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.