"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, July 14, 2014

A war movie can be quite anti-war

The World War II movies of my childhood now make me wonder: Why not some body armor? We see movies about contemporary troops who are loaded with this stuff. In many instances the troops get injured instead of killed. Protecting life is essential. But it's so sad seeing the ravages of war visited on these young men and women.
How about no Iraq war at all? We cannot turn the clock back. We are living with consequences of our incursions in a mysterious and bloody part of the world. In the 1940s it was Europe. We sent waves of vulnerable young men into battle. The toll was beyond what anyone could comprehend.
We have reached emotional distance now. The pain and death of that earlier time are easier to view in the abstract now. It exists on the pages of books. And, in movies that can project an array of messages, many of them not exactly jingoistic. Movies about war can definitely be anti-war.
In 1969 the USA was a cauldron of discontent about Viet Nam. It is amazing the government could escalate that miserable conflict. It is amazing our leaders could recite any lines giving a hint of justification for it.
"The Bridge at Remagen" is a WWII movie that came out in 1969. It is in that setting of the so-called "good war" that its creators projected the anti-war meme.
Much of the war skepticism of the '60s had to be voiced in subtle ways. Some of the "Star Trek" episodes had that subtlety. Musicians weaved their pacifist message in myriad ways. "All you need is love," indeed.
"The Bridge at Remagen" is a story taking place in the closing stages of WWII. At this point the outcome is obvious - a panel at movie's start tells us the German military is in full retreat. Those poor "grunts" on the American side had to plunge forward.
We see a big unit at movie's start racing toward a bridge, a bridge the Germans are ready to destroy. (This is not Remagen.) I'm struck by how fast the tanks can travel. The movie's creators seemed to have a special fascination with tanks.
The Germans didn't want the bridge to become useful for the Allies to enter Germany. But they had to weigh this against the need to try to get retreating soldiers back into Germany.
Robert Vaughn plays a German commander with compassionate impulses. We stereotype those Germans as satanic. It was the notorious SS that really earned the satanic description. The very purpose of the SS was to fan out and get German officers in line, even if it meant executing some. Vaughn's "Commander Kruger" character meets this fate at the end.
Kruger sees the futility of the German war stance all the way from the start. He is ticked off and cynical. He tries to be "the good soldier" to an extent. He's even willing to shoot and kill a couple men trying to desert, men from the pathetic little assemblage of "troops" he has at the end - old men etc. A fellow officer asks him, ponderously, "why?"
Kruger is the classic conflicted character. He is the loyal officer to a degree. But he has made the decision, following his compassionate nature, to delay blowing up the bridge over the Rhine. In this he contradicts orders from above. He wants the tattered 15th Army to be evacuated from the west side of the Rhine.
The SS types are uncaring about this. They are of course irrational. Losing troops is attrition that can only add to the spiral of defeat.
We see this curious streak of irrationality attached to the Germans in many WWII movies. In the old movie about the sinking of the great battleship "Bismarck," we hear a British commander saying "the Germans have to prove their superiority every single day, and that is their one great weakness."
The movie about the Remagen bridge, highly fictionalized, shows anger and cynicism all around. We see military men giving "lip" to superior officers. Vaughn as Kruger tries telling a unit that "reinforcements are coming." The leader of that unit says "we have heard much about reinforcements. The men don't believe it anymore."
Kruger keeps pleading for "Panzers" (tanks). This is a refrain in WWII movies: Germans wanting those Panzers to show up.
"The Bridge at Remagen" was shot on location in Czechoslovakia. The Cold War was a cloud hanging over us all. During the filming in 1968, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia to reinstate a hard-line Communist government. The film's cast and crew were forced to flee to the west in taxis.
Vaughn's autobiography, "A Fortunate Life," has a chapter devoted to the adventures of making that movie. Hollywood seemed more willing to fictionalize real-life events in those days.
Remagen was real flashpoint
The Remagen bridge was a real and violent episode in the closing stages of WWII. But the movie veered off from the facts of the battle, so as to present a captivating story or maybe nudge in more of a message. The conflict itself presents a message on the sheer tragedy of war, its reflection of man's curious tendency to self-destruct. It can be argued that the U.S. Civil War was the epitome of this.
Such massive and mystifying conflicts roared into the 20th Century, eliminating life as if a scythe and rendering the dead mere statistics, because the sheer volume just seemed to dehumanize everyone.
We see many men die or get serious injuries in the "Remagen" movie. We don't see blood. We can imagine the gruesome aspects of the conflict. "Saving Private Ryan" would relieve us of having to imagine it.
"The Bridge at Remagen" was current when our rage over Viet Nam was most intense. The movie sent a message about the dismal specter of war, a message that could easily be translated to the Viet Nam era. The men fight in futile fashion. The futility seems ingrained in them by that stage of the war. What could possibly be accomplished here? Germany was collapsing. Level-headed men would have recognized that.
Germany's top leaders, I'm sure, realized they had no choice but to keep fighting. Stand down? Had Hitler and his associates done this, the world's leaders simply would have come at them, to seize them for their aggressive, invasive actions and of course persecution of Jews.
The SS men were dispatched to keep at least a modicum of war footing. It was insane and Vaughn's character realized this. As a career military man his options were limited. He is given orders based on information that is ridiculously incorrect. He is told he has military assets at his disposal - they were quite phantom. He shares his frustration with "General Von Brock" who is a friend and confidante.
The two decide in the movie's opening scenes to delay blowing up the Remagen bridge. This is of course insubordination. But who wanted to give carte blanche authority to the crazed inner circle of German leaders?
The most zealous Nazis seemed almost uncaring about the lives of their own men. We see this in "Sink the Bismarck!" too, where the ship's top commander wanted to send divers to examine damage even though it'd be highly risky for them. The second-in-command is like Vaughn's "Kruger," having some semblance of human compassion. He also had sound judgment, realizing that the ship really ought to return for repairs. The vanity of his superior prevented that.
The ship got surrounded by British vessels at the end, and is rendered flaming wreckage, sent to the depths. The ship was dealt its mortal blow by a torpedo dropped by a WWI vintage plane.
The British prevailed but only after a catastrophic loss of life as a result of the Bismarck prowling out there. Such was the nature of the major wars of the 20th Century: casualties ending up as mere statistics, such was the massive scope of conflict. The world needed some female leaders. Females would condone none of this.
A footnote on the "Bismarck" movie: Kenneth More was a wonderful actor. I'm struck by how, at the end, he asks his female subordinate out to dinner and she simply says "yes" - no cloying moves. The movie was shot in black and white even though it came out in 1960.
Meet the grunts at "Remagen"
George Segal was at the height of his acting career in "The Bridge at Remagen." He plays the heroic but hard-edged "Lieutenant Hartman." He is highly bitter and cynical at times. War weariness is his essence. He gets orders to advance to the river.
"Major Barnes" is a vain character who in one moment is consumed by ambition, but in another is genuinely compassionate. Bradford Dillman plays "Major Barnes."
"Hartman" is supposed to advance until encountering resistance. The U.S. 9th Armored Division approaches Remagen and finds the Ludendorff Bridge intact. Barnes looks stunned when his superior, "General Shinner" (E.G. Marshall) says the bridge should be taken, not destroyed. This would be done under heavy resistance.
Ben Gazzara plays "Sergeant Angelo" who actually strikes Barnes at the time the order is communicated to the unit. Called "Angel," the sergeant is a close buddy of the Segal character. Segal's Hartman is exasperated and hesitant upon getting the order. Segal repeatedly shows this attitude through the movie, but in the end he always follows orders.
The Germans try to blow the bridge at the last minute, but their explosives (mere "industrial" explosives) are too weak. The Americans are ready to send tanks across. Kruger can no longer motivate his people so he flees back to headquarters to seek direction. The SS has taken over there. Kruger is judged to have screwed up. His fate: death by firing squad.
We hear a German saying in a defeated vein: "A dying animal begins to bite at its own wounds."
Toward the end of the movie, the "rat-tat-tatting" of machine gun fire gets to be a bit too much for me. This feeling sets in when Hartman leads a raid on a gun nest on a barge moored to the bridge. It's too easy for the Americans to sneak up to the barge in a small boat in the darkness of night. The Germans couldn't have been so stupid as to not be aware of this threat. A grenade or two do the job on the Germans, almost - a wounded German points his gun and appears to dispatch the Gazzara character.
This is the last straw for Hartman who now seems maniacally disgusted and almost suicidal. "Sergeant Angelo" had fallen into the river, pleading Hartman's name. But is he dead?
The despondent Hartman, back on land, decides to march toward the German position. Bullets glance off the ground near him. His comrades supply "cover fire." He finally confronts the rag-tag German defenders of the bridge who now want to surrender. They do so through Hartman.
The meeting is promptly surrounded by a squad of M24 Chaffee light tanks, their headlights causing Hartman to squint. In the aftermath, Hartman discovers his buddy Sgt. Angelo survived! The ecstasy is almost indescribable.
Hartman has seen so much death. He has no control over these circumstances. He is a victim of a war-obsessed time. Now he can celebrate the fact that at least one of his comrades, "Angel," plucked life out of the apparent throes of death. There is hope after all.
More hope was needed to try to get the U.S. troops extricated from Viet Nam - a hellhole of futility. We see the futility of the Remagen encounter spelled out at the end. A panel at movie's end informs us that the battered bridge only stayed up for ten days.
"The Bridge at Remagen" is fundamentally an angry movie, with this quality exuded by everyone. The message was clear in 1969: war reflects the worst impulses in us. The U.S. left Viet Nam in a painstakingly slow way. It was Lyndon Johnson's war but Richard Nixon didn't seem all too eager to end it. Were there larger forces at work? Larger than the U.S. president? The military industrial complex?
President Eisenhower had warned us about this. The irony is that he was the lionized war leader in "the good war" of WWII, yet he more than anyone realized that war is nothing but bad. He sought to trim the military, and he gave us that warning about the "military industrial complex." A man with experience in the bloodiest theater of war can be expected to project such wisdom. Ah, much more than a "chickenhawk" like Dick Cheney (with multiple deferments).
"The Bridge at Remagen" is a 1960s version of "Saving Private Ryan," made in a time when Hollywood backed off from the most gruesome images of war. Nevertheless we see the tragic scale of WWII, the so-called "good war." We see that war in too much of the abstract now. We are too easily entertained by movies.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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