’s dynamic. “This is the story of two men and a bridge,” he wrote. Initially, the American was called Earl Ammerman then Floyd Love before hitting on Michaels and finally Hartman, although that first name went from Curt to Vic to Phil. The German originally Hans Heller transitioned to Major Krueger, based on the real-life Hans Scheller.
Early drafts contained references to German secret weapons, a chaplain, a group of Polish sex workers and a brief glimpse of the woman (Anna Gael) at the end. Anthony Hopkins, then unknown, and Robert Vaughn were considered for the role of Major Krueger. Vaughn could read German and had an Oscar nomination and was a leading television star. George Segal faced no competition for his starring role, having already been in uniform for King Rat (1965). But Alex Cord (Stagecoach, 1966) declined a supporting role and Robert Blake (Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here, 1969) was considered
Filming on the original Rhine bridge was no longer possible given it had fallen ten days after the battle. Depending on which report you read, finding a replacement took around three years or 18 months or maybe just six months and involved a global search. One usable bridge was found in Washington State but with bare hillsides rather than town and mountain. John Frankenheimer on The Fixer (1968) had set a precedent for filming behind the Iron Curtain by using Budapest in Hungary to represent Russia.
Not far from Prague in what was then known as Czechoslovakia the production unit alighted on the Davle road bridge, and struck a deal in October 1967. It was almost a perfect match for Ludendorff once towers had been added at either end, the bridge itself raised by 14ft and been augmented for authenticity by wooden and steel girders. To complete the transformation an 80ft tunnel was blasted out of the surrounding mountains. And a false church, another key scene, was built on a hill.
For $20,000 Wolper also bought a village called Most which the government had marked for demolition, allowing him to blow up designated buildings in a three-square block, providing the location for a key sequence in which the town was devastated by tank bombardment. (As I mentioned in my review, the collapse of these buildings looked incredibly real, and no wonder given they were not plaster-and-lathe imitations but genuine stone.)
Prague’s Barrandov Studios supplied 188 crew, up to 5,000 extras, interiors and transport. As part of the deal Czech labs would carry out the processing but not the synching or mixing. The decision to shoot in Czechoslovakia was primarily financial. Wolper reckoning shooting there could be done for $3.5 million, saving the production an estimated $2 million-$2.5 million if filmed in Hollywood. For the Czechs The Bridge at Remagen was a “test situation.” Should the country’s movie industry prove amenable to Hollywood it could result in an influx of hard currency and a stampede of U.S. productions. Already The Reckoning was heading for Bratislava.
Ironically, the success of a Communist-ruled country like Czechoslavakia in embracing Hollywood business lay in its acceptance of capitalism. It was ironic that what Wolper demanded of his Czech counterparts would have been impossible to achieve in a democratic country. “No western society could suspect traffic from a public thorough fare for three months to benefit a private enterprise.” Motorists were forced to use a temporary ferry and river traffic was held whenever required.
Englishman John Guillermin, a World War Two veteran, was hired on the basis of World War One picture The Blue Max (1966). That he had completed A New Face in Hell (1968) by the time shooting began was a bonus. Vaughn credited Guillemin with the film’s success. “I think he did a lot of research to make it more than just another war movie.”
George Segal concurred, “That was a movie constructed by John Guillermin and cinematographer Stanley Cortez. They shot a war and Guillermin made sense out of it – the angles were so dramatic….It was an epic… (P.J./A New Face in Hell) was a tough-as-nails movie at that time and I knew that’s what Remagen needed…Developing the war-weary character of Hartman was a little bit of me and a little bit of working it out with Guillermin…He brought so much texture to it that you fed off him and his attitudes and the way he conducted himself… Very focused, very concentrated, Guillermin was very economical in his shooting…He was a great influence on me in that film because I was the one who had to take charge and he demonstrated to me how to take charge.”
There was another side to Guillermin that almost caused him to be fired. “He was kind of a martinet,” explained Vaughn, “but I got along very well with him.” Added Segal, “I know sometimes he was implacable and I know that Wolper had problems with him.” That was putting it mildly. “The first day of shooting,” recalled Bo Hopkins, “John Guillermin hollered so loud his veins stuck out.” But when Guillermin attempted to bar Wolper from the set for a complicated battle scene, the producer promptly fired him. “When he realized I was serious,” Wolper recollected, “he apologized so I rescinded his firing. But I wasn’t kidding. Without that apology, he would have been gone. I had learned early that, as a producer, you have to be tough and you have to be tough right away.”
That it was truly a war out there can be judged from the armoury. The rolling stock came courtesy of the Austrian army by way of a sale from the U.S. in 1947. These included eight M-24 Chaffee tanks, three M-3 half-tracks, three M-8 armoured cars, eight 2½ ton trucks and six jeeps. The German actors and extras were armed with 250 Mauser rifles, 28 M-P machine guns, 14 P-38 pistols, 14 Lugers and eight Bren machine guns on top of four 88mm anti-aircraft guns, eight troop carriers and a dozen assorted armoured vehicles. In total the picture drummed up 150,000 rounds of ammunition, and in addition to the TNT and dynamite consignment mentioned above over three tons of smoke-producing powder.
The German and American stories were filmed separately, with little crossover between the two units. Remagen battle tank veteran Col Cecil E. Roberts, retired, oversaw the training of extras as U.S. and German soldiers. Hal Needham took charge of the stunts.
Part of the Czech Hollywood education was understanding the hospitality needs of the stars. Usually for a long shoot abroad, principals would be lodged in private houses, but here the 35 most important personnel were pup up in hotels. To the Czech way of thinking “deluxe hostelry was inappropriate” was actors who would be playing tough soldiers so the worst of the modern hotels, The International, was where many ended up.
The mollycoddled Hollywood contingent, wherever accommodated, found service uniformly slow, water supplies liable to vanish at short notice, no water at all one day, and drycleaning facilities that took two days. The normal contingent of wives had little confidence in the Czechs reaching the necessary standards. Janice Rule (Mrs Ben Gazzara) lasted three weeks before skipping off to Paris. Mrs Segal and her child remained in Switzerland for the duration. Although the three top stars dined each night Segal drank little on the grounds that “it interferes with my suffering.”
The stars were suddenly newsworthy when they became the first refugees from Czechoslovakia. Robert Vaughn and most of the world had expected a different outcome when Alexander Dubcek took over, a basic form of democracy heralded as the “Czech Spring.” Recalled the actor, “By the time we started filming (on June 6, 1968) it was a joyous time to be in Prague…the smiles (the public) wore and their exuberant anything-is-now-possible mood exemplified the socialism with a human face then making headlines the world over.” Ben Gazzara commented: “They were closing down the borders. If one of our people hadn’t called the U.S. Embassy we would have gone to the wrong border checkpoint, one already closed by the Russians.” Gazzara smuggled out a local waitress. The taxi convoy was met at the border by a fleet of buses organized by Wolper.
Stuck with an incomplete movie, and having to come to terms with the volume of equipment equipment left behind, Wolper took three weeks to reorganize. Most of the action sequences had been completed, but the vast arsenal borrowed from Austria would require substantial compensation if not returned. In addition, also lost were 40 reels of unprocessed colour negative worth $250,000 and crucial plates for rear projection work. In the end, the Russians were not willing to go to war with a Hollywood studio and returned 5,200 items of materiel, arms, costumes and film as well as 47 heavy-duty military vehicles straight to Vienna. .
Wolper found two locations to replicate the lost Dalve bridge – a crossing near Hamburg employed to represent the underside of the historic bridge for a key scene and at Castel Gandolfo close to Rome in Italy he built a half-scale replica. The addition of a small part of the bridge and a tunnel allowed the director to complete a number of vital sequences including when Hartman runs under enemy fire.
A second unit under the direction of William Kronick was permitted to return to Czechoslovakia to film 12,000 feet of “critical shots that couldn’t be duplicated.” These comprised long shots of the Germans trying to blow up the bridge and the eventual crossing of the bridge by 600 American soldiers – played by Czech Army personnel in the relevant uniform – and tanks and half-tracks. This was done, however, under the watchful eye of 500 armed Russian troops. Wolper had to pony up an extra $1 million for reconstructing sets originally used in Prague, for building the new bridge in Italy, for transport and for an extraq five weeks in salary.
“We defy anyone to identify what was shot near Prague and what was shot near Hamburg or outside Rome,” boasted Wolper (although in fact such mismatches provoked negative comment). He was especially proud of the scene of George Segal running across the bridge which was begun in Czechoslovakia nine weeks before it was completed at Castel Gandolfo on the reconstructed bridge. “You cannot tell the difference,” he said. Considering the unexpected interruption, he could be justifiably smug that the movie completed shooting in just 93 days.
Wolper had no illusions about the movie business and did not believe in the notion that any studio or producer possessed a magic touch, much though that was a line given out by any filmmaker enjoying a bout of success. “Audiences are very selective nowadays,” he said. “The moviegoer has an antenna that goes up if they like a film. If the antenna doesn’t go up nothing will drag him in.”
Wolper decide to launch the picture with an old-fashioned “local” world premiere. Ever since Cecil B. DeMille premiered The Buccaneer (1938) in New Orleans, this had turned into a major marketing device, with movies having first showings in a variety of small towns and cities all over America linked to a location shoot or birthplace of a star. The idea had long been out of fashion but since the original author was now a respected West Virginia Congressman, the movie premiered at the Keith-Albee cinema in Huntingdon, the mayor declaring a “Remagen Week” and tanks rolling through the streets as part of a publicity blitz.
By the time The Bridge at Remagen appeared, Wolper was a big-time indie producer, having splashed out $500,000 pre-publication on John Updike’s Couples to be directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (never made). Also on his agenda were: The Confessions of Nat Turner to star James Earl Jones with first Norman Jewison at the helm then Sidney Lumet, an original screenplay by Mort Fine (The Pawnbroker, 1964) called The Blessed McGill, The Great Cowboy Race from a screenplay by Abe Ginnes, Three Women (renamed I Love My Wife, 1970) and King, Queen Knave (1972) based on the Nabokov novel.
It’s axiomatic of the vagaries of Hollywood for even the most successful producers that two of these films never saw the light of day. Wolper stopped making movies after 1972, concentrating on television mini-series and documentaries for over two decades before returning to Hollywood in triumph with L.A. Confidential (1997).
SOURCES: Steven Jay Rubin, The Making of The Bridge at Remagen, Cinema Retro, Vol 12, Issue 33, pages 26-37 and Vol 12, Issue 34, pages 18-25; “Schulberg Next for WB Rhine Crossing Saga,” Variety, August 13, 1958, p7; “Schulberg Freres Will Roll Book by Congressman,” Variety, June 3, 1959, p7; “Rolling in Germany,” Variety, November 16, 1960, p5; “Phil Karlson Will Direct Mirisch Film in Europe,” Box Office, Jul 26, 1961, pW4; “Remagen Bridge As Plotted Film for UA,” Variety, March 3, 1965, p17; “Wolper Purchases Rights to Green Beret,” Box Office, July 5, 1965, pW2”; “Flaum and Grinberg Form Production Firm,” Box Office, May 30, 1966, pW1; “Wolper Forms New Company To Produce Features, “ Box Office, February 27, 1967, p5; “Borrow Span, Blow Up Town,” Variety, November 8, 1967, p7; “UA Signs Wolper for Couples Release,” Box Office, February 26, 1968, p5; “Representative Hechler Is Adviser on Bridge at Remagen,” Box Office, April 22, 1968, p8; “Czechs Learn Fast What Yanks location Wants,” Variety, July 3, 1968, p31; “E Germans: Remagen a C.I.A. Front,” Variety, August 14, 1968, p14; “Czechs Want Western Production,” Variety, August 21, 1968, p16 – astonishingly this story ran on the day the Czechs ended any chance of Western movie investment when the Russians invaded the country; “Remagen Crew Safe, Will Finish at Hamburg Studio Site,” Variety, August 28, 1968, p3; “Remagen Weapons List,” Variety, August 14, 1968, p14; “Actors Cross Borders in Nick of Time,” Box Office, September 2, 1968, p12, “Wolper Retreat From Prague Costs Him Vast Arsenal for Remagen,” Variety, September 25, 1968, p32; “Remagen, 2nd Unit Shoots with USSR Troops Watching,” Variety, November 6, 1968, p2; “Despite Reds Czech Invasion, Wolper Winds His Remagen,” Variety, November 27, 1968, p28; Advertisement, Variety, January 15, 1969, p33; Advertisement. “Bridge at Remagen, The Incredible Log of the Motion Picture that Became An International Incident,” Variety, May 7, 1969, p132-133. “Audiences Still Puzzle for Producer David Wolper,” Box Office, July 14, 1969, pWC2; “Photograph,” Box Office, August 18, 1968, pB2.