A Bridge too Far: Richard Attenborough’s spectacular, authoritative, all-star cast WWII epic is exhausting but audacious in its depiction of the Allies’ biggest military fiasco

A Bridge too far(1977), directed by Richard Attenborough from Cornelius Ryan’s book, is an all-star cast, historically accurate, and spectacularly mounted war epic that truthfully tries to delve into the reasons behind one of the biggest Allied military failures in World War II.

Major General Urquhart: I took 10,000 of our finest troops to Arnhem; I’ve come back with less than 2,000. I don’t feel much like sleeping.

Lt. General Frederick “Boy” Browning: I’ve just been on to Monty. He’s very proud, and pleased.

Major General Urquhart: [incredulous] PLEASED!

Lt. General Frederick “Boy” Browning: According to himself, technically, Market Garden was 90% successful.

Major General Urquhart: But what do YOU think?

Lt. General Frederick “Boy” Browning: Well, as you know, I always felt we tried to go a bridge too far.

This conversation between Urquhart and Browning that comes at the very end of Richard Attenborough’s WWII epic, A Bridge too Far, sums up the theme of the film nicely. This is not a film that celebrates the good guys triumphing at the end, but true to the time period it was made – post the disastrous U.S. intervention in Vietnam- and the existing zeitgeist that leaned more towards revisionism, anti-establishment, anti-militarism, this is a film that takes a honest and unflinching look at one of the biggest failures that the Allies faced in WWII. The film details the biggest Allied operation, named “Operation Market Garden“. It was conceived by British Field Marshall, Bernard Law Montgomery, to outpace his American rival, George S. Patton in winning the war, and involved the largest airborne operation in history. In September 1944, 35,000 Allied paratroopers were dropped into German-occupied Netherlands. Their objective was to seize a series of bridges over the Rhine and to hold the highway that leads to the Ruhr, along which 20,000 tanks and vehicles of British XXX corps would advance into Germany. The ‘Market’ in the title refers to the airborne operation, while ‘Garden’ refers to the drive up through by the military corps. The final objective was to the seize the industrial cities of Germany, thereby bringing the war to a quick end, which will allow the soldiers to return home before Christmas. The operation was planned at a time when German forces were on the run; they were retreating so fast that the Allied forces were finding it hard to catch up. The Allied high command felt that Germany was now totally weakened and hence a group of paratroopers can land and easily hold on to the pivotal Arnhem bridge- which was the gateway to Germany- until the corps could arrive and relieve them. But nothing worked according to the plan. The operation was rushed into effect in only 7 days, it was beset by problems, including radios that didn’t work, landing zones for the paratroopers that were too far from their targets and, most importantly, much greater resistance from the Germans than was expected. SS Panzer tanks had been pulled back to the area of the most important target, the bridge at Arnhem. 2,000 British paratroopers were intended to hold the Arnhem bridge for two days against light opposition. Instead, around 750 had to hold it for a week against two German tank corps. The operation was also bogged down by bad luck as the division of Polish army that was to reinforce the gang at Arnhem failed to take off in time because of bad weather in London. Then there was the geography of the area, which was ultimately blamed – along with the bead weather- for the operation’s failure. The road connecting these bridges is only a single highway in which trucks and tanks have to squeeze to the shoulder to pass. The road is also elevated, causing anything moving on the road to stand out, thus becoming an easy target for attack from “Jerrys”. In the end, the XXX Corps couldn’t proceed beyond Nijmegen and those at Arnhem either died fighting or surrendered to the Germans; thus, making this the Allies’ biggest fiasco in the war.

Films on WWII were being made even when the war was raging in Europe, but they were mainly propaganda films like “Action in the North Atlantic” or “Watch on the Rhine”. The first serious study of WWII in the form of an epic, all-star cast, international production was undertaken by the great British director, Sir David Lean, in his Oscar winning classic, Bridge on the River Kwai(1957). So it’s fitting that the last of these kind of WWII super- production would be undertaken by another knighted Brit, Sir Richard Attenborough, who’s in many ways is the spiritual heir to Sir David. For another instance of movie history coming full circle: The film is based on Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 book A Bridge Too Far. In 1962, Ryan’s earlier best seller The Longest Day, about the D Day landings, had been turned into a blockbuster by Twentieth Century-Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck. Though “River Kwai” was the seminal film as far as WWII movies are concerned, it, and the films that it inspired, were more fictionalized accounts of real events presented as adventure stories. Movies like “Guns of Navarone”, “The Great Escape” etc. were made in this template. “The Longest Day”, on the other handset the template for a more realistic WWII docudrama, with an all-star cast, re-staging a significant WWII battle where events and characters are pretty much reproduced as they are, and this would go on to influence movies like “Battle of the Bulge”, “Midway”, “Tora Tora Tora..” etc. “A Bridge too Far” falls into this category, and thus it becomes a book-end for that kind of war dramas as well, and it will remain so until the late 90s when we see a resurgence with “Saving private Ryan” and “The Thin red Line”. One thing that separates Sir Richard’s film from “The Longest Day” is that while the latter celebrates war and the Allies for the spectacular victory at Normandy, this film is a strong anti-war critique. Sir Richard was a lifelong liberal and a member of Britain’s labor party; he was a pacifist and a true Gandhian. He started out as an actor and starred in acclaimed WWII action movies like “The Great Escape”, but when he turned director , he started off with the anti-war drama, Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), and would next make a biopic on Young Winston Churchill, named Young Winston (1972). “Bridge” was his third film, and he was forced into directing this; at that time, he was planning to make his dream project on the great Indian leader ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, but was finding it difficult to get financing. So when producer Joseph E. Levine approached him with this project with a promise that he will next fund “Gandhi”, Sir Richard took up the offer; it’s another matter that Levine reneged on his deal and Sir Richard was forced to look for other sources for making “Gandhi; and he did manage to make it as his next film to great critical and audience acclaim in 1982.

Sir Richard worked for two full years to bring Ryan’s book to screen. “Bridge” was the biggest motion picture undertaking up until that time; with a budget of around $27 million, all raised independently by Levine without any studio help, and an all-star cast, consisting of the best of old and contemporary stars, including Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery, James Caan, Edward Fox, Elliott Gould, Robert Redford, Michael Caine, Ryan O’Neal, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier and Gene Hackman. If that was not all, the film boasted an extraordinary team behind the camera as well. The Screenplay was written by the great William Goldman, who had written “Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men”; and was photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth, who has shot some of the great Stanley Kubrick films; and there was John Addison – a participant in the original “Operation Market Garden”- providing a richly detailed score that complements the themes of the film as it run the gamut of emotions from triumphant to disillusionment. So with such an extraordinary team and such a classy, intelligent director at the helm, what about the finished film?. Well, by the sheer scale and size of the production: the richness and authenticity of the military hardware on display, the breathtaking verisimilitude of the battle scenes, the assembly of cast and performances, in its dramatization of the most crucial moments of war, and even in the way the strong anti-war themes are pushed through- which obviously is the intend of any war movie- this is unquestionably one of the most ambitious and best war movies ever made, but it falls short of true greatness due to the abundance of subplots and characters that the film tries to tackle in its three hour running time.

Since this was a most expensive film for its time, the producers were forced to cast a lot of stars in the film; now when you cast stars, you need to give them something to do. So in a film with 14 stars, these somethings add up to too many things that clutter the film and pulls it back every time it wants to keep the momentum going. In other words, the dramatic power is stretched too thin to accommodate the actors and their stories, and it doesn’t help the fact that most of the actors seems to starring in their own short films that doesn’t seem to have any direct links to the main body of the film that’s unfolding. Also, since the operation is taking place on so many levels: on air, on land, on water, it’s very easy to loose track of where each sequence fits into the larger jigsaw puzzle. I bet you that you will have to watch this film at least two or three times to get a full handle on the film’s plot. There also seems to have been an obsession with being faithful to Ryan’s book; to get every single event, every single detail on to the screen- the fact that it was Cornelius Ryan’s dying wish (expressed to producer Joseph Levine) to turn the book into a movie may have something to do with it. Despite the fact that almost all his films were based on famous literary works, The great David Lean always dodged this problem by concentrating his epics’ focus on just a few characters, thereby retaining the film’s dramatic power and narrative clarity. “River Kwai” is concentrated on just 4 or 5 characters, ditto for “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”. So even when those movies were sweeping epics of more than 3 hours in length, it never exhausted or confused the audience, which “A Bridge too far” does to a great extend. The audience feels as beaten and exhausted as the allied soldiers at the end of this film.

Of the cast, Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery and to an extend, Anthony Hopkins gets to play well rounded characters. Bogarde is superbly understated as General “Boy” Browning- the villain of the piece if you will- who, despite intelligence warnings of presence of German artillery in the drop zones, and with an idiotic notion that that resistance will consist entirely of “Hitler Youth or old men on bicycles”, goes ahead with this ill-conceived plan that leads to the slaughter of his men. Since, the character of Marshall Montgomery is not used in the film, the full blame of the operation ‘going bad’ is laid on poor Browning’s head. He’s even seen transferring a young major who tries to “rock the boat” on the operation by presenting realistic analysis of the enemy strength. Sean Connery has the most screen-time in the film than any other actor, and he lends his powerful physicality and gravitas to Roy Urquhart- the stranded Major General at Arnhem, who gets dropped about ten miles from the crucial Arnhem bridge, when the need of the hour was to quickly seize the bridge after the parachute drops. But the jeeps that were promised to him never arrive by paragliders and he’s forced to take sanctuary in town, even as the allied causalities at Arnhem bridge is rising. Adding to his woes, the communication lines have all broken down, and even after he manages to breakout and reach the local allied headquarters, he’s dumbfounded to realize that the communication lines are broken down to such an extend that allied planes are dropping valuable supplies in the German stronghold. In the end, he’s ordered to retreat, as Germans gets closer and closer to his location and he’s in danger of being either killed or captured, which would have left the High command, and especially Montgomery, shamefaced; he makes it back to British HQ with less than 1\5th of the men he took into battle, and that’s when he has that conversation with Browning mentioned at the beginning. As for Anthony Hopkins, who plays Lt. Col. John Frost who has a habit of (literally) blowing his horn at any moment of triumph, it’s business as usual as the dignified, courageous soldier, who does not loose his manners or sense of humor even when he forcefully occupies a civilian’s house. Frost is the first one dropped in the operation and he easily takes one end of the Arnhem bridge with his men, but as the battle drags on, and neither Urquhart & company nor the XXX Corps arrive, he’s forced to fend off an aggressive German military for 4 days with a fast shrinking army. In the battle, Arnhem is reduced to rubble and allies suffer heavy casualties. Finally, Frost and his men are forced to surrender; the final image of Frost has him sitting in the dirt, his face covered in smoke; disillusioned by defeat and being offered a bar of chocolate by a German general- the same chocolate that the allied plans dropped. Hopkins is really moving in this final scene where he very reluctantly accepts the chocolate.

The rest of the stars, especially the Americans, are not so fortunate. Edward Fox gets two good scenes as Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks, who by the way was a close friend of Fox in real life and Fox put in extra efforts to get his accent and body language perfect. Poor Michael Caine has the most thankless role, as Lieutenant-Colonel J.O.E. Vandeleur leading the XXX Corps, he has to stand in an armored car at the head of the artillery with an inscrutable expression plastered on his face throughout the film. Of the Americans, well Elliot Gould is Elliot Gould- who talks and behaves as if he’s walked in from the set of M.A.S.H- and Robert Redford is Robert Redford. Redford, then the biggest star in the world, was paid $2million dollars for 4 weeks of work and 10 minutes of screen-time. He plays Major Cook, who successfully leads a daring river assault at Nijmegen bridge, but is later, disgusted to find his efforts were in vein when the XXX Corps refuse to move forward from the bridge until the whole town has been captured. Redford does well with the short role he’s assigned with, and is aided by some good dialogues that his old pal William Goldman had supplied him with. But his presence is mainly there for securing the financing and the film’s box office success; the distributors who funded the film were adamant that he has to be in the film. Gene Hackman, who plays a polish officer, Maj. Gen. Stanisław Sosabowski, gives the most eccentric performance in of the film- ah! that accent. He’s also the director’s voice, expressing his strong anti-war sentiments throughout the film. Sosabowski is the only one who freely expresses his opinion about the unworkability of the operation and even demands a letter from Browning to the effect that he and his men where forced to take part in the operation. Later, there’s a truly amusing scene between Sosabowski and a meteorology officer played by Denholm Elliot, in which they discuss the weather and the effects of fog, which always cracks me up. Another scene comes nearer the end, where Sosabowski and his men, after being Para dropped are isolated from the main force at Arnhem, is visited by a messenger from Urquhart, who swam the Rhine to get to him (remember, the walkie-talkies are not working). Hackman’s reaction to the messenger’s arrival and his response to his request for help is also very humorous. Hackman’s casting was much criticized at the time, but i find him very entertaining in the film; he infuses a much needed wry humor into the proceedings. James Caan gets an entire short film of his own which has no relevance to the main story, but is present there in Ryan’s book. Caan is a sergeant who saves his captain, after riding with the captain’s body through enemy territory until he reaches an allied medical post. But the medical officer there is in no mood to entertain his request to treat the captain; so Caan puts a gun to the medical officer’s head and threatens to shoot him if he didn’t do exactly what he says. The doctor complies and later puts Caan under arrest for exactly 10 seconds and then let him go. This episode that looks incredible actually happened. One of the main issues American critics had with this film was that a lot of stuff in the film was hard to believe.

As for the film’s plusses, all credit should got to its classy, classical, intellectual and resourceful director Sir Richard Attenborough. The film is a triumph of his will and his efficiency; a director can actually get killed making a film of this scale, with such a large cast and logistics, but it’s to Sir Richard’s credit he managed to bring the film within budget and schedule, and very much retaining the power of the original subject matter. The film boasts some of the most brilliant and bravura filmmaking Sir Richard has ever accomplished in his filmography; it’s not just the battle scenes, which are of course is the very best that has ever been committed to film, but even in other scenes; a scene featuring Edward Fox and Michael Caine in a Jeep going at a good speed, where Fox is briefing Caine about the operation even as he’s bantering with his men stationed by the road in an unbroken, long take is filmmaking at its most virtuosic. This filmmaking strategy is repeated in the scene where James Caan rescues his captain; his daring escape in a jeep through enemy territory, ducking enemy fire, is again captured in a single take. Then the lift-off and parachute drop at the beginning of the operation includes such innovative scenes (for the time) where the camera follows the paratrooper all the way from the plane till he hits the ground. But the most dynamic of them all is Redford’s river assault sequence- the most suspenseful, thrill-a-minute sequence is accomplished with such finesse and vigor that one wonders why Sir Richard never attempted a full blown, hardcore action picture. The battle at Arnhem is also a richly detailed affair, where we see the town standing at the beginning of the battle and slowly, as the intensity of battle increase, the rubble increases, and finally we see the whole town razed to the ground.

But over and above these visual pyrotechnics, it’s the ideas that he expounds through the film that makes it a cut above the rest. The strong ant-war sentiments, the cynicism, the deep anger and sadness at the sheer waste of both men and material are felt throughout the film. A film like “The Longest day” or even “Saving Private Ryan” comes across as simple and very simplistic in front of this film. As a war film made by a pacifist, Sir Richard tries to present “Operation Market Garden” as a microcosm for not only every war that has ever been fought, but also for the state of world affairs; a bunch of young, courageous, warriors being led to their slaughter by a bunch of old, idiots, who live in their fantasy world. In most of his films, Sir Richard has tried to analyze the basic flaws in his nation’s character; Britain was at the time the leader of the free, civilized world, but underneath it’s sophisticated, refined, civilized veneer, there has always been cracks- the rigid class structure; the imperialist tendencies and a yen for boyish fantasies, which is well articulated through Edward Fox’s Horrocks , who describe Operation Market Garden as a Hollywood Western, where the paratroopers are the homesteaders, the Germans are the bad guys and the XXX Corps are the cavalry coming to their rescue. Also, though the internal fissures between Brits and Yanks are not overtly analyzed, Sir Richard portrays the Americans as Free-spirits, who speaks their mind and takes action in the moment, and improvises their way through battle, while Brits are bogged down by the rigid class structure of “chain of command” and adherence to “the book.” Much of the tragedy of the war comes from a swaggering over-confidence in the British high command, who believes themselves to be superior than the Americans and the Germans. The class structure is so rigid, that the soldiers down the chain brushes all problems under the carpet, shielding much of the bad news from the superiors. For Sir Richard, the British High Command are the bad guys, rather than the Germans, in the context of the failed operation and this film, and he’s out to get them; the Germans are not demonized in the film, they are treated as respectfully as the British soldiers who are doing their best for their country. And though Sir Richard would not be completely successful in creating the polemic he intends on the British ruling\military class with this film, he’ll be more successful with his next film, Gandhi, where he had the perfect hero in ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi to unmask the hypocrisy and imperial brutality of the captains of the civilized, liberal democracy. This film must have proved the perfect training ground for Sir Richard to undertake that enormous dream production, and he avoided the pitfalls of this film, by developing a clear narrative through-line for the Gandhi biopic. He also had the advantage that he was following one man and his mission throughout the film, as opposed to here where he tries to encapsulate everybody’s war experience, from the generals to the foot soldiers to the civilians. It’s interesting to see that the film about a failed military operation begins and ends with scenes featuring civilians and not the soldiers. In the end, the title “A Bridge too far” is rather inaccurate for this film’s ambitions and achievements. The film’s problem is not that it fails to cross that one last bridge, but that it crosses too many bridges in the course of its running time.

One thought on “A Bridge too Far: Richard Attenborough’s spectacular, authoritative, all-star cast WWII epic is exhausting but audacious in its depiction of the Allies’ biggest military fiasco

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