May 2024

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

DIRECTOR: Richard Attenborough

CAST: Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Elliott Gould, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Hardy Kruger, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, Maximilian Schell, Liv Ullmann


From producer Joseph E. Levine and director Richard Attenborough comes this unwieldy but sporadically impressive “war epic” making the strange choice to throw up a boatload of money and effort portraying in grandiose, The Longest Daystyle one of the Allies’ biggest fiascoes of WWII, the ill-conceived Operation Market Garden.  Adapted from Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 best-selling book chronicling the operation in comprehensive detail from compiled interviews with both Allied and German participants and Dutch civilians (The Longest Day was also based on Ryan’s book covering the D-Day invasion), A Bridge Too Far was self-importantly touted as “one of the most expensive war movies ever made!” (costing $26 million, an impressive sum in 1977) but was only a modest box office success and received mixed critical reviews.  Perhaps this is partly because watching a big, lavish, star-studded movie about an Allied defeat is too much of a downer for audiences expecting some “rah rah” flag-waving, but also the movie lacks the drive and focus to maintain consistent interest over its formidable three hour runtime.  It’s overlong, muddled, ponderous, and overbaked, though not without scattered impressive moments.  For WWII buffs, it’s worth watching as the kind of epic “classic” they don’t make this way anymore, but for anyone without a strong interest in the subject matter, it’s likely to be a slog.

September 1944: It has been months since the D-Day landings, and the Allies are sweeping across France and Belgium.  German forces are routed and in demoralized disarray and being driven back toward the frontiers of the Reich.  Heady with the success of D-Day and the subsequent rapid advance, British Field Marshal Montgomery proposes a bold plan to end the war by Christmas.  Code-named Operation Market Garden, it calls for paratroopers to seize three Dutch bridges leading into the industrial heart of Germany and hold them until Allied armor can cross into Germany and overrun the industrial center of the Third Reich.  The plan is ambitious and daring and seems feasible at first glance.  But the air and ground forces are poorly coordinated, weather conditions and terrain are unfavorable, and in their determination to push their plan through, Montgomery and the operation’s overseer General Browning (Dirk Bogarde) brush off reports of new German Panzer forces in the area.  All of these factors will combine into a fiasco which will end futilely in an Allied withdrawal and more casualties than D-Day.

It’s obvious that producer Levine and director Attenborough were aiming to recapture the epic star-studded spectacle of The Longest Day.  A Bridge Too Far is jam-packed with “names” to the point where it’s like playing a game of “spot the movie star”.  On the upside, the vast array of characters gives a comprehensive overview of the operation from every perspective, the Generals at HQ, the lower level commanders and soldiers on the ground, the German commanders on the other side, and the Dutch civilians caught in the middle and just trying to keep their heads down and stay alive.  The downside is that the lack of central focus afforded to any individual character limits the amount of human interest, and at times A-list movie stars being shoehorned into cameo-length roles purely for their name gets a bit distracting.  For example, when Robert Redford shows up for five minutes, we see Robert Redford, not Major Cook.  As far as production values go, A Bridge Too Far is top quality. The film is rigidly historically accurate to the accounts compiled in Cornelius Ryan’s book, with only some minor tweaks (Hardy Kruger’s “General Ludwig”, for example, is actually a composite of two Panzer commanders, Walter Harzer and Heinz Harmel).  Like The Longest Day, the German characters speak subtitled German, and filming took place on location in the Netherlands, lending touches of authenticity.  The sequence depicting the Allied planes taking off en masse is impressive, and excellent camerawork is used to convey the drop from the perspectives of individual paratroopers.  The battle scenes are big and loud, with plenty of tanks, planes, and explosions, and the destruction wreaked on the quiet Dutch towns caught in the middle of a fierce battle is convincingly recreated.  On the downside, the pacing is uneven and after a while the convoluted proceedings seem to drag on forever.  Devoted war film buffs may be captivated, but more casual viewers are likely to find their attention wandering, and the film doesn’t maintain the intensity or focus to bring them back around.  The storyline focusing on British Colonel Frost (Anthony Hopkins), who must hold his bridge until reinforcements arrive, is the most singularly engaging; in fact, one senses a smaller movie centering around Frost might have been more compelling than much of the other material that goes on around him.  We find ourselves wanting to get back to Frost’s desperate stand when we switch to less-than-riveting material like General Urquhart (Sean Connery) hiding out for most of the movie, or General Gavin (Ryan O’Neal) swaggering around.

Another problem is the movie tries to have its cake and eat it too.  Perhaps self-conscious of expecting audiences to flock to a big star-studded epic about an Allied failure, the movie tries to mitigate being an inherent downer with some cheesy “rah rah” moments like a group of Allied wounded spontaneously breaking into a chorus of “Abide With Me” or Major Cook saying a repetitive mantra of Hail Marys during his river crossing under heavy German fire.  These moments come off as more schmaltzy than moving.  It’s as if Levine and Attenborough are trying to have it both ways, focusing on a “war is hell” fiasco while also wanting to be uplifting and flag-waving, and the contrasting tones don’t really gel.  After all the big battle scenes, the movie drags itself across the finish line with a whimper, though that might be an inevitable by-product of the campaign it chose to portray.

The star-studded cast is a mixed bag.  The worst offender is a laughably wooden Ryan O’Neal, who is totally unconvincing and comes across like a boy playing dress-up.  The problem isn’t his age; General Gavin was indeed young for his rank, and O’Neal resembles him well enough, but his painfully out-of-its-depth “performance” lacks a scrap of authority or gravitas.  Gene Hackman (as the Polish General Sosabowski, who harbors grave doubts about the operation from the get-go but glumly gives it the old college try) is a fine actor in his own right, but here his performance gets totally hamstrung by his distractingly weird attempt at a Polish accent, in another example of a recognizable American “star” being shoehorned into a role he wasn’t a good fit for.  Likewise, Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann was cast as a Dutch woman who opens her home to Allied wounded, but was ridiculed by Dutch audiences for apparently speaking virtually unintelligible Dutch.  Elliott Gould chomps on his cigar and the scenery as a stereotypical American “wise guy”.  On the other hand, a few cast members manage to stand out and make individual impressions, chiefly Anthony Hopkins’ stoic, dogged Colonel Frost, who could have carried his own movie unto himself.  His storyline brings across most clearly the desperation and futility of the operation.  Maximilian Schell’s Panzer commander General Bittrich is hard-nosed and ruthlessly efficient (he razes the town of Arnhem to the ground to root out Frost’s dug-in troopers) but not completely inhumane; he later grants a one hour ceasefire for removal of wounded from the battlefield, and there is a nice little scene where he salutes a finally surrendered Frost and offers him a piece of English chocolate.  Laurence Olivier is the Dutch Dr. Spaander, who struggles to keep up with the ever-increasing number of patients.  Olivier’s attempt at a Dutch accent might be questionable, but a wordless scene where he surveys the waste laid to his hometown with a grief-stricken expression speaks more compellingly than his dialogue.  Edward Fox delightfully steals his introductory scene with panache as the gung-ho British General Horrocks, even if after that he’s relegated to riding at the head of a tank convoy, with Michael Caine getting a few Michael Caine-esque cheeky one-liners as his subordinate.  Sean Connery is surrounded and forced to hide out for most of the movie, meaning he just kind of hangs around and doesn’t really do very much.  Of the others, Dirk Bogarde (who was actually involved in the real-life operation as an intelligence officer) is the stuffy General Browning, who dismisses any criticism of the operation (the film got a little backlash from some who felt its portrayal of Browning was excessively negative), James Caan is a GI who refuses to let his commanding officer die even if it means holding the doctor (Arthur Hill) at gunpoint, Robert Redford has a glorified cameo as Major Cook, and Hardy Kruger is Bittrich’s subordinate General Ludwig.  War movie staple Wolfgang Preiss (who popped up in about two-thirds of all WWII movies from the 1950s all the way to the end of the 1980s) has a couple early scenes as the German Field Marshal von Rundstedt, commander-in-chief of all German forces on the Western Front, and there are other small roles for the likes of Denholm Elliott, Jeremy Kemp, and Michael Byrne.  Sharp-eyed viewers may spot a young John Ratzenberger and Ben Cross.

At the bottom line, A Bridge Too Far is an impressive filmmaking accomplishment on a technical level, and in some ways ahead of its time, but also muddled and uneven, with some clunky dialogue and iffy casting choices.  Ultimately, its grandiose spectacle lacks the immediacy or emotional punch of more intimate war films, leaving one admiring its technical proficiency but feeling a little hollow about the whole production.  It’s impressive as a technical filmmaking exercise, but if you want a truly great war movie, look elsewhere.

* * 1/2