The Bridge at Remagen (1969) ****

Superior war film, somewhat underrated. Not just realistic battle scenes, but realistically weary soldiers and taking an even-handed approach to war in the manner of Battle of the Bulge (1965). The Americans want to destroy the bridge to trap 75,000 German soldiers on the wrong side of the Rhine, the German Major Krueger (Robert Vaughn) overrides his orders to also destroy the bridge and prevent the Allies with a direct route to Berlin. Instead with depleted forces – think Zulu (1963) – and hugely outnumbered he attempts to keep the bridge open so the cornered Germans can escape.

Unlike most war films there’s no time for comedy to lighten the spirits, it’s gruelling non-stop action. Even when the advance company, headed by grizzled Lt. Hartman (George Segal) find an abandoned village where the exhausted squad could rest up for a bit, they are ordered to keep going until they find more enemy to engage. Unlike the humane Krueger, the Allied high command are merciless, gung-ho Major Barnes (Bradford Dillman) and glory-hunter Brigadier Shinner (E.G. Marshall) drive their troops on, the latter not bothered how many of his men die in an attempt to blow up the bridge – “it’s a crap shoot” is the closest he gets to apology, claiming his actions will shorten the war.

When Allied attempts to blow the bridge fail and with the enemy so close Krueger has to proceed with detonating the explosives littering the bridge and that plan is also scuppered, it’s a battle to the death to secure the crossing. And the story itself is accentuated by nods to the grisly cost of war – on both sides. Heartless Sgt Gazzaro (Ben Gazzaro), whose freebooting Hartman despises, is brought up short when he kills a youth commandeered into action by Krueger in a bid to bolster his meagre outfit – barely 200 men when he expected a force of around 1600.  Krueger is sickened to see a German firing squad executing deserters, but has little sympathy for an innkeeper who has lost a son to the fighting when four million Germans are already dead.

While reining in the worst excesses of Angelo, preventing him taking advantage of a captured woman (Anna Gael) and refusing himself to accept her offer of sex, Hartman does not rail (like Patton, 1970) against those of his men who succumb to pressure. Finding one soldier collapsed, he sympathizes, “sometimes it hits you like that,” and he refuses to put his men in unnecessary line of fire, prompting Barnes into almost killing him. Unlike Battle of the Bulge, however, there is no arrogant German commander (like Robert Shaw) nor complacent Americans.

The action is not only non-stop but hectic and the film begins brilliantly with tracking cameras scarcely able to keep up with American tanks barrelling along the road and aerial shots showing the destruction of another bridge over the Rhine. American tanks and German artillery exchange fire over the river. Buildings are blown out or majestically collapse (turns out these were real buildings, not mock-ups). Bridge stanchions fall in slow motion into the water. Refugees are collateral damage, the camera hardly registering a crying child or an abandoned doll.

As in the best war pictures, strategy and tactics are laid out for the audience, the American blunderbuss approach compares poorly to Krueger’s desperate attempts to utilise every advantage to the point of arming a barge in the river. Hartman and Krueger are well-matched in courage, the former thrown endlessly into action by cynical superiors, the latter, having discharged himself from hospital to fight on, landed with the task of rallying defeatist troops, and leading them into harm’s way in a manner that the American’s immediate superior, Barnes, point-blank refuses to do. Pride drives on the German, the war is almost lost, but surrender would be tantamount to humiliation. All Hartman has to fall back on is an inner core and the chain of command, soldiers obey orders.

Both George Segal (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) and Robert Vaughn (The Venetian Affair, 1966) are well outside their acting comfort zone. Two stars whose hallmarks are cocky characters and suave charm turn into determined men who barely crack a smile. Segal has done cynical before but not to this degree and what catches the eye more is his sheer physical exhaustion. This is an early career highlight for Vaughn, rarely offered such juicy roles.

Although associated in the general audience mind for playing creepy, not to mention sleazy, characters, Ben Gazzara (Capone, 1975) had not made much impact on 1960s moviegoers, and beyond a handful of supporting roles best known to Americans for a starring role in television series Arrest and Trial (1963-1964). The general untrustworthy screen persona he would come to inhabit is given a good work-out here except for two scenes where his character takes unselfish action. Bradford Dillman, also best known for television (Court Martial, 1965-1966), portrays a largely one-dimension character lifted out of the ordinary in a couple of scenes.

E.G. Marshall (The Defenders, 1961-1965) and Peter Van Eyck (Station Six Sahara, 1963) are the opposing commanders. You can also spot Hans Christian Blech (Battle of the Bulge), Anna Gael (Therese and Isabelle, 1968), Sonja Zieman (The Secret Ways, 1961) and Bo Hopkins (The Wild Bunch, 1969).

John Guillermin (The Blue Max, 1966) directs with aplomb from a screenplay by William Roberts (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968) and novelist Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road, 2008) in his only work for the screen.

The Counterfeit Traitor (1962) ***

Cynical and opportunistic Swedish oil executive Eric Erickson (William Holden) blackmailed into World War Two espionage finds redemption after witnessing first-hand the horrors of Nazi Germany. Two extraordinary scenes lift this out of the mainstream biopic league, the first Erickson witnessing an execution, the second a betrayal. While some participants in the espionage game pay a terrible price, others like spy chief Collins (Hugh Griffiths) manage to maintain a champagne lifestyle.

Structurally, this is something of a curiosity. The first section, with over-emphasis on voice-over, concerns Holden’s recruitment and initial attempts at spying on German oil installations on the pretext of building a refinery in Sweden. Although resenting the manner in which he was recruited, Erickson has no qualms about resorting to blackmail himself to enlarge his espionage ring.

But it’s only when Marianne Mollendorf (Lili Palmer) enters the frame as his contact in Germany that the movie picks up dramatic heft. As cover for frequent meetings, they pretend to be lovers, that charade soon deepening into the real thing. While abhorring Hitler, she suffers a crisis of conscience after realising that the information she is passing on to the Allies results in innocent deaths. The final segment involves Erickson’s thrilling escape back home.

The picture is at its best when contrasting the unscrupulous Erickson with the principled Marianne. Virtually every character is trying to hold on to a way of life endangered by the war or created by the conflict and there are some interesting observations on the way Erickson manages to harness foreign dignitaries while being held to hostage in his home country. Loyalties are sparing and even families come under internal threat.

Sweden was neutral during the Second World War so in assisting the Allied cause Erickson was effectively betraying his country and once, in order to keep proposed German investors sweet, he begins to spout Nazi propaganda at home finds himself deserted by friends and, eventually, wife.  

In some respects, Holden (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968) plays one his typical flawed personalities, easy on the charm, fluid with convention, but once he learns the true cost of his espionage a much deeper character emerges. The actor’s insistence, for tax reasons, on working abroad – this was filmed on location in Europe – would hamper his box office credibility and although not all his movie choices proved sound this was a welcome diversion. Whether American audiences were that interested in what a Swede did in the war was a moot point, as poor box office testified. And the title might have proved too sophisticated for some audiences, given there was no counterfeiting of money involved.

Lili Palmer (Sebastian, 1968) is excellent as the manipulative Marianne, betraying her country in order to save it from the depredations of Hitler, not above using her body to win favour, but paralyzed by consequence. Hugh Griffith (Exodus, 1960) provides another larger-than-life portrayal, disguising his venal core. Werner Peters (Istanbul Express, 1968) puts in an appearance and Klaus Kinski (Five Golden Dragons, 1967) has a bit part.

Double Oscar-winner George Seaton (Airport, 1970) makes a bold attempt to embrace a wider coverage of the war than the film requires and could have done with concentrating more on the central Erickson-Mollendorf drama, especially the German woman’s dilemma, but, made before James Bond reinvented the idea of espionage, this remains a more realistic examination of duplicity in wartime.

CATCH-UP: William Holden pictures reviewed in the Blog are Alvarez Kelly (1966) and The Devil’s Brigade (1968); Lili Palmer movies reviewed are Operation Crossbow (1965), Sebastian (1968) and Hard Contract (1969).

The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968) ***

Except for an ingenious escape attempt and Paul Newman spoofing his Cool Hand Luke  persona, this World War Two POW number falls into the “sounded like a good idea at the time” category. Harry Frigg (Newman), the American army’s most notorious escapee (though from British military prisons), is promoted from buck private to two-star general and parachuted into northern Italy to organize a breakout of five one-star generals.

The premise that the war effort is hampered by embarrassment at the generals being captured seems far-fetched as is the notion that the quintet are hopelessly incompetent when it comes to doing anything that sounds like proper army stuff. Adding another offbeat element is that they are being held in effectively a deluxe POW camp, an ancient castle run by Colonel Ferrucci (Vito Scotti), a former Ritz hotel manager with a lapdog attitude to the rich and powerful.

Almost immediately Frigg discovers an escape route through a secret door but is disinclined to go any further since it leads into the boudoir of the countess (Sylva Koscina). New Jersey inhabitant Frigg feels out of the place with the high-falutin’ generals and proceeds to get himself a cultural education. Meanwhile, the countess, obtaining her position through marriage rather than birth, trying to bolster his confidence naturally triggers his romantic impulses.

The humor is of the gentlest kind – Frigg taking advantage of his superiority, Italians speaking tortured English – and not much in the way of bellylaffs either. Director Jack Smight, who collaborated so well with Newman in Harper (1966) and manages to achieve a tricky balance in No Way to Treat a Lady (1968), loses his way here, not least structurally, as the movie pingpongs between the generals, the commandant and Frigg and, thematically, issues of power. Crucially, he fails to rein in Newman.

The generals, squabbling among themselves for power, would be caricatures except that their characters are rounded out by the players, the pick being Charles Gray (The Devil Rides Out, 1968) as Cox-Roberts and Tom Bosley (Divorce American Style, 1967) as Pennypacker. The other generals are played by Andrew Duggan (Seven Days in May, 1964), John Williams (Harlow, 1965) and Jacques Roux (The List of Adrian Messenger, 1963). Representing the American top brass in England are James Gregory ( a repeat role in the Matt Helm series) and Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967).

After her excellent turn as a mischievous and vengeful villain in Deadlier than the Male (1967), Yugoslavian Sylva Koscina comes down to earth with a less rewarding role as charming leading lady with a sly sense of humor rather than the femme fatale of A Lovely Way to Die (1968). Werner Peters (The Corrupt Ones, 1968) makes a late appearance as a Nazi and you might spot screenwriter Buck Henry (The Graduate) in a bit part.

The screenplay by Peter Stone (Arabesque, 1966) and Oscar-winner Frank Tarloff (Father Goose, 1968) is an odd mixture of occasional sharp dialogue and labored story. The set-up takes too long and you keep on wondering when it is going to get to the pay-off.

No doubt looking for some light relief after a quartet of heavier dramatic roles – Harper (1966), Torn Curtain (1966), Hombre (1967) and Harper (1967) – Newman acts like he has escaped the straitjacket of a considered performance and instead indulges in mugging and hamming it up, his body freeing up a barrage of mannerisms previously held in check.

The Devil’s Brigade (1968) ***

I couldn’t get my head around the idea of the U.S. Army recruiting a bunch of undisciplined misfits, many with jail time, in order to link them up with a crack Canadian outfit. Turns out this part of the film was fictional, the Americans in reality responding to advertisements at Army posts which prioritized men previously employed as forest rangers, game wardens, lumberjacks and the like which made sense since the original mission was mountainous Norway.  I should also point out the red beret the soldiers wear is also fictional and while depicted on the poster sporting a moustache commanding officer Lt. Col. Frederick (William Holden) is minus facial hair in the film.

But, basically, it follows a similar formula to The Dirty Dozen (1967), training and internal conflict followed by a dangerous mission. The conflict comes from a clash of cultures between spit-and-polish Canucks and disorderly/juvenile Yanks though, as with the Robert Aldrich epic, the leader taking some of the brunt of the discontent.  Collapsible bunk beds, snakes under the sheets and a tendency to fisticuffs are the extent of the antipathy between the units, which is all resolved, as with The Dirty Dozen, when they have to take on people they jointly hate, in this case local bar-room brawlers in Utah.

The movie picks up once they are sent to Italy. Initially employed on reconnaissance, Frederick challenges Major-General Hunter (Carroll O’Connor) who wants to do things by the book and sets out to take an Italian position by trekking two miles up a riverbed, creeping into town by stealth and capturing the location without firing a shot. 

Next up is the impregnable Monte la Difensa. Taking a leaf out of the Lawrence of Arabia playbook, in a brilliant tactical move, the Americans attack the mountainous stronghold from the rear by way of a mile-high cliff.  But that’s the easy part. The rest is trench-by-trench, pillbox-by-pillbox, brutal hand-to-hand fighting.

The battle scenes are excellent and the training section would be perfectly acceptable except for the high bar set by The Dirty Dozen. That said, there is enough going on with the various shenanigans to keep up the interest, but we don’t get to know the characters as intimately as in The Dirty Dozen and there is certainly nobody in the supporting cast to match the likes of Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown and John Cassavetes. That also said, the men do bond sufficiently for some emotional moments during the final battle.

At this point William Holden’s career was in disarray, just one leading role (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) and a cameo (Casino Royale, 1967) in four years, and although his screen persona was more charming maverick than disciplined leader he carries off the role well, especially solid when confronting superiors, exhibiting the world-weariness that would a year later in The Wild Bunch put him back on top. Ironically, Cliff Robertson was coming to a peak and would follow his role as the strict disciplinarian Major Crown, the Canadian chief, with an Oscar-winning turn as Charly (1968). Vince Edwards (Hammerhead, 1968) as cigar-chomping hustler Major Bricker makes an ill-advised attempt to steal scenes.

This was the kind of film where the supporting cast were jockeying for a breakout role that would rocket them up the Hollywood food chain – as it did with The Dirty Dozen. Jack Watson (Tobruk, 1967) is the pick among the supporting cast, but he has plenty of competition from Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen), Claude Akins (Waterhole 3, 1967), Jeremy Slate (The Born Losers, 1967), Andrew Prine (Texas Across the River, 1966), Tom Stern (Angels from Hell, 1968) and Luke Askew (Cool Hand Luke, 1967). Veterans in tow include Dana Andrews (The Satan Bug, 1965) and Michael Rennie (Hotel, 1966).

William Roberts (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) adapted the bestselling book by Robert H. Ableman and George Walton. Director Andrew V. McLaglen (Shenandoah, 1965) was more at home with the western and although there are some fine sequences and the battle scenes are well done this lacks the instinctive touch of some of his other films.

The Guns of Navarone (1961) *****

Stone-cold action classic that blazed a trail for the big-budget men-on-a-mission war picture like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Where Eagles Dare (1968). Brilliantly structured, written and directed,  and featuring a sea battle, storm, shipwreck, mountaineering, chase, interrogation scenes, infiltration of an impregnable fortress, a pair of romances, two traitors, and an awe-inspiring climax make this a candidate for one of the greatest war pictures ever made.

The set-up is simple. Knock out the gigantic guns at Navarone or two thousand men will perish. It’s mission impossible and the clock is ticking. You don’t know who to trust and the enemy is ruthless.

In the early days of the all-star-cast, producer Carl Foreman rounded up an astonishing line-up, bulking out the bestseller by Scottish thriller maestro Alistair Maclean (The Secret Ways, 1961) with three top stars in five-time Oscar nominee Gregory Peck (The Big Country, 1958), double Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn (Heller in Pink Tights, 1960) and Oscar-winner David Niven (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, 1960). Add in British household names Anthony Quayle (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958), Stanley Baker (The Concrete Jungle, 1960) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Love, 1960), a sprinkling of rising stars in James Darren (Let No Man Write My Epitaph, 1960), Gia Scala (I Aim at the Stars, 1960) and Richard Harris (The Night Fighters, 1960) and renowned Greek actress Irene Papas (Antigone, 1961).

Each man is a specialist. Capt. Mallory (Gregory Peck) the mountaineer whose climbing skills are essential to completing the fist part of the mission, explosives expert Corporal Miller (David Niven), mechanic ‘Butcher’ Brown (Stanley Baker), Greek patriot Stavrou (Anthony Quinn) and the ruthless killer Pappadimos (James Darren) who has the contact with the Greek resistance. The stakes are ramped up when we learn both Mallory and Stavrou have bounties on their heads, not to mention the fact they are sworn enemies, and that before the mission even gets under way, spies are discovered in the camp. The ostensible leader of the group Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle) is wounded early on, turning him into a liability and making Mallory the de facto leader.

The stakes are ramped up further – this time through relationships. Their Greek contact turns out to be a woman, Maria (Irene Papas), brother of Pappadimos. She brings with her a mute girl Anna (Gia Scala) for whom Mallory develops romantic feelings while Stavrou has eyes for Maria. Mallory is also torn about Franklin, his best friend.

And from there it pitches into one disaster after another. They are too easily hunted by the Germans. They are shelled with mortars and attacked by dive bombers as they race across open mountains and through caves to reach their destination. They have to shoot their way out of traps and finagle their way into the fortress. There are twists and turns all the way, the clock ticking in almost James-Bond-style as the deadline for the destruction of the troops approaches.

And although this is clearly a war picture it is also as obviously an anti-war one, no end to the killing in sight, people dying pointlessly.

Although the acting was ignored come Oscar time, each of the stars delivers and it is a communal tour de force. Director J. Lee Thompson (Ice Cold in Alex) ensures that in visual terms none of the stars dominates, each given equal screen time while the strong supporting cast each has their own narrative arc. With over two-and-half-hours’ running time, Thompson has both the bonus of time to allow each element to be fully played out and the problem of keeping the picture taut and he succeeds brilliantly in both aims. It is a masterpiece of suspense. And it looked fabulous, the guns themselves, by which the picture might succeed or fail, were awesome.

Thompson was Oscar-nominated as was producer Carl Foreman for both Best Picture and the screenplay, Dmitri Tiomkin for the score (one of the longest-ever), John Cox for sound, Alan Osbiston for editing. Bill Warrington who did the visual special effects and Chris Greenham who did the sound effects were the only winners on the night.

It was a commercial smash, top picture of the year in the U.S., the biggest  picture of all time at the British box office and breaking records all over the world.

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