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.
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. According to William Goldman, an angry Levine called Attenborough 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.
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 Hawker 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. 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 the British armoured corps. When he learned that the book was being turned into a film, he contacted Attenborough and asked him if he could write the music.
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 instead of a paratrooper, 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.
There are other times when Goldman uses dramatic licence, as with the Dutch householder and his elderly mother who live in one of the houses the British paratroopers take over. In reality, there's no way they would have been allowed to stay in the house during the fighting, as it would be far too dangerous. By the end of the battle, these houses had been reduced to smouldering piles of rubble.
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.
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 FarYear: 1977
Genre: War, Drama, Historical
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