Hollywood stars were caught in 1968 invasion

Robert Vaughn and Ben Gazzara were in Prague to film The Bridge at Remagen

The cast of a Hollywood film was among those caught up in the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In the summer of 1968, producer David L. Wolper decided to film a World War II movie called The Bridge at Remagen just south of Prague after they couldn’t get permission to film in West Germany, as it would interrupt river traffic.

The film was backed by the Hollywood studio United Artists.

Actors Robert Vaughn and Ben Gazzara were among the cast when the Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague on Aug. 20–21, 1968. While they were waiting to be expelled from the country, the two actors decided to help a Czech waitress to escape across the border.

The Bridge at Remagen is about the final days of World War II and efforts to capture one of the last crossings on the Rhine River. Filming was taking place at Davle, a small Central Bohemian town with an old-fashioned bridge just south of Prague. The bridge is still there, instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen the film. In real life, the bridge seems much smaller than the one in the film.

Soviet authorities claimed the film was just a front for covert CIA operations and used still photos featuring the prop weapons to claim that the west was funneling arms into Czechoslovakia.

Those claims have never been proven, and in fact seem rather absurd 50 years later.

Gazzara, who died in 2012, recounts the invasion in his 2004 memoir In the Moment: My Life as an Actor.

Vaughn, who died in 2016, has made two accounts. He wrote has a lengthy account of Prague Spring in his 2008 autobiography A Fortunate Life. He also participated in a BBC radio play from 2007 called Solo Behind the Iron Curtain, where Vaughn plays himself and the main plot involves saving a young woman, though the details are not the same is in his book. The name Solo refers to Napoleon Solo, the spy character that Vaughn played in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Gazzara was at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 2004 and confirmed that he was in Prague when the Soviet tanks came and that he and the rest of the cast and crew had to make a hasty exit in a column of taxicabs.

He witnessed the invasion from the International Hotel in Prague.

“I started hearing strange rumblings, then jet planes zooming overhead. I looked out the window and saw tanks — lots of them — moving into position below us. … I called the front desk to ask what was going on. The kindly telephone operator told me. ‘It’s the Russians. They’ve come like the Germans in 1939. They’ve come to kill our freedom.’ She was crying. ‘Poor Czechoslovakia,’ she said,” Gazzara wrote.

Vaughn was at a different hotel — Parkhotel, now called Mama Shelter. “Standing atop the tanks was a collection of very nervous and confused-looking young men — Soviet soldiers, who, I learned later, had been brought in from places like Mongolia and told that, when they reached Prague, they would be joyfully greeted as liberators. (As Dick Cheney discovered in Iraq thirty-five years later, such predictions rarely come to pass.),” he wrote.

Filming on The Bridge at Remagen was forced to come to a halt, and all of the film’s cast was moved together to the International Hotel, the large Socialist Realist–style structure in Prague 6.

They were put under house arrest, allegedly for their own protection.

The cast and crew was stuck in the hotel for about a week, waiting for papers to be arranged to allow them to leave.

Vaughn in his memoir said that he became concerned about a Czech-born production assistant with the unusual name of Pepsi Watson — her father was a foreigner who became a Czech citizen and named her after the one thing from the West he missed the most. In the days after the invasion, she handed out anti-Soviet newspapers, even though people doing this were facing harsh penalties.

Both actors recount that at the International Hotel she went up to the balcony and hurled a Russian flag like a javelin at the tanks below. Gazzara says it followed an argument. Vaughn ties it to Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubček’s speech after he returned from Moscow, the speech where Dubček says the situation in Czechoslovakia will be “normalized.”

Vaughn said he considered running after Pepsi before she threw the flag, but he didn’t know what she intended to do with it.

The tanks then turned their turrets toward the hotel and aimed at the balcony. Gazzara gives his side of what happened. “‘Holy Christ,’ I said to Robert Vaughn, ‘they’re going to kill us.’ You never saw people run so fast. Most of us headed to the back of the hotel and prayed,” Gazzara said.

Vaughn said that the cast was told to sit on the hotel stairs facing toward the guns. “We followed orders, though they seemed to make no sense at that time — and still don’t today,” he wrote.

What happened to Pepsi remains unclear. “As for Pepsi Watson, I never found out what happened to her — my personal heroine from the short-lived Prague Spring,” Vaughn wrote.

The convoy to take the cast and crew to Austria was arranged shortly after the flag throwing incident.

Vaughn and Gazzara wanted to do something positive and decided to help get someone out of the country.

Gazzara describes some of the details. “We had decided to help a young waitress get out of Czechoslovakia, our plan being that she would ride in the car with Robert Vaughn and me, headed for neutral Austria. She would carry no luggage, only identification papers. Her name was Apolina. … We simply liked her style. She was pretty and smart. I went to the dining room to see if she still intended to go. I felt like I was in a spy movie starring Humphrey Bogart. I was even wearing a trench coat, although it wasn’t raining,” Gazzara wrote. He found her in the dining room and she nodded that she would go.

Along the way, the convoy was stopped at roadblocks several times, but the papers they had proved sufficient to get past them, and the extra passenger was not discovered.

Gas for the journey was arranged by the US Embassy.

The convoy reached the checkpoint at Gmünd, with Apolina crouched on the floor and hidden under other people’s legs. “We were in luck: the Russians hadn’t yet taken over that checkpoint. The Czechoslovakian guards took a cursory look and waved us through,” Gazzara stated.

In Vienna, Apolina left the car, saying she had friends she could stay with. After kissing Gazzara on the cheek and waving goodbye, she vanished. “I’ve often wondered what happened to that Czech girl,” he said.

Vaughn gives a very different take and doesn’t even place himself in the same car. He hints that Apolina isn’t her real name, but he uses it to be consistent with Gazzara’s version. Vaughn claims that Gazzara and his then-wife Janice Rule were in the car with the Apolina. Gazzara, however, makes no mention of his wife in the Prague chapter.

Vaughn minimizes his role. “Like everyone else in Prague, Apolina wanted to leave once the Russians came, and the Gazzaras were ready to help,” Vaughn wrote.

The guards don’t just wave them through in his version. Vaughn’s and Gazzara’s cars both get stopped. “The oldest looking border guard told us all to get out of the two cars with passports at the ready. Within seconds the guards found Apolina — the one person among us whose papers were not in order. They dragged her toward a little guardhouse. We were held at bay by a very frightened but menacing young soldiers. With Apolina in custody, the rest of us were taken across the border to a kind of cafe, a border way station of the kind found in a noir film about Cold War espionage. There we would wait for her,” Vaughn wrote.

Three hours passed, and the actors discussed whether they should go back for her, wait some more or leave. “Suddenly, as we argued, a shadowy figure emerged from the darkness at the checkpoint, yelling and waving her arms. It was Apolina. Somehow this young, terribly frightened girl had distracted her captors and escaped. Soon we were weeping with joy and excitement,” Vaughn added.

“Eventually, Ben managed to get her back to the States,” he wrote.

But which account is correct is impossible to say. Both actors have passed away. Assuming the waitress was around 20 when the incident occurred, she would be about 70 years old now, if she is still alive.

Vaughn had another item to add to his account. He was working on his Ph.D. thesis at the time of the invasion and had his dissertation notes with him in Prague. When they left in the taxi convey, they only had room for an overnight bag each.

“All of my dissertation material remained at the Parkhotel, But at last we were escaping house arrest at the International, and that fact eclipsed any other worries,” he wrote.

He states that the motel in Austria on the other side of the border reminded him of the one from the film Psycho.

Then finally there was a bit of good news. “Months later, after we’d all returned to the States, my dissertation materials were retrieved from the Parkhotel and returned to me by the State Department on Christmas Eve. No reason was given why it took so long,” he wrote.

He received his PhD in 1970 from the University of Southern California, and two years later published his dissertation as Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting.

Both actors say the cast did not stay in touch after production. “We haven’t seen each other for decades,” Gazzara wrote.

Vaughn was more poetic. “If anyone would have said at the time, ‘You four [main cast members] won’t see each other again once Election Day [in November 1968] has come and gone,’ we would have scoffed at the prediction. But that proved to be the case.”

Aside from the main set at Davle, battle scenes in the film were shot in the town of Most, just as buildings were being destroyed to make way for coal mines. The film also included shots near Vrané nad Vltavou and the railway bridge there.

The film was completed with studio shots done in Hamburg and at a replica bridge built near Rome. The film was released June 25, 1969.

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