I recently wrote a piece about a screenplay which was stuck in "development hell" and the response to same has been curious to say the least. Remember folks, just ‘cause I’ve read the screenplay doesn’t mean that I’ve convinced the studio people involved to lose the original behind a filing cabinet (not that they’d listen to me anyway). Now, on the very bright side a friend sent me copies of some other material by noted screenwriters that has also been sitting listlessly on shelves for years. I started eagerly into same and while my first instinct was to write a piece about Franzoni’s "George Washington" I quickly saw that my old friend Stax at IGN Film Force had just done so. Now, quite frankly, I didn’t think that I could improve on his review nor that I saw anything significantly different from the way he saw it (hey, the guy must be a genius, right?). I’m going with Stax on this one and saying that someone should get off the dime and get started on it. I will however note, and I’m not sure why this is but it is odd, that there have been very few films set during the American Revolution. It’s rather interesting that here we have the critical, formative period of the nation and there are relatively few celluloid excursions into the revolutionary period. I shall have to pose that question to Stax and see what he thinks. But for now on to other things.
One of the items forwarded along with "George Washington" was a little-known project written by the late (and frequently great) Stanley Kubrick and Richard Adams and entitled "The German Lieutenant." Knowing Kubrick’s status and reputation it’s odd, and perhaps a bit disheartening, to think that he may not have been able to get support for this very interesting piece of work. It would be nice to have a little more info about this project such as whether this Richard Adams is the one who wrote "Watership Down" or the one who wrote "The Red Tent" or another Adams altogether, but that information may be hidden in the mists of time. Further, one wonders if this was one of those Kubrick obsessions like his long but fruitless infatuation with Napoleon Bonaparte. The script itself is an odd but oddly compelling piece set during the last days of the Second World War and told from the point of view of a small group of elite German parachute troops. The lead characters are Lieutenants Kraus and Dietrich who are both hardened veterans and old friends. But for all their combat "seasoning" they are not blind and can see that the war is nearing an end –- and most certainly not in their favor. The tale opens with the pair of friends making their way back to Karlstadt to inform a friend’s widow of his death in action. While enroute they are exposed to the chaos and fear which seem to grip the country as the end draws near. Despite the hopeless nature of the situation, members of the SS and Gestapo man roadblocks and prowl the streets, every bit as diligent and oppressive, perhaps desperately so, as during less catastrophic times. Kraus and Dietrich brush these thugs off with studied indifference. They are perhaps more disturbed by the way in which the war has affected the lives of average people – for example, their friend’s widow who appears less shaken by her loss than they had anticipated.
Despite the impending end of hostilities the young paratroopers are summoned by their commander and given what can only be the ultimate of absurd and worthless missions. Even though the rapid approach of the Allies virtually guarantees that the war will end in a matter of days their commander, Colonel von Sperling, has assigned them the mission to destroy an important bridge across which Allied troops are pouring in a steady stream. Both young officers are shocked by the idiocy of the mission but realize that the alternative –- a confrontation with their commanding officer and likely the Gestapo shortly thereafter – is infinitely worse. Besides, they are professional soldiers and, as the old saying goes, "...theirs not to reason why... " and so, wisely keeping their opinions to themselves, they gather their people –- some 50 battle-hardened paratroopers – and prepare to take on the mission. Dietrich, the ultimate professional and fatalist, is a bit more committed to the mission, with Kraus of the quiet opinion that the whole thing is both fruitless and suicidal.
It’s a grim and grueling assignment they’ve got ahead of them, parachuting behind Allied lines and then working their way through tortuous obstacles in their approach to the target – a steel-girder span across a dangerous and steep-sided gorge. This is decidedly not a cake-walk and the mission is punctuated by intense and deadly encounters with small American forces and patrols which invariably whittle down the German unit’s size and capabilities and erode the men’s morale almost to the breaking point. It is interesting to note here that in some ways these characters are the German mirror image of some of the characters who appear in "Saving Private Ryan." But, whatever obstacles are thrown in their path the dogged paratroopers stick grimly to their mission. Now, rather than give away the ending entirely, suffice it to say that there is a horrendous, combative confrontation between German and American troops and this is followed by a rather odd and somehow anti-climactic scene set 10 years after the war. After the violence of the preceding scenes this conclusion is almost wrenching in its disjointed, detached nature.
In the final analysis, this is a film I would like to see made but with perhaps a slightly different ending – if that makes any sense. I think I wanted the post-script to have more of what amounts to an emotional impact than it did... but perhaps I wanted too much.
Now what this script does most poignantly is to conjure a few random thoughts about war films in a similar vein. We have seen a similar point of view expressed in what I think is a much more powerful film from 1959 "The Bridge" ("Die Bruecke" dir. Bernhard Wicki) in which a small group of idealistic but naïve German youngsters are drafted into the "Volksturm" (essentially the Homeguard) to protect an insignificant bridge in their hometown in the final days of WWII. A devastating account of wasted youth, the characters are, if anything, more sympathetic than those in "The German Lieutenant." Then of course, there is the remarkable "Cross of Iron" which is the redoubtable Sam Peckinpah’s adaptation of Willi Heinrich’s book on the desperate and ultimately hopeless struggle to survive in Stalingrad. For my money, the latter is one of the late James Coburn’s best roles as the hard-bitten Sergeant Rolf Steiner. What Kubrick’s intent with "The German Lieutenant" may have been, was to paint "the enemy" with a human face – an objective which was admirably accomplished by the two above-mentioned films and by Wolfgang Petersen’s spectacular "Das Boot." Now does this mean that "The German Lieutenant" should not have been made, that it deserves to languish in "development Hell?" – No, not at all. When one considers the plethora of bad material which is produced each year -- and that is only a tiny fraction of the unbelievably bad schlock which gets written – it is rather a shame that so much well crafted and thought provoking material is fated to be kept from public view. Ah well, until next time, mes amis. C’est la Vie! Or perhaps that should be C’est la Guerre!
Frederick J. Chiaventone, an award-winning novelist and screenwriter, is a retired Army officer and Professor Emeritus of International Security Affairs at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. His most recent book, Moon of Bitter Cold, a novel of Red Cloud’s war, has just been nominated for the Pulitzer. His most recent piece for American Heritage magazine (October 2002) is on Native American leadership.