Audrey Hepburn

Audrey in 2020!

This morning, Audrey Hepburn’s son Luca Dotti announced in Variety a new dramatic television series about his mother’s life that will begin shooting in 2020. The Rome-based production company, Wildside, has a wealth of experience, including success with the series The Young Pope and My Brilliant Friend, which has recently been renewed. Wildside is in growth mode, which can only benefit a project about Audrey.

A TV series that digs into what Luca calls Audrey’s “formative years” could rip your guts out without ever straying into embellishment. She lived through a war, and those big brown doe-eyes saw it up close. She provided thousands of words about her wartime experiences to interviewers, and the amazing thing is, she kept most of what she experienced secret, “under lock and key in her heart,” as Luca put it. As she was raising him, he always sensed there was a lot she wasn’t revealing, and he was right.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Audrey at about the time she started working for the Dutch Resistance.

I have to believe an unknown talent is about to explode onto the scene playing Audrey. Casting is still a ways off, but Audrey’s story really started when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands just after she had turned 11. This fact will call for the casting of a gifted young actor who could conceivably grow through the seasons of the series. Or do you cast a different actress each season, as in Dr. Who?

The dramatic demands will be harsh. At 11 Audrey took up ballet and developed iron-willed discipline; at 12 she danced in public for the first time; at 13 she lost her first family member to the war; at 14 she risked her life to work on behalf of the Dutch Resistance; at 15 she was stepping over body parts in the streets and nearly dying of disease. And we haven’t even gotten to the secrets yet.

Casting of Audrey’s mother will likely draw interest from A-list actresses because it’s a plum assignment for many reasons. Ella van Heemstra was many things—socialite, partyer, provocateur, and rebel, not to mention a vibrant woman with a wicked sense of humor who inspired a lifetime of love and loathing in her daughter. It won’t be an easy relationship to capture in screenplay form or render on film.

Luca Dotti himself was one of two authors of the draft treatment that serves as a starting point for the as-yet unnamed TV series. In 2016 and 2017 he was involved in development of an exhibit at the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek called “Ella and Audrey” about the years of Audrey Hepburn and her mother in Arnhem and vicinity under Nazi occupation. He and I have talked about his deep desire to do his mother’s story justice, so I feel the conceptualization is in good hands.

I’m as anxious as anybody to see the plan evolve and learn the scope of the production, including shooting locations. Today’s announcement is just the beginning of what is sure to be an interesting 18 months leading up to when cameras roll.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Audrey and Ella in 1953.

Seeing Red

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

At the intersection of passion, ambition, and love lay the red shoes. I arrived late to an appreciation of the Pressburger/Powell collaboration The Red Shoes, released in England in 1948 by the Rank Organisation. Give me The Sea Hawk and pirates, or Excalibur and King Arthur, I used to grumble. Don’t give me ballet!

But then in the late 1990s I did get exposed to ballet when I worked on a video tribute to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s retiring artistic director Patricia Wilde, who had been a George Balanchine ballerina. I learned then how cool ballet was, and how much discipline it took to make a dancer. Seeing vintage footage of Patricia Wilde as she danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the New York City Ballet left me slack-jawed. And here I was interviewing this great woman on camera about that career.*

Flash forward 20 years. I trespassed in the ballet world again recently as I sat writing Dutch Girl and learning about Audrey Hepburn’s aspirations for a career in dance—sat not only here stateside but also in the very theater where she once performed, the Stadsschouwburg in Arnhem, the Netherlands. She studied for four years in Arnhem with a Dutch ballet mistress named Winja Marova and followed that with a stint in Amsterdam under Sonja Gaskell and then in London under Marie Rambert. All three are important names in European ballet—Gaskell is very well remembered and Rambert is a bona fide legend.

Ask Audrey at any point in her life what she aspired to be and she would say “a dancer.” She never answered “an actress.” Meryl Streep—there is an actress, Audrey would tell you. But even though Audrey had played Gigi on Broadway and then won a Tony Award for Ondine the next year, she claimed she faked her way through. She did what an instinct for survival told her to do and lived to tell the tale.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Tortured Lermontov punches a mirror.

I have to find out what Audrey thought about The Red Shoes, which is set in post-war London at a time when she studied under Rambert and began a brief but intense career as a chorus girl after coming to grips with the fact that her dreams of ballet would never become reality. The Red Shoes tells the story of the rise of ballerina Victoria Page as molded by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov. He asks her at a critical point, “What do you want from life?” She answers at once, breathlessly, “To dance!” It was an Audrey moment.

I always find The Red Shoes, now digitally restored, an astonishing experience on many levels. It presents the world of professional ballet as muscular and visceral, one minute beautiful, the next nightmarish, and always obsessive; it saturates your eyes with Technicolor designed by director of photography Jack Cardiff; it lays bare the souls of a trio of characters who will break your heart for their spectacular individual talents and crippling human limitations.

I love Lermontov, played by Austrian-born Anton Walbrook. Lermontov never bends, never breaks. It’s his company and you will do it his way or get out! He rules ruthlessly, savagely, relentlessly. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of his art. If he retires to his apartment off-hours and talks sweetly to his cat, we don’t see it. He seems to live at the theatre and wields power at all hours. Once in a while he might seem to relent, but only as another way to skin a cat—as a different means to an end. [Note to readers: This is as close to me as it gets, people. I live for my whatever passes for my art, just like Lermontov.]

Then there’s Vicki Page, played by real-life-ballerina-turned-actress Moira Shearer. Vicki has it all under Lermontov, all she has said she ever wanted, ever dreamed of, and then loses her way by falling in love with composer Julian Craster. You just want to shake her by the shoulders and scream, “Snap out of it! He isn’t worth it!” But no matter how many times you watch The Red Shoes, she never listens.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

The confrontation: Craster, played by Marius Goring, confronts Lermontov with his love for Vicki.

What a fascinating woman Moira Shearer was. She had been a Sadler’s Wells ballerina and a great rising star—until The Red Shoes. After that she claimed the traditional ballet world considered her a sellout for lowering herself to act, and her career never recovered. She continued to dance for a while and then tried acting full time, but neither worked out. Later on she would lecture and write and finally she died in 2006 at age 80. Boy, I wish I had known this woman.

One more link between Audrey and The Red Shoes: Fourth billed is Sadler’s Wells principal dancer Robert Helpmann of Australia. On May 9, 1940, Audrey sat in the city theatre of Arnhem and watched the Sadler’s Wells touring company featuring Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn dance. It was a turning point in the life of an 11 year old, and she would tell the story of stepping onto the stage with these forces of British ballet to deliver flowers to ballet mistress Ninette de Valois.

Please forgive me for stumbling blindly through the first decades of life avoiding The Red Shoes. I’ve learned the error of my ways. Ballet rocks. And, for me at least, never does it rock harder than in The Red Shoes.

__________________________

*Thinking about the Patricia Wilde video caused me to dig it out and upload it to Youtube. It was my first job as a producer (co-producer, actually) and one of my first creative experiences in the edit suite working with post-production ace Kathy Kruger. This video hasn’t seen the light of day for 21 years, but it’s part of the historical record of American ballet and I believe for that reason it should be preserved.

Friends

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Young pre-Hollywood Audrey.

I’m done. The fun part is over—the fun part being sitting alone night after night, figuring out the story and writing it. If you commit to 1,000 words a session and understand that some of the words will be good, some bad, and some indifferent, before too long you get a book. Following that process, along with three trips to the Netherlands and a year associated with Dutch researcher Maddie van Leenders, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, is written and weighs in at about 103,000 words. Release is set for April 15, 2019. As a workaholic introvert, I have enjoyed the experience of spending two years alone with Audrey Hepburn more than I can tell you. She’s been very pleasant company; in fact about the pleasantest ever, right up there with George Washington.

When you work on a biography that long and get so deep inside the heart and soul of your subject, he or she invariably becomes a friend, or at least a “work friend.” When I produced the three documentary films on George Washington, we became pals and I still miss him after more than 10 years.

I would call Errol Flynn a work friend at best because here I was working in the same office with a tortured soul for two books and along the way finally figured out what was going on in his chaotic, complex mind. Just yesterday I watched his finest acting job, in Elizabeth and Essex, and because I know him so well, my heart broke at the heroic effort this generally lazy hedonist put into one very tough job, to make sure the powers trying to defeat him would not prevail. Then there was the leading lady of his lifetime, Olivia de Havilland, who I had to figure out for the book Errol & Olivia (BTW, Belated Happy Birthday this past July 1, OdeH). We had been correspondents for a long time, and I studied her from Saratoga, California, on; in fact it was there in the concrete driveway of the Fontaine home that I laid my hand over the tiny handprints of Livvie and her little sister Joan. They must have been six and five at the time they pressed them into the cement, but it’s as if these two future Academy Award winners were already performing their own Grauman’s Chinese ceremony. I think in retrospect Livvie’s the most interesting person I’ve ever tackled. She remains at age 102 a closed book, a loner, and 100% pure badass. I have come to admire her tremendously.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Loner Olivia de Havilland and complicated Errol Flynn.

I’ve documented Carole Lombard on these pages as well as in Fireball so I won’t bore you with more, except to say hers is a lively spirit to spend a couple of years alone with. There were a number of surprises on that project. Among them was Clark Gable, an interesting guy and, I concluded, an OK guy despite a flawed character. But then most of us are flawed characters one way or another. The second surprise involved the 15 Air Corps pilots on Lombard’s death plane who wanted their stories to be told. Who knew? One of these fellas even showed up a couple years ago, which introduced me to a new friend, Felicia Borla of the Clark County Coroner’s Office.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The lively Lombard and her cat-who-ate-the-canary smile.

Jim Stewart and I came to an understanding over the course of Mission’s development. During his lifetime, two things were sure about Jim: 1) he would not talk about his WWII combat career, and 2) he hated biographers. So what did I set out to write? His combat biography. You’d suppose that on the other side he wouldn’t be happy with me, but in describing Stewart in combat I put a spotlight on the great group of guys he commanded in battle. Those men deserved the kind of attention that their proximity to Jimmy Stewart the actor would have promoted, and Mission made that happen. So now Jim and I are OK; not tight, but OK.

And now we come to Audrey Hepburn. Audrey’s another tough cookie for a simple reason: She had secrets she felt could not be revealed, which led her to turn down several seven-figure offers from publishers to write her memoir. Then she died much too soon, and biographers went to town writing about her life and they’re still at it, and now I’ve done it too.

My book’s different from the others because I went right after the secrets, and had to hack and slash through a lot of false leads, inaccurate reporting, myths, and subterfuge to get at the truth, or at least what truth can be determined when files have been intentionally destroyed. I’m not going to give you any spoilers here, so you’re going to have to wait and read Dutch Girl to find out what the secrets are and if she makes it out of World War II alive.

I wanted to use this photo on the cover of Mission but got overruled.

Like always there was a get-acquainted period with Audrey, and I came to see her as a pretty fierce introvert. Well, to be precise, she wasn’t an introvert as a ballerina, which is all she ever wanted to be. It was the acting and particularly the speaking that gave her the shakes. We got along very well and the good vibes grew, and now I’m associated and sharing information with her son, Luca Dotti. Luca’s now in the process of adding some pretty incredible details to the narrative, things only someone inside the family could.

There’s nothing like the experience of positive energy aligning on a great project, and that’s what Dutch Girl has been—the most enjoyable adventure of my career thanks in large part to a wonderful group of Dutch people who love history, or lived it, or knew Audrey, or had some sort of expertise they were willing to provide to a clumsy American. They include Maddie along with Gety, Annemarth, Clan, Rosemarie, Ben, Herman, Patrick, Johan, Dick, and Robert, Luca in Rome, and Marina and Ann, my stateside researchers. They all have made collaboration a joy—even for a guy who likes nothing better than to sit alone and write.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

In June 2017 with the help of Dutch historian and author Gety Hengeveld-de Jong, I interviewed Ben van Griethuysen, Annemarth Visser ‘t Hooft, and Rosemarie Kamphuisen, who lived in the village of Velp with Audrey during World War II. All provided information critical to the Dutch Girl narrative.

Fireballed

You may be wondering where I’ve been. Well, I’m working on my new book and it’s the bottom of the ninth, as in, after two years, I have to be done at the end of May. I only have a one-track mind, unlike later more sophisticated models of humans who can, as the kids say, multitask, and so getting this thing completed is pretty much all I’m eating and sleeping these days.

And because of that single track, I haven’t addressed a very interesting comment that came into this website at the end of April, so I thought I would pause to admire it in the sunlight. Mary Whittaker had first left a comment here saying that she had begun Fireball and was enjoying it. Then she followed up.

First of all, thank you Mary for reading and liking Fireball and for taking the time to write about the following:

So wow – I just finished “Fireball” and am still “not over it.” Thank you so much for writing this book. It was absolutely fascinating…and the most fascinating thing to ME is the question of WHY this story is so compelling (and it absolutely, positively is). The amount of angst and stress I felt reading it – having absolutely no personal knowledge of the individuals involved AND with full knowledge of pretty much how it all ended…was remarkable.

When I consider Lana’s retort (‘I didn’t make her get on that plane’), I find that I have to reluctantly somewhat agree. Gable didn’t make her get on it either. How is it possible that this smart, savvy, successful, confidant and seemingly universally loved woman was somehow reduced to changing her interests, going cross country in desperate pursuit of pregnancy, lurking around Hollywood sound stages to monitor her husband’s behavior and accepting a pattern of one sided adultery in her marriage? How did she get to a point where she was so desperate to hang onto a man that she was a wreck over an 8 day separation and the fact that he wasn’t answering the phone….to the point of defying solemn promises made to her traveling companions, ignoring military air travel demands during war time and throwing a celebrity fit in order to get her way? It’s maddening! I understand that he was “the king” and all…but she was not exactly chopped liver and absolutely nothing in her background would lead one to believe that she would not only put up with this kind of situation but literally kill herself and 2 others in her single minded desperation to retain it. I’m guessing that this wealthy high society party girl/hugely successful actress was not previously terribly interested in hunting/camping. Her prior relationships, marital opinions and career plans did not seem to have a lot of focus on motherhood. She seems to have been trying to become what she thought he wanted from the start – then obsessed with having a baby (really good idea with a straying husband) as a further means to hold him. You just want to reach through the pages and shake her — HE IS NOT WORTH IT!!!

An irony too I think is that if she hadn’t died like this, my guess would be eventual divorce when she had finally had enough. He certainly was not going to stop his behavior as her prior entreaties had not worked…it was just a matter of time before she either became too humiliated/fed up to take it any more…or he got someone pregnant (again) or found some other 20 something actress to replace his (in Hollywood) “aging” 30 something wife. I don’t think absent this tragedy the “Gable and Lombard” legendary love story would have endured.

I did not quite come away with much admiration for Gable. I felt for him and was mesmerized by the details of his attempt to climb up, time in Las Vegas waiting for the outcome/bodies and life after…but at the end of the day I couldn’t help but think that karma had kind of gotten him (with the incredibly unfortunate corresponding outcome for Winkler and Petey too). His treatment of his first wife – the ugly reality of his second marriage – the complete abdication of human/moral responsibility for Judy Lewis and of course his cavalier and hurtful behavior while with Lombard — all too much for me to erase via a few kind deeds later on.

As you so correctly pointed out, SO many people died in WW2…WHY does this one plane crash seem so compelling?! It is positively haunting to me and I’m not exactly sure why. The passage of 75 years….the fading photos of a long ago movie star who many/most today have never have even heard of….the lingering debris (including that wedding ring) still resting undisturbed on that mountain….the LONG list of reasons why this never had to happen and the various opportunities that would have changed everything are gut wrenching. I can certainly understand why Gable never recovered.

Thank you for an outstanding read. I never knew all the details…now I do and will never forget them.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

My 2012 view of the place where all the stories intersected.

What more could any author want than a reader who is this literate and this energized after reading that author’s book? You bring up so many great points, Mary, with the first being, why did Carole bend herself into a pretzel to try to accommodate this particular man? I think the answer can be found in her capacity to love unconditionally. She was an old soul and she understood and was able to accept his baser instincts, insecurities, and shortcomings. It wasn’t ever a two-way street with these two. He was the king and she was his consort. But then she hit 30 in the place where one must never do that—Hollywood. And tastes changed among moviegoers, causing her to drive her career into a ditch. Once she was in there, it wasn’t so easy to get back out, and the result was fear she would lose her man to the hottie of 1941, Lana.

Another point you raise, the one that made you want to reach through the pages, concerned her rush to get home. As I read your reaction, it occurred to me that at age 33 years and 3 months, Carole still possessed the energy and invincibility of youth. Dying was for other people. If there’s one thing I understand above all (because she and I share this trait in spades), it’s Carole’s goal orientation. And that night her goal was, I gotta get home. She saw the prize and she went for it whereas after another 10 or 20 years of living, she might have tempered her impulse into, I want to get home, but he’ll be there tomorrow and I can’t put my traveling companions through emotional hell.

I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll say it again. I remember vividly sitting there in the middle of writing Fireball in my quiet house. Dead quiet. And looking at the wall in front of me and thinking, “Will anyone care about this story of a movie star who’s been dead 70 years?” I’m going through it right now in a different sense because, Audrey Hepburn. Sheesh. But this time it’s, “Have I pulled this off? Have I told this story in a way that compels the reader to keep going?” You just never know.

But in both cases I’ve latched onto a story that all past biographers stepped right over without really even glancing back to see what that just was. In the case of the last days of Carole Lombard, I was like, wait a minute. There were so many stories that had never been told. Carole living the best full day of her life on the last full day of her life. The veteran airline pilot who made a rookie mistake. The first responders rushing up a mountain to make a rescue. The crash investigators trying to figure out what had happened. The poor young officer who had to pick up body parts on mountainside you couldn’t even walk across. The hotshot Army flyboy desperate to get to his fiancée. And on and on. You didn’t have to end up liking Gable because there were so many other people who were so goddamn cool, including some who broke your heart by not living to the end.

Audrey in the British picture Secret People playing a young dancer. She made this two years before she hit Hollywood.

In the case of Audrey Hepburn in World War II—that’s my next one, Audrey Hepburn in World War II—there’s an obligatory chapter on this topic in all the bios that came out after she died in 1993. A single chapter about six years of her life in the midst of the greatest crisis in human history! Oh let’s just get past this thing about Hitler and Jews, the murder of her uncle, the battle for Arnhem, the Hunger Winter, and all that other boring history. We have to blaze through it so we can get to the good stuff about sex with William Holden and the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s! Well, fine, you all did that. There are some really good AH bios out there, particularly the one by Barry Paris.

Me? By focusing on the Netherlands, I found a story just as riveting as what there was on Potosi. Once again I’m sitting here thinking, I can’t believe I get to be the one to tell it! But, boy, I can’t just tell it. I have to tell it right. That’s the pressure and the sixty-four-dollar question. Have I told it right?

Anyway, that’s where I’ve been—back in time in the Netherlands circa 1940-45 learning how Audrey Hepburn became who she ended up being. Walking in her footsteps, breathing her air, meeting some of the people she knew in the places she knew them.

In the meantime this is just me poking my head in to say hello and to acknowledge the tremendous compliment paid by Mary Whittaker.

Spy vs. Spy

Kasteel Zijpendaal tricked out as Nazi headquarters for the film Betrayed in 1954. It had indeed been taken over by German command in 1943 and must have looked pretty much just like this.

Here it is in 2015 on our first visit.

There was a high body count of Germans for the run of Betrayed. Here members of the beret-clad Dutch underground shoot their way out after rescuing Gable and take off.

One more, 2015 again, showing the side of the house scaled by “the Scarf” as he rescued Deventer. In real life, 11-year-old Audrey Hepburn loved to explore these grounds in 1941. She would read here on the lawn and play with the animals, which she preferred to people.

 

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had a hankering to watch Betrayed the other night, Clark Gable’s last picture for MGM, made in 1954 and about the Dutch underground in WWII. I never much cared for later Gable pictures—he didn’t seem to care so why should I? But these days everything Dutch is important so there I was, watching Gable as Deventer, code-named “Rembrandt,” a Dutch CIA-type fighting the Nazis in his home country, which had been invaded and occupied by the Germans in May 1940. The first sequence in the picture was shot at Kasteel Zijpendaal—a locally famous Dutch castle built in the 18th century on a little lake at the edge of the city of Arnhem. It was “the ancestral home of the Baron van Heemstra,” Audrey Hepburn’s maternal grandfather who was once Arnhem’s mayor.  As a girl of 10 and 11, shy Audrey communed with nature in the lush grounds surrounding the castle.

So there right in front of me was Kasteel Zijpendaal dressed up as Nazi headquarters, and there was Victor Mature as the notorious Dutch underground leader “the Scarf” rowing across the little lake and climbing in a window and helping Clark Gable to escape right before Deventer was about to be tortured and made to talk. There were fake hand grenade explosions inside, Germans mowed down by the machine guns of the Scarf and his men, and then Mature burst out the front door with Gable on his back, stole a Nazi staff car, and escaped. I was dumbfounded because Mary and I had been to this castle multiple times. The rest of the picture played out almost entirely in the Netherlands with Lana Turner parachuting onto Dutch soil as a spy planted by the Allies. She is in love with Gable but quickly gets mixed up with Mature amidst spy vs. spy shenanigans. And so on and so forth.

Something you don’t see every day: Lana Turner parachuting into hostile territory. To lessen your concern, I can report that she didn’t break a nail, let alone an ankle.

The depiction of Mature and the Dutch underground is hilarious. They were bumping off Nazis right and left in all these raids that never happened. At one point he and his men barge into a Luftwaffe base and annihilate a great number of Germans having a party. In truth, I love you dearly, Dutch people, but I terms of violence, you were only good at blowing off an occasional hand or foot—usually your own. When you outwitted a German, which you did all the time, it was by making an illegal radio the size of a matchbook or sending your kids out to steal dinner from the soldiers or hiding forbidden leaflets in the fake tummy of a fake pregnant lady. That was the way you won the war. One woman told me that when she was a little girl, a German officer came to their house and while he was in another room, she picked up his hat and spat in it. Classic Dutch mischief.

But they also did deadly serious stuff, like hiding thousands of Jews just before they would have been sent to Auschwitz, along with American and British fliers who fell from the skies after their bombers and fighters were shot down. One of these was Clem Leone, a friend of mine whose incredible story is chronicled in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Thanks to many courageous Dutch people across the country, Clem evaded capture for four months as he made his way south through the Netherlands–it was a lousy Belgian that turned him over to the Nazis in Antwerp.

I did some reading in Lyn Tornabene’s Long Live the King and Jean Garceau’s Dear Mr. G. after finishing my viewing of Betrayed. Gable spent a month in the Netherlands shooting at various locations and was treated like his royal self everywhere he went. He was mobbed and it made all the Dutch newspapers. The location work was fantastic and everything you’d expect—lots of windmills, and dikes, and water, water everywhere. You just can’t replicate that stuff on a soundstage, and the lushness of the production, in Eastman Color no less, really surprised me given the dire straits of MGM at that time—TV drowning the studio’s books in red ink and most of its stars cut loose as a result. ‘Mr. G.’ went freelance at the end of production and never again walked through the gates of the studio that made him famous over the course of more than 20 years.

In a very cool finish, survivors of British Airborne shuffle past our beleaguered heroes.

The ingenious payoff to the plot of the picture is that Gable provides information allowing 3,000 besieged British Airborne paratroopers to escape after the September 1944 “Bridge Too Far” battle of Arnhem. The title Betrayed refers to one of the three leads leaking the plans for Operation Market Garden to the Germans, which causes them to roll in two panzer divisions in anticipation of the Allies dropping 10,000 paratroopers behind Nazi lines to capture the Arnhem Road Bridge. The whole thing was a real-life disaster for the British and 7,000 of their boys ended up dead, wounded, or captured. The very last shot in the picture shows the Airborne survivors limping out of the fog after they had crossed the Rhine along an escape route mapped by heroes Gable and Turner.

If you know the history of this battle, the plot of Betrayed is a perfect fictional backstory that fits hand in glove with real-life events. Another surprise is that there’s very little explanation for what’s going on, meaning that Hollywood expected everyone in the 1954 audience to have the facts of Market Garden top of mind. It’s a level of sophistication that would never be anticipated by movie producers today.

I had no idea I was going to get to go back to Holland on a frozen Friday night in Pennsylvania and watch my Dutch friends do a whole bunch of crazy-heroic stuff to a whole bunch of hapless Germans. Oh, the Dutch were heroic in World War II all right. Much more heroic than simply wielding a machine gun. Come to think of it, Clark Gable had Dutch roots and his character in Betrayed is very Dutch indeed. He’s not a gun toter; he uses his brains at every step to outwit the thugs who hijacked the 20th century on their way to a thousand-year Reich. “Not on my watch,” was the response of the crafty, and ultimately liberated, Dutch.

HIGH HOPES AND A BATTLE

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

British Airborne troops flash the V-for-Victory sign and give thumbs up on the way to their drop zone near Arnhem.

Once upon a time, all-star films were all the rage. I was trying to figure out when it started and I’m sure you know better than I. Was it The Story of Mankind? That pre-dates Around the World in 80 Days, right? Then the all-star game found war pictures and The Longest Day was born, which I consider the go-to look at D-Day even though it was G-rated and the real thing was For Adults Only. No, really, the real thing wasn’t for anyone, it was so brutal. I’m always struck by the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan, a picture I despised otherwise, when the gate of the landing craft went down in the surf near the beach, and we saw a glimpse of what the guys really went through.

Darryl Zanuck had the vision for The Longest Day, and it worked in spite of its lumbering, all-star self. Next came The Great Escape, probably the most successful of the all-star service pictures. Then Zanuck tried it again with Tora, Tora, Tora! about Pearl Harbor, and his all-star cast wasn’t quite so stellar for budgetary reasons, but the picture still succeeded, I think because the stars weren’t so big they demanded their own vignettes. It became an ensemble of very good but not overwhelming players—exactly the feel achieved in The Great Escape.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

One-sheet movie poster for A Bridge too Far, released in 1977.

Midway was a last gasp at the traditional, all-star war picture told with old-time apple-pie sensibilities, even though we then lived in the post-MASH, post-Catch-22 world of revisionism, a world that had already seen The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes, which overlaid modern sensibilities on World War II. I saw Midway in a big theater on first release in 1976 and thought it was OK at best. A veteran of the war in the South Pacific who also saw it was laughing afterward at the mismatched stock footage and wrongly placed vintage aircraft depicted; by this time the pickings of available fighter-bombers was already pretty slim. Really, Midway had the ambition but not the budget and needed the gimmick of the day, sub-woofer Sensurround, to try to put derrieres into seats.

In the wake of Midway, there was one great World War II historical novel by Cornelius Ryan hanging out there that hadn’t been brought to the screen, A Bridge Too Far, about a well-meaning, wrong-headed plan called Operation Market Garden that sought to bring World War II to a rapid close in September 1944. Producer Joseph E. Levine envisioned A Bridge Too Far as an all-star service picture with a script by William Goldman that made no bones about bludgeoning the audience with Monday morning quarterbacking and an “Isn’t this ironic?” attitude.

I’m not going to critique the resulting picture. Either you like it or you don’t. What I will say is it’s quite a setup for actually visiting Arnhem, where the action took place, and the history is heavy there in those streets where British paratroopers went up against a ferocious last-stand German defense. In a nutshell, a large force of British paratroopers were dropped near the Dutch city of Arnhem behind German lines to capture a key bridge over the Rhine as part of a larger plan involving a sudden Allied push north through Holland to cut the German front in two. We drop you up here, we slice north from down here, we meet up in Arnhem, war over. Simple. Dismissed, see you at the surrender ceremony.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Artwork in the British Airborne Museum in Arnhem shows the battle for the bridge, with Tommies who were unequipped to fight tanks holding off advancing German armor.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Roughly the same view in November 2015 at sunset.

The plan was complicated by only one wee little factor: German forces fleeing the Allied advance through France after D-Day were ordered to regroup at none other than Arnhem. I mean, at just about the time the paratroopers were climbing aboard their aircraft in England, the Germans just happened to be stopping in Arnhem. Many didn’t even have weapons—they had turned them in because they were about to board trains back to Berlin for refitting. They were just there, weary and shell-shocked after the Allied invasion, thinking they were about to see home. Then here come these poor British paratroopers dropping all around, guys who thought they would be fighting a few Nazi-sympathizer Dutch home guard troops. Instead, a couple divisions of SS Panzers and what was left of the real German army got the surprise of their lives as British paratroopers floated to earth, and then the Germans regrouped, outnumbered the Tommies, and took care of business. The dreamed-of liberation of Arnhem’s besieged population became a bloodbath for British soldiers, first at the Arnhem Bridge and then in the city center where the paratroopers retreated.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

The overwhelming sight of graves for all the British and Polish paratroopers who died in the Battle of Arnhem.

Two weeks ago I was in Arnhem to get a feel for the Dutch people—to get their vibe for the portions of Mission that take place in Holland. They drive on the right side of the road in Holland, thank God, so tooling around the countryside was a lot of fun, but did you know they don’t have windmills anymore? Only one traditional windmill, ONE, was seen in hundreds of miles of Holland. All they’ve got these days are wind turbines, giant, cold, silent wind turbines like you can find anywhere. I had to wonder what Don Quixote would think of this unfortunate turn of events.

So anyway, back to the Richard Attenborough-directed picture, A Bridge Too Far. All right, I will critique it. There was a whole lot to explain and too many times the explanations weren’t clear or clever enough so it just seemed like a lotta explosions. We don’t get a sense of the ultimate irony that the Germans just happened to be regrouping here of all places, which makes the parachute drop so heartbreaking for these brave, well-meaning Tommies who expected to win the war in a week and ended up in a Custer’s Last Stand scenario in downtown Arnhem.

No, I take that back. The worst thing about A Bridge Too Far is Ryan O’Neal, who at 36 was just clueless portraying a real-life general of roughly the same age. If you watch the picture you have to wonder what the real actors around him were thinking as he so cluelessly recited his lines.

No, I take that back. The worst thing about A Bridge Too Far is Gene Hackman’s Polish accent. He seemed to know he couldn’t get it right, but he soldiered on anyway. That’s bravery, in the actor sense of bravery, which isn’t quite the paratrooper sense of it.

No! The worst thing about A Bridge Too Far is the Americans. Yes, that’s it, the Americans. Because it was an all-star picture and U.S. box office meant everything, the American stars had to have big parts. A-number-1 big star of the day, Robert Redford, got a 15-minute vignette as an Airborne major ordered to get his men across a river in poor-quality rowboats; B-number-2 star of the day, James Caan, got 10 solid minutes as a sergeant trying to save an officer’s life; C-number-3 star of the day, Elliott Gould, negotiated for 15 minutes of screen time to build a Bailey bridge. Yes the American 82nd and 101st Airborne mattered to the plot, just not enough to justify all the close-ups. This is a British story—just let it be a British story.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Anthony Hopkins as Col. John Frost, leading his confident men into battle after a successful parachute drop near Arnhem.

Then there’s the best thing about A Bridge Too Far, Anthony Hopkins as Col. John Frost trying to take and hold Arnhem Bridge, and then continuing the fight until his ammo and food ran out. He earned his way onto my Mt. Rushmore of great screen characterizations of all time with his take on the quintessential, stiff-upper-lip British officer in a hopeless situation. In this picture, Anthony Hopkins is simply, how can I say this … perfect. It’s worth it for anyone to slog through A Bridge Too Far to get to the Hopkins moments because they are magical. He is all those British boys rolled into one. He is every corpuscle of every man who fought and died on those streets in 1944.

Walking across the now-called John Frostbrug (John Frost Bridge) in Arnhem was a chilling experience knowing what happened there. Visiting the Airborne Cemetery had me in tears the instant I saw all those smart formations of headstones, each representing a brave Tommy or Pole who paid the ultimate price. I wasn’t prepared for the emotion of that moment, especially with plaques at the gates of the cemetery in multiple languages that included photos of the Airborne guys in the planes on the way over the North Sea flashing V-for-victory signs, all smiles as they flew with their high hopes and noble intentions only to die in a hail of machine gun fire on the streets of Arnhem, a city that had been spared the nastiness of war until those brutal, unexpected days of September 1944 when British Airborne met the SS and their Panzers.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Two British paratroopers holed up in a house in Oosterbeek (next to Arnhem) fought to the last and recorded their kills by date in September 1944 on the wallpaper. Their strident message reflects the thoughts of my friend Clem, contributor to Mission, who flew with Jimmy Stewart and was shot down over Holland. “There’s no glory in war,” said Clem. “War is crazy.”

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Morning dew kisses three cut roses placed on a monument honoring Allied war dead. The Dutch people fell in love with their would-be liberators the British Airborne, and that love is undiminished 71 years later.