I first saw The Bridge almost 50 years ago. I found it to be an incredible emotional experience with a strong anti-war sentiment. But I'd never seen it since then, and it seems to have disappeared from popular discussion. It doesn't end up on many of those lists you see regarding great films. Director Bernhard Wicki has been largely forgotten ... he directed a film with Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner that I remember seeing in a theater in the 1960s, and he worked on the German segments of The Longest Day, but he doesn't even merit a listing in David Thomson's endlessly revised Biographical Dictionary of Film.
The Bridge, though, stuck in my mind for all these years, and now that I've finally watched it again, I can say with confidence that it hasn't lost a bit of its power.
Kael called the film "brutally cool and lucid", and that's on the money. The film takes place in Germany at the tail end of World War II. The Germans are losing badly, and they start drafting young boys to fill the ranks. Wicki spends the first part of the movie showing us the boys in their element, going to school, flirting with girls, talking bravely about war, bragging that they want to serve. Their mothers don't want to lose their boys, and many of the older men in the town know enough about war to hope that these youngsters will never know the reality.
Of course, they do face that reality, as do we in the audience. The early scenes establish how young the boys are, which makes the battle scenes that much harder to watch. Sometimes, a film will be called "anti-war" because it shows the brutality, but the heroism in the face of danger demonstrated by soldiers defeats the anti-war message. That doesn't happen here. Whatever braggadocio the boys show in the beginning falls apart when they are confronted with the actual war.