Audrey Hepburn

The Vision

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

When the director of La La Land, Damien Chazelle, was asked why he put a dream ballet at the end of the picture, he responded, “Why wouldn’t you put a dream ballet at the end of the picture?” La La Land tells the story of lovers Mia and Sebastian—she’s an aspiring actress and he’s a struggling musician—from the inception of their relationship to its unraveling. When they spot each other five years after breakup, the dream ballet takes them to an alternate universe where each makes different decisions that result in a thriving long-term bond, all set to music and dance.

I took great satisfaction from his answer about the dream ballet because he delivered it with equal parts incredulity and disdain; it felt right, so he did it. He’s a creative; he followed his instincts and created. He’s also a student of film history and knew from pictures going all the way back to silents that alternate-universe endings can slay an audience.

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

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in the dream ballet.

I’m in awe of creativity like what Damien Chazelle did with La La Land because it’s magical and I don’t know where it comes from, in anybody. From nothing comes something, a painting, a film, a book, a song, a performance with the power to entertain or even change lives. It all begins with an inspiration, a vision of art that needs to be created.

I’ve told the story before about sitting alone in my dead-quiet office writing Fireball as a dual-track narrative that converges in the middle. I was using many points of view, including minor characters like a crash investigator and a rescuer, and putting myself into the heads of real people in a work of non-fiction. I remember saying to myself on a particular day, “Man, is anybody gonna go for this?”

I didn’t have an outline, just a vision that the story must open with a plane flying over Las Vegas in the night. To breathe life into an old headline, I went by instinct, and instinct told me to do it this way and for better or worse, I did. Over and over I saw it and heard it, that plane flying over in the blackness of a Vegas night sky, its motors droning on into the distance.

I also knew where Mission would start, with a man (it’s Jimmy Stewart but he isn’t names in the prologue) plagued by PTSD from the war standing in a town covered in fake snow in the Mojave Desert in a heat wave, about to shoot a scene where he goes around shouting “Merry Christmas!” when it was really June. To me it had to start there, in the land of make-believe—the last time Jimmy Stewart had seen snow, it was while he was risking life or death on a rough bombing mission against Nuremberg and could see the Alps off to his south. Now he was back in Hollywood, and what must that have been like for a soldier who had seen too much action?

While in the Netherlands researching Mission, I discovered the city of Arnhem and learned that Audrey Hepburn had spent the war there. So began the journey as I tried to research Audrey’s life in Arnhem and came up with surprisingly little. I looked at all the biographies and each had, at most, a chapter about the war. A chapter! About the war! It was Jimmy Stewart all over again because that’s what I had found with Jim—biographers would basically say, “So Jim went off to war.” And the next sentence would be, “When he came back…” WHAT?

Because of a number of factors—key Dutch people willing to help and key archives I could access—I decided to go for it and write a book about Audrey in the war, which became Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, to be released in the U.S. on April 15. Embarking on the project, I faced the same challenge I had with Jim, who refused to go on the record about certain aspects of the war. Audrey was another very private person and there were episodes she would discuss, and many she would not. However, this time I had about 6,000 of Audrey’s own words about the war to go on, which was about 5,800 more than I had from Jim, so that was a start.

But how do you structure a narrative about Audrey in the war? All I knew was that once again I had a starting point, a scene that had to begin the book: In the spring of 1935, Audrey’s mother met Adolf Hitler in Munich. Hitler was then the name on lips worldwide, a vibrant and charismatic superstar who had brought pride and prosperity back to a Depression-plagued Germany that had recently lost the Great War. This time around, the reader begins in Hitler’s office and looks into his blue eyes and shakes his hand, all the while wondering, on page one, where in the world is this going?

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

Pamela Mitford, Ella van Heemstra, Michael Burn, J.C. Hills, and Coleridge Hills stand on the steps of the Braunes Haus in Munich the day the group met Adolf Hitler, who was then a friend of Pamela’s sister Unity Mitford. It was such a memorable occasion that Ella kept this photo framed in the Arnhem apartment where Audrey spent the first two years of German occupation.

Well, I promise, not where you’d expect. There are two main characters to drive the narrative this time, Audrey, who enters adolescence under Nazi occupation in Arnhem, and Ella, Audrey’s mother, the Dutch baroness who had been enamored of Hitler. The twist is that occasionally we flash forward to see Audrey at different points of her adulthood, being who she became because of the war and living with the pain of all that had happened. There’s also a lot of history in this book, about the war, the Nazis, the Dutch Resistance—some joker on Goodreads already slammed the advance reading copy for too much history. “Cut it by a third; lose the history,” this person said.

So now I’m thinking, man, is anybody gonna go for this? I don’t know now any more than I knew when I was writing about a plane on a mountain. I’ll probably be asked in an interview, “Why did you start in Hitler’s office, for heaven’s sake?” And I will respond, hopefully with an appropriate mixture of incredulity and disdain, “Why would I not start in Hitler’s office, for heaven’s sake?”

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

Unity Mitford sits with Hitler in Munich. A rebellious young British aristocrat, she was an avid Hitler groupie and jealous of Ella and anyone else who threatened to horn in on ‘her man.’ Supposedly a souvenir photo of Ella with Hitler was taken the day of their meeting, but it’s been lost to posterity.

 

But how do you structure a narrative about Audrey in the war? All I knew was I had a starting point, a scene that had to begin the book: In the spring of 1935, Audrey’s mother met Adolf Hitler in Munich. Hitler was then the name on lips worldwide, a vibrant and charismatic superstar who had brought pride and prosperity back to a Depression-plagued Germany that had recently lost the Great War. This time around, the reader begins in Hitler’s office and looks into his eyes and shakes his hand, all the while wondering, on page one, where in the world is this going?

A long shot of the Nazi Party’s Munich bastion, the Braunes Haus, which was destroyed by U.S. and British bombs during the war.

Instincts

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert MatzenThe other evening I felt hungry for a movie. I didn’t know what—whether it should be something new or an old favorite—but I was beckoned to find something and settled on the recent biopic Colette starring Keira Knightley. The works of French writer Colette had always run on a parallel track to my life and so I knew only two things about her: She had written Gigi, and she had “discovered” Audrey Hepburn via chance encounter at a Monte Carlo hotel—which kept popping into my mind as I watched Colette.

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

A publicity photo of the “discovery” with France’s greatest woman writer.

Viewing the motion picture was a revelation. The depiction of Colette the writer, her imagination igniting like the burner on a stove when confronted with a blank sheet of paper, touched me because I understand the siren’s call of such barren landscape begging to be populated with words.

The depiction of Colette the woman, proven to be accurate from biographical information I’ve been reading since, showed a malleable girl who through fortune and talent transformed into a fierce sexual animal, a feminist with lovers of both genders and three husbands over her lifetime, and a devotee of nature. She was also just what’s you’d expect of a woman with one name—Colette was an egotist.

At the turn of the 20th century, the young Colette’s husband ran a writing factory and when times were tough forced his wife to write a novel, Claudine at School, that he then claimed as his own. Sequels soon made Claudine the most famous literary character in France, but Colette the ghostwriter wanted credit for her own work. This conflict led Colette to challenge her nation to accept women as more than decoration. For the remainder of her life through all forms of writing, from novels to reviews and advice columns, she would struggle to understand her place, any woman’s place, in the world. Colette would not be at peace until the moment of her passing at which time polite French society, which had refused to accept her in life, provided a state funeral in death, along with acknowledgment as France’s greatest woman writer.

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

Colette the gender-bender in her 30s.

Had I known all this—had I stopped to investigate Colette amidst the frenzy of putting Dutch Girl to bed—I would have paused for some analysis of the chance encounter on the beach of Monte Carlo.

At 77, wheelchair-bound from arthritis and years of weight gain brought on by inertia, the dowager authoress spotted the dancer-turned-actress during location production of the minor British film comedy, We Go to Monte Carlo, released in the U.S. as Monte Carlo Baby.

To back up a step, Colette wrote Gigi during the Nazi occupation of Paris as a risqué novella about the grooming of a young girl to be a courtesan—a woman who pleases men sexually. Colette agreed to a tamed-down version for Broadway and that led to a frenzy of speculation about who would play the young Gigi on stage. With no actress cast, Colette became a “compulsive Gigi spotter” across France and often shouted, There! She’s the one! She’s my Gigi! So it wasn’t as if Audrey was the first and only Gigi. Colette was seeing Gigis at all hours, awake and asleep.

To back up another step, Claudine at School is an autobiographical look at Gabrielle Colette’s girlhood in the French countryside. The novel begins with our heroine a tomboy of 15 who just a few pages in is captivated by and seductive with one of her female teachers. Instantly, Claudine coaxes her unsuspecting father to engage the teacher for private tutoring. As Claudine ingratiates herself to the teacher, she’s told, “You’re a little mad, Claudine. I’m beginning to believe it. I’ve been told so often.” Claudine replies, “Yes, I’m quite aware that other people say so, but who cares?”

Colette lived her life this way and never held back in anything she did. Now, all these decades later, here came Audrey with her square shoulders and powerful, seductive dancer’s walk, which actress Keira Knightley recreated in Colette’s confident stride in the biopic. Who knows if Audrey’s boyish figure and short-cropped hair reminded Colette of Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, a cross-dressing lesbian with whom Colette had carried on a scandalous affair over several years in her youth.

To be clear, there was nothing untoward between Audrey and Colette. Quite the contrary, Colette was well past hijinx by this time, and Audrey and all those in her orbit confirmed the Dutch girl’s emotional innocence despite having recently endured a war with its thousand dark moments. It just strikes me as funny how I, and a legion of other Audrey documentarians, missed the implications of the colorful Colette and her wild life as background for the Colette-meets-Audrey scenario.

The other thing I find amusing about the Monte Carlo discovery of Audrey Hepburn by Colette is the mythology propagated by Alexander Walker and others that Audrey “didn’t know anything about acting” and had “never said a word on a stage before.” True enough, she hadn’t played Desdemona at The Old Vic, but Audrey’s experience did include live ballet performances in Arnhem’s always packed theater during the war, followed by two-plus years on stage as a dancer and performer before live audiences in well-attended West End revues. These included an occasional line or two of dialogue. She had also played small parts in big films and big parts in small films and through osmosis had learned more than perhaps even she realized. But as discussed in Dutch Girl, the plucking of nobody Hepburn off the beach in Monte Carlo served as terrific raw material for Richard Maney, “Broadway’s most celebrated press agent,” then working on behalf of Gigi. Brother, did he capitalize.

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

A lobby card for the U.S. release of Monte Carlo Baby, which was rushed to theaters after Audrey had become a Broadway star and moved on to Paramount. In it, she portrays a movie star, even though she tells Colette as she’s making the picture that she “can’t act.” Oscar and Tony awards would soon prove otherwise.

Last word on the Monaco location shoot goes to character actor Marcel Galio, another player in We Go to Monte Carlo. It was to Galio that Audrey turned for advice when suddenly offered a starring role on Broadway that she felt ill-equipped to accept. In fact, when Madame Colette first floated the idea, Audrey told her, “I wouldn’t be able to because I can’t act!” But Colette, ever bold and unconventional, wouldn’t take no for an answer. She challenged Audrey to confront life fearlessly, to seize this opportunity, to go for it. To do anything else was nonsense.

Marcel Galio offered sanguine advice to the panicked novice. “Follow your instincts,” he told her. “If it feels right, it will be right.” It was the best counsel she ever received, these 11 words becoming her North Star. She would mention to interviewers over the next 40 years how she always trusted her instincts and it got her through many a difficult decision, not to mention guiding her through a successful film career on her way to an icon’s immortality.

One-way Mission

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

Jamie Dornan as Jan Kubis and Cilian Murphy as Josef Gabcik, two heroes of Czech history.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II covers Audrey Hepburn’s life under Nazi rule in the Netherlands from May 1940 through April 1945. We’ve all grown up with movies and TV shows depicting the Nazis and what they were like, but such a lifetime bombardment can only desensitize the viewer. Yes, the Nazis were terrible and yes, they committed unspeakable acts upon millions. We know that; can’t we move on? Well, no, let’s not. Let’s never truly move on because we had better learn from this history so we never have to repeat it. Hate whipped up against innocents must never again point a democracy toward extremism that puts the free world in peril.

Friday night I watched a feature that you probably missed, detailing the attempt to assassinate a German high commander you probably never heard of. The picture is Anthropoid, which sounds like science fiction but details Operation Anthropoid, the Allied mission to take out Reinhard Heydrich, the number three Nazi as of 1941 and Hitler’s SS executioner known as “the butcher of Prague.” Heydrich was key to implementation of the Final Solution—when Hitler admires you for your ruthlessness, that’s saying something.

Late in 1941 a group of Czech special ops soldiers parachuted into their country on a top-secret mission to kill Heydrich. Anthropoid isn’t the first picture to cover this mission, but I’m not sure I need to see the others—I’m still recovering from this one. As I watched, I kept thinking, this was Audrey Hepburn’s world, living in a Nazi police state where civilians must not so much as make eye contact with the occupier, where no one was trusted and everyone might be a betrayer, where locals heard random gunshots echoing off the buildings as their neighbors were murdered. The only difference is that Anthropoid depicts life in Prague, Czechoslovakia, rather than in the Dutch city of Arnhem and its neighboring village, Velp. Both countries were occupied by the Third Reich.

I spend quite a lot of time in Dutch Girl discussing the Nazi regime because everything they did mattered to everyone in the countries they had invaded. It so happened that the village in which Audrey lived with her family for the worst part of the war, Velp, was the same village used in the latter part of the war as headquarters for the top Nazi rulers in Holland. In fact, the Reichskommissar of all the Netherlands was Audrey’s neighbor. As in, can I borrow a cup of sugar? He lived that close by.

This intimacy with evil and with death permeates every frame of Anthropoid, which displays a few sentences painting a picture of the butcher of Prague and devotes all its run time to putting us in close quarters with the heroes sent on what they have to know is a one-way mission. When they reveal to local Prague resistance leaders why they are there and who they plan to kill, the reaction is equal parts anger and fear. Even aiming a bomb or bullets in Heydrich’s direction will mean the deaths of thousands of innocent Czechs whether the attempt succeeds or not. This action will start a war of annihilation no matter the result.

With stakes so high, no one can be trusted and moment to moment we wonder where and when the plan will break down, when the Germans will come bursting in with guns blazing or worse, when they will take prisoners. German torture was very real and we see it in Anthropoid. Audrey told a chilling little story of walking along the street in her village and hearing screams coming from a building that had been turned into an SS jail. Her mother explained that men inside were being tortured. Do me a favor and take a moment to let that sink in. Your gentle humanitarian heard the screams of neighbor Velpenaren being tortured (and believe me, she endured much worse than that during the war).

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

An elegant gingerbread turret marked the Rotterdamsche Bank in Velp. In 1944 it became an SS prison and Audrey heard screams from within as she walked past.

Anthropoid pulls no punches; even this extraordinary trailer packs a wallop that’s true to the picture. The war is presented as the war really was, and this mission is recreated down to the names of the patriots who participated and the floor tile in the apartment where the plot was hatched. The attempt to kill Heydrich plays out in human terms, with no computer-generated assist and no one defying the laws of physics. The fate of the assassins is depicted with gut-wrenching clarity, and we see what real heroes looked like and what they sacrificed in this war. I salute you, Sean Ellis, writer, director, and cinematographer, for the searing vision you presented in this, a motion picture I will never forget. Shooting it in Prague using Czech actors and crew as much as possible injected extra adrenalin into the proceedings.

One last thing: As the story of Anthropoid unfolded, I thought of Audrey describing how in the darkest times gallows humor got her family through. She remembered bombs falling, tanks droning past, and the rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire—as she, her mother, aunt, and grandfather cracked jokes and giggled in the cellar of their besieged home. That spirit triumphed over Adolf Hitler and all his hate, and it remained within Audrey as she made the transition from actress to beacon for peace.

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

As the assassination attempt unfolds, and immediately goes wrong, Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe) stands to shoot a patriot blocking the road ahead. At left, Jan Kubis attempts to toss a bomb at the car. Actor Jamie Dornan had portrayed Christian Grey in three films based on the erotic “50 Shades” novels. Let’s not hold that against him because in Anthropoid, he’s quite good.

Duckling and Swan

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

Spoiler alert: Except for a mention in passing, I didn’t touch the subject of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II. The book focuses squarely on the war and defers on topics like the production of her films to existing biographies on the Hollywood years.

I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s long ago and wasn’t impressed. The other night it played on TCM/US and I watched it again, this time with knowledge gained after two years in close quarters with Audrey and an understanding of all she had seen and done during the war.

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

The one sheet can fetch $15K, although usually it auctions around 5.

I remembered only two scenes from past viewings: That magnificent opening series of shots as the cab glides down deserted Fifth Avenue and deposits Holly Golightly in front of Tiffany’s for her impromptu opening-credits breakfast, and the scene near the end when she abandons Cat in the rain. I sort-of recalled being annoyed at Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of a Japanese landlord without remembering any of his scenes in particular, and I very vaguely recalled liking George Peppard as boyfriend Paul as much as I always like Peppard, which is to say, not at all.

This time around I enjoyed Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and what struck me above all was Audrey’s luminescence cast against type as a gentleman’s paid companion—allusions to which are so vague it had to be explained to me, and only then did I start to notice the references, as when Holly peered in the window and saw Paul’s older lady-friend drop cash on his nightstand; a little later she told Paul that she understood his situation. Well, how did she understand? Because she was used to being paid to be various men’s girlfriend, content that strayed into the realm of pay-for-play and scraped against the waning days of Production Code censorship.

I now get why a Tiffany’s one-sheet movie poster sells for a consistent five grand and why this is Audrey’s iconic role. She’s mesmerizing—chic, poised, articulate, mysterious, always dressed to the nines but wearing the clothes not as clothes but as skin like she was born in it and born to do it. She had played the Pygmalion-ugly-duckling-turned-fashion plate twice already, in Sabrina and Funny Face, and by now was using hats, sunglasses, and cigarette holders in her performance like Astaire used lamps or coat racks as dance partners. Everything she did on film became suddenly cool. Even the highlights in Audrey’s swept-back hair hypnotized me.

I did a little investigating afterward. Truman Capote wrote the story on which the film was loosely based. It first appeared in Esquire and the resulting sensation had Hollywood calling. Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe as Holly, and what a different film that would have been because there would be no doubt how Holly made money and why men were hanging around. Capote vocally and loudly hated Audrey in the role because she spun it in directions he never intended. There was speculation about who had served as the role model for Capote’s main character when in likelihood it was bits and pieces of several prominent women he knew, none of whom were anything like one-of-a-kind Dutch aristocrat Resistance fighter war veteran ballerina doctor’s aide Audrey Hepburn, she of multinational roots and vaguely European accent and sensibilities when all the models for Holly had been 100-percent well-bred New York City American.

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

Even when motionless for a mundane hair and makeup test, yikes.

It occurred to me how unconventional was this story for 1961, never adhering to the formula of the endless stream of factory-produced romantic comedies that had come before. Literally the studios would each have a big pile of scripts and produce a story, and then the script would sink back to the bottom of the pile and get pulled out and made again every so many years; this had gone on for decades, but this strange story by the strange little author was different. Offbeat, infantile in places, adult in places, and then out of left field Holly’s husband from Texas appears and explains that Holly was once a barefoot hayseed and you’re like, suuuuuure she was. I can see Audrey Hepburn as that. Because it was so different, I don’t mind George Peppard as the love interest; he was then new and different too and unlike the string of conventional golden era leading men cast against the Dutch baroness-by-birth. Peck had been older, as had Holden, Bogart, Ferrer, and Cooper. But here came young pretty-boy Peppard who passed the side-by-side test with Audrey even if he was cold and distant—oh, and a total sonofabitch of whom nothing good was ever said. When Audrey Hepburn doesn’t like you, and word had it she didn’t like Peppard, then you’ve got issues.

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

Holly observes Paul with his sugar-mommy, played by Patricia Neal.

Henry Mancini’s Moon River is a terrific melody. In the first couple minutes at Tiffany’s window it grabs you and never lets go to the extent I kept waiting for it to play in some variation as underscoring to reinforce Holly Golightly’s mood of the moment. Having Audrey sit on her brownstone’s fire escape strumming a guitar and singing Moon River makes no sense at all in terms of the story; she could as easily have hummed it brushing her teeth and the effect would have been the same, but no, she sang it. What’s telling is that Audrey Hepburn had been around music her whole life, not as a singer but as a dancer. Her comfortableness with music shows in the way she sings the song. The two drifters in the lyrics are Holly and Paul, both bought and paid for and making their way in the concrete jungle, but, um, the huckleberry friend? I read it’s a reference to Huck Finn of Mark Twain fame and I guess that makes huckleberry about wide-eyed adventurers? I don’t like it in the song. The word huckleberry doesn’t roll off an aristocrat’s tongue, and at least for me it broke the illusion of this woman sitting there singing this song. Even if the situation of Audrey Hepburn on a fire escape with a guitar is ridiculous, which it is, it all works until she sings the word huckleberry and then it took me a while to get back into the story.

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

At a later viewing she quipped that couldn’t imagine abandoning a cat as Holly did. Although the reunion was pretty spectacular.

Audrey was at this time 32. She had been out of the war for 16 years, and I want you to think about what you were doing at the beginning of 2003 and that’s how close to Hitler’s oppression Audrey Hepburn was as she portrayed Holly Golightly. Even past the turn of 1960 she was dodging questions about the war as she would always dodge them. She could bob and weave like a prizefighter and steer clear of any interviewer’s probing that she didn’t like, and there were many questions about the war she wouldn’t or—she felt—couldn’t address. Acting on location in New York City in that story wearing those clothes is as far away from war-torn Velp as she would ever find herself, and yet the war cast a shadow in which she would forever walk. Throughout her career she appreciated every perfectly tailored dress on the wardrobe rack because she had survived to April 1945 in clothes that were threadbare and would always remember after liberation walking into a room that was piled high with clothes that had been donated by the people in America “who must be rich,” she thought.

Quibbles aside, knowing what Audrey had endured earlier as a disease-ridden duckling in a steady rain of bombs made two hours with 1961’s beautiful swan in a steady rain of, well, rain, a magical experience.

 

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.