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A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Sean Connery as Major General Urquhart
A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne operation in history. In September 1944, 35,000 Allied paratroopers were dropped into German-occupied Holland. Their objective was to seize a series of bridges and to hold the highway that leads to the Ruhr, along which 20,000 tanks and vehicles of a British armoured corps would advance into Germany.

Given the title of the film, it's not much of a spoiler to say that Market Garden was not one of the Allies more successful operations. 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 story of Operation Market Garden was told in Cornelius Ryan's 1974 book A Bridge Too Far. Ryan's earlier best seller The Longest Day, about the D Day landings of 1944, had been turned into a blockbuster film in 1962. The film of The Longest Day set the style and tone for subsequent WWII epics of the 1960s and 1970s; a documentary style approach, with an all-star cast, re-staging a significant WWII battle and telling the story from both sides. Since this WWII epic cycle was begun by a film based on a best seller by Cornelius Ryan, it's appropriate that it ended with a film based on another Ryan book, A Bridge Too Far.

Paratroopers jumping from Dakotas
The rights to Ryan's posthumously published book were bought by the producer and distributor Joseph E. Levine, a friend of Ryan's. The film version was an entirely independent production and was certainly one of the most ambitious independent films ever made. Levine financed the film by pre-selling it to distributors around the world on the basis of its remarkable all-star cast, a roll call of 1970s film stars, including Sean Connery, James Caan, Robert Redford, Michael Caine, Ryan O'Neal, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier and Gene Hackman. The book was adapted into a screenplay by William Goldman, one of the top Hollywood screenwriters of the 1970s, and Richard Attenborough was hired as the director. Attenborough was not only a very well known actor, but a noted director with two epic historical films to his credit, Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) and Young Winston (1972).

A Bridge Too Far tells a strategically complex story involving British, American and Polish troops, Dutch civilians and, of course, the Germans, and was staged on an enormous scale. The size of the production is often staggering to behold. The parachute drop sequences, in particular, are a stand out, and must have been remarkable on the big screen. Whereas today these massed parachute drops would be accomplished using CGI, for A Bridge Too Far they were carried out for real, using hundreds of British paratroopers. The cinematography in this sequence is outstanding, and includes POV shots of the paratroopers themselves dropping to the ground with a convincing thump. This scene is almost Market Garden in microcosm; a superb, triumphant spectacle of military power, followed by a crashing and uncomfortable bump to the ground. The parachute drop was filmed over two days and, although the first day's filming was acceptable, Attenborough requested a second day. Levine called him every name under the sun, but eventually agreed to provide an additional $75,000 to film it a second time, and all the parachute drop scenes come from the second day's filming.

Michael Caine and Edward Fox in Jeep
Equally impressive is the air lift sequence, when the assembled allied planes and gliders lumber into the air and across to Holland, inducing awe in observers on the ground, not least the Germans. The film in fact gives us an array of remarkable set pieces; U.S. paratroopers crossing the Waal River under heavy fire in flimsy canvas boats, the deafening opening bombardment of British tanks and armour onto German artillery positions, the German armoured charge across the Arnhem Bridge which goes disastrously wrong, and even a sequence showing the building of a Bailey Bridge, a temporary metal bridge constructed by British engineers when the Son Bridge is destroyed. In one scene General Horrocks (Edward Fox) and Lieutenant Colonel Vandeleur (Michael Caine) are filmed in conversation about the forthcoming operation, as they drive in Horrocks's Jeep along a seemingly endless line of British tanks and armoured vehicles stretching for miles.

Great care was taken to make the film authentic and there is an impressive array of WWII era equipment. Not all of it is completely accurate; the RAF ground attack planes should be Typhoons but there were none flying, so they are represented by WW2 era Texan/Harvard trainers, and the German tanks are a post-war type with some adaptations. But the film makers did as much as they could to make the uniforms, vehicles, settings and equipment authentic, including building their own Horsa gliders, since none existed, and reportedly making more than 2,000 military uniforms. Location filming took place in Holland, with Deventer standing in for Arnhem, where the original bridge had since been demolished, and the crew built eight complete houses on the site of a car park for the street fighting sequences taking place around the bridge. The technical aspects are all first rate and the film is made to a very high standard. Geoffrey Unsworth's cinematography is excellent, as is the work of Robin Browne's aerial unit. So is John Addison's rousing and richly detailed score, which perfectly captures the confidence, optimism, triumphalism and eventually the disillusionment of the Allied forces. Addison had actually taken part in Operation Market Garden as part of XXX Corps. When he learned that the Cornelius Ryan book was being turned into a film, he contacted Attenborough and asked him if he could write the music.

Gene Hackman, Ryan O'Neal, Michael Caine, Edward Fox, Dirk Bogarde
With the exception of James Caan as a US sergeant and Laurence Olivier and Liv Ullman as Dutch civilians, the film is mostly a commander's eye view of the battle. Of the star cast, it's the British actors who come out of it best. Dirk Bogarde gives one of his best and most underrated performances as the urbane General Browning, a wonderfully subtle turn as a commander who knows something is wrong with this plan, but can't bring himself to admit it, and certainly not to his subordinates. A swaggering Edward Fox steals almost every scene he's in as General Horrocks, the commander of XXX (30) Corps, with his rousing and humorous speech to his assembled officers ranking as one of the film's highlights. Anthony Hopkins is perfect as the diffident but heroic Lieutenant Colonel John Frost (“I'm awfully sorry, but I'm afraid we're going to have to occupy your house”), whose outnumbered paratroopers have to hold the Arnhem Bridge alone. And Sean Connery brings authority to his role as British Airborne commander General Roy Urquhart, and is convincing as a military commander and man of action.

Robert Redford leading the river assault
The American actors are more of a mixed bunch and often feel more like film star parts than real people. There's a boyish Ryan O'Neal as Brigadier General Gavin, Elliott Gould as the fictional character Colonel Stout, who has the Son Bridge blown up in his face by the Germans, and a laconic James Caan as a sergeant who threatens to shoot a doctor who won't look at his supposedly dead officer - like almost everything else in the film, this was based on a real incident. O'Neal was criticised, unfairly, for being too young to play a General, when his character really was unusually young, and was a similar age to the actor playing him. He was also criticised, more fairly, for not being very good. While he is adequate as Gavin, he's outclassed by his British co-stars as the other commanders. O'Neal apparently didn't take the film or his role in it very seriously, to Attenborough's chagrin, and it shows in his performance. Redford is, well, Robert Redford. He appears quite late in the film to do something heroic, leading American paratroopers in a near-suicidal river assault. Attenborough wanted his old friend Steve McQueen to play this role, but McQueen would probably have been even more distracting.

Rounding out the star cast is Gene Hackman as the Polish General Sosabowski, one of the operation's most outspoken critics. Attenborough gives him a clever introduction showing us how much of an outsider he is among the Allied generals, with the camera eventually finding him hidden behind the others, all but forgotten by Browning during his briefing. Hackman is believably pained and sceptical, resigned to taking part in an operation he clearly feels could go disastrously wrong. It's just a shame about his dodgy Polish accent.

How accurate is A Bridge Too Far? Generally speaking it is very accurate. The film's technical advisers included many of the real personalities involved, including Horrocks, Vandeleur, Gavin, Frost and Urquhart. William Goldman's script simplifies the story but is true to events and includes real dialogue from some of the major players. In reality there were many more bridges and most towns had both road and rail bridges, but the film wisely chooses to concentrate on a small number; the main highway bridges at Arnhem, Nijmegen and Son, with the Grave bridge also briefly shown.

The film shows American paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne, led by Redford, capturing one end of the Nijmegen bridge, and this does upset some historical purists. In reality, the British tanks of XXX Corps drove across the bridge, expecting it to be blown up at any minute, and met the Americans on the other side of the river, just beyond the bridge. But the reason for this change was probably to show why it was imperative for the paratroopers to cross the Waal river and to give Redford some more heroic things to do. Elliott Gould's bossing of the British engineers building the Bailey Bridge is unlikely, and riled one of the film's military advisers. The scene has led some reviewers to mistakenly identify his character as an engineer, but it's a minor point and is another instance of Goldman beefing up the American roles to turn them into parts that would attract star names.

A Bridge Too Far film poster, landscape format
At the time of its release, there was controversy over the portrayal of General Browning, as played by Bogarde. Browning's widow, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, and others who knew him, protested about his role. His superiors, Montgomery, Eisenhower and General Brereton are conspicuous by their absence and so it's Browning who's left to carry the can for the operation's failings. His dismissal of intelligence reports and reconnaissance photos of German armour were real, but the film is unfair to Browning in his final scene, when he says “I always said we tried to go a bridge too far.” Browning really did say this at the planning stage, but since the film doesn't show it and portrays him as enthusiastic about the plan until the end, it makes him look disingenuous. The film is also slightly unfair to the German Field Marshal Model, who is shown as mostly concerned about his own safety and dismisses captured Allied plans as obvious fakes. While Model believed they were fakes, he did take precautionary measures in case they were real, including alerting the Luftwaffe to intercept the expected Allied air drops. But no one cares much if you malign a Nazi general, so we'll gloss over that.

A Bridge Too Far was released in the summer of 1977, just a month or so after Star Wars, and it was a film out of its time in some ways. It's often incorrectly described as a box office flop, but in fact it made $50 million in the US and was in the top ten films at the box office in 1977. According to William Goldman, the film was already $4 million in the black before it opened, due to Levine's policy of pre-selling distribution rights around the world. The critical reaction though was mixed, especially from the American critics. Part of the problem may have been that after nearly 40 years of WWII films celebrating Allied victories, critics and audiences were unprepared for a true story of bad luck, bad judgement and even incompetence. In the wake of the Vietnam War, it's also a fair assumption that American audiences weren't in the mood to hear about any more disastrous military defeats. No doubt some were also confused about the military strategy which is necessarily complex. To understand the exact dispositions of the different units of the British Airborne Division, you probably need to have read the book or studied the film quite closely. Some also criticised the all-star cast for distracting from the film's sober intent, but the stars were necessary, not only to secure the enormous budget, but to help audiences differentiate between the film's many different units and locations. The film was ignored at the Oscars, although composer John Addison, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth and Edward Fox all won BAFTAs, the latter as best supporting actor, and the film also received BAFTA nominations for best film, direction, editing and production design-art direction.

Anthony Hopkins as Lieutenant Colonel John Frost
Even now A Bridge Too Far is an underrated film, lumped in with other, lesser battle epics like Battle of the Bulge (1965) or The Bridge at Remagen (1968). But these films aren't made on the same scale or with the same commitment to accuracy as A Bridge Too Far. The Longest Day is the film it's most often compared to, but A Bridge Too Far is a very different film, not only in the type of story it tells, but in its tone. The film operates in a genre born in the early 1960s, but it has many of the sensibilities of the 1970s; it's questioning, sceptical, ultimately downbeat, and less referential of authority. It subverts our expectations by opening in black and white, with a female narrator, and it tells the story of a military fiasco, rather than a victory, making common cause with other 1970s films like Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and Zulu Dawn (1979). And after its battle scenes, the film is careful to show the aftermath of the fighting; the dead, the wounded and the plaintive cries of the dying. In fact, there can't be many war films that show quite so many dead bodies or wounded soldiers. The film is unequivocal in recognising the courage and heroism of the Allied soldiers, but it's also clear about the ultimate cost of war on both soldiers and, unusually for this type of film, on civilians. The film is perhaps best understood not as just another WWII film, but as part of the British historical epic cycle of the 1960s and 1970s. Like some others in that cycle, notably Tony Richardson's The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and Attenborough's own Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), A Bridge Too Far is scathing about reckless military adventures and the Generals who order them.

A Bridge Too Far is a spectacular and superbly detailed production that captures, like few other films, the enormous scale of military operations in WWII. Made with a real commitment to historical accuracy and authenticity, it recognises the heroism of the combatants but is always honest about the cost of war. Epic, serious and authoritative, it's one of the best war films ever made.

A Bridge Too Far

Year: 1977
Genre: War, Drama, Historical
Country: UK
Language: English, German, Dutch
Director: Richard Attenborough

Cast Dirk Bogarde (Lt. Gen. Browning), James Caan (Sgt. Eddie Dohun), Michael Caine (Lt. Col. J.O.E. Vandeleur), Sean Connery (Major Gen. Urquhart), Edward Fox (Lt. Gen. Horrocks), Elliott Gould (Col. Stout), Gene Hackman (Major Gen. Sosabowski), Anthony Hopkins (Lt. Col. Frost), Laurence Olivier (Dr. Spaander), Ryan O'Neal (Brig. Gen. Gavin), Robert Redford (Major Cook), Maximilian Schell (Lt. Gen. Bittrich), Liv Ullmann (Kate Ter Horst), Denholm Elliott (RAF officer), Peter Faber (Capt. Bestebreurtje), Christopher Good (Carlyle), Frank Grimes (Maj. Fuller), Jeremy Kemp (RAF briefing officer), Wolfgang Preiss (Field Marshal von Rundstedt), Nicholas Campbell (Capt. Glass), Paul Copley (Pvt. Wicks), Donald Douglas (Brigadier Lathbury), Keith Drinkel (Lt. Cornish), Colin Farrell (Cpl. Hancock), Richard Kane (Col. Weaver), Walter Kohut (Field Marshal Model), Paul Maxwell (Maj. Gen. Taylor), Stephen Moore (Maj. Steele), Donald Pickering (Lt. Col. Mackenzie), Gerald Sim (Col. Sims), Mary Smithuysen (Old Dutch lady), John Stride (Guards Major), Siem Vroom (Underground leader), Eric Van't Wout (Underground leader's son), Marlies Van Alcmaer (Underground leader's wife), Alun Armstrong (Cpl. Davies), David Auker ("Taffy" Brace), Michael Byrne (Lt. Col. Giles Vandeleur), Arthur Hill (U.S. medical colonel)

Screenplay William Goldman, based on the book by Cornelius Ryan  Producers Joseph E. Levine, Richard P. Levine  Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth  Production design Terence Marsh  Editor Tony Gibbs  Music John Addison  2nd unit director Sidney Hayers

Running time 176 mins  Colour Technicolor  Widescreen Panavision
Production company Joseph E Levine  Distributor United Artists


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