This week’s pick is Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977) which was based on the Cornelius Ryan novel about the Allied airborne invasion of Holland in September 1944. A Bridge Too Far is a sprawling Hollywood epic, filmed in the same tradition as Ryan’s earlier adaptation The Longest Day (1962) which was based on the D-Day invasion in France. A Bridge Too Far has over thirty of the most acclaimed international stars of the seventies, and even today, as the military and civilian individuals involved in what was known as “Operation Market Garden.”
By September 1944, the German army was in full retreat from France and the low countries (Belgium & The Netherlands) as the allied push from Normandy and Belgium began advancing East towards the German frontier. Due to supply shortages having to be driven from the Normandy beach head, to over five hundred miles away, made the advances come to a screeching halt due to Patton and British General Montgomery needing supplies for both their armies in order for the assault into Germany.
Montgomery proposed an idea to American General Eisenhower (Supreme Commander of the allied expeditionary force in Europe) to invade Holland with over 35,000 paratroopers, and seize a series of bridges over the Rhine, and then advance into Germany to capture industrial factories in the Ruhr, which was the industrial heart of Germany, and where most of their war manufacturing plants were located. Like all battles in the middle of long wars, it was hoped that this bold plan was to end the fighting by Christmas. General Browning (Bogarde) was quoted in a meeting with General Montgomery that they might be going “A bridge too far” with such a plan.
The film depicts the events of Market Garden rather accurately, yet also throws in a lot of Hollywood grand standing, including some of the dialogue in certain scenes of Elliot Gould’s character (Col. Bobby Stout), loosely based on the U.S. 101st Airborne’s deputy commander Col. Robert Sink. In fact, one of the movie’s biggest lull points for me is the construction of the Son bridge, which was one of the southern bridges that was blown by the Germans in an attempt to halt the advance of the U.S. 101st Airborne and the British XXX Corp. This particular scene for me tends to drag on too far, even though it did happen, and it had a serious impact on delaying the advance of XXX Corp’s relief of the British 1st Airborne who were eventually overrun and captured after several days of being cut off and isolated by the rest of their forces.
The pacing of the film is very well done and there are exceptional performances by many like Dirk Bogarde (Lt. General Browning who was one of the chief architects of the battle), James Caan (U.S. 101st Airborne Sgt. Eddie Dolan), Michael Caine (Lt. Col. Joe Vandeleur, commander of his majesty’s Irish Guards), Sean Connery (Major General Robert Urquhart, commander of British 1st airborne), Edward Fox (Major General Brian Horrocks, commander of XXX Corp) and Anthony Hopkins (Lt. Col. John Frost, a division commander of the British 1st Airborne).
In addition, Gene Hackman (Free Polish 1st Airborne General Sosabowski), Hardy Kruger (Lt. General Ludwig), Laurence Olivier (Dr. Spaander), Ryan O’ Neal (Brig. General James Gavin, U.S. 82nd Airborne), Robert Redford (Major Julian Cook U.S. 82nd Airborne, and commander of the Nijmegan Bridge assault), and Maximillian Schell (Gen. Bittrich, commander of the II SS Panzer division which assaults Arnhem) also do exceptional work in the film.
World War II films have always been some of my favorite movies and A Bridge Too Far is no exception to the rule. It is a film that probably couldn’t be made today and if it were, it would use CGI as a cheap alternative to actually having hundreds of extras parachuting into battle. It was one of the last big epic war movies made before it was considered too expensive.
The 1970s was the last decade in which Hollywood found it still feasible to hire foreign armies to act as extras in films like A Bridge Too Far, Patton and Waterloo. Most of the costumes, weapons, and vehicles were still in mint condition throughout the filming. Today with productions like HBO’s The Pacific which boasts a budget over two-hundred million dollars, the costumes are repros as well as most of the weapons and props.
A Bridge Too Far was an expensive undertaking that has become a classic war film and one of my all time favs due to its top notch acting and its telling of one of World War II’s biggest blunders.
A Bridge Too Far is available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc through MGM/UA, and can be rented through Netflix.