So a plan was iniciated to send a group of men in boats, under cover of night, across this wide, swirling river, to the other end of the bridge, behind the Germans.
The boats were to be loaded with combat troops and rowed across where the troops would get off and the boats would return to the Allied side, where more men-a second wave-would get in an row across and join the fighting.
The plan developed logistical problemas, the boats didn't arrive in the time for the night crossing, so it was now to be done in daylight. And when the boats finally arrived, they turned out to be dangerously flimsy-plywood bottoms and canvas side and there was a shortage of oars. Now the first wave had one thing going for it: smoke cover. A barrage of tank fire was to lay down a giant smoke screen to help men get across. Major Julian Cook was to lead the first wave (Robert redford played the part in the film), and where the boats were finally assembled and dragged to the water and the men brgan to row, something terrible happened: A wind came up. And it blew away the smoke-screen cover. So there they were, in this tiny boats, on this vast river, heading into God only knew what. It didn't take long to find out: The Germans were ready and considerable carnage followed. But Cook led his charge and a lot of men died, but he got across and the boats returned and took the second wave across and eventually, with both sides of the bridge beeing atacked simoultaneously, the German were defeated. I think there is no question that we are dealing with valor here of a very high order when we discuss Cook's crossing-but that was NOT what the british general was referring to as "the single most heoric action of the war". He meant THE SECOND WAVE. Sure, the first was a tremendous undertaking. But they DIDN'T KNOW that the German would be waiting for them and THOUGHT they had smoke cover. The second wave, standing there, watching it all, KNEW when their turn came they were going to get slaughtered. But when the boats returned, the got right in and rowed into the bloodbath. If you saw the movie you saw Redford leading his men, and it was a splendid piece of action. But you did not see the second wave- -because even though it was true, I didn't know how to make it believable. Look, when John Wayne is in a movie, he doesn't arrive at the Alamo the day after the fighting. He is THERE, superhuman, beating up on as many Mexicans as the budget will allow for. I didn't have John Wayne but I had Robert Redford and the same logic holds. The star must be in the center of the action. I could have writen a scene involving the second wave of men waiting their turn. And one of them could have said, "Boywhat thouse guys are doing through is no picnic, but they didn't know what they were dealing with; we know, and that means our job is going to require much more bravery. " And the audience would't have believe it, not for one minute. What's so brave about standing around on a riverbank, safe and unfired upon, when your buddies are out there in the middle, getting shelled to death? And what's the star suppose to be doing during all this, besides maybe running up and down the embankment, shouting encouragement-"Row, you guys, we're coming". Some star. That's Elisha Cook, Jr. part. I tried as hard as I knew to use the second wave, but I failed. The single most heoric action of the war, and I couldn't figure out how to include it. The moral I guess is this: Truth is terrific, reality is even better, but believability is best of all. Because without it, truth and reallity got right out the window...
(Believing reality, William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade, Warner Books, New York, 1984)