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Review: WWII film "A Bridge Too Far" chronicles a costly Allied blunder

A Bridge Too Far

Rating:
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Lt. General Horrocks: This is a story you will tell your grandchildren; and mightily bored they'll be.

Sir Richard Attenborough also acted in 1963's "The Great Escape"
Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images

“A Bridge Too Far”, Richard Attenborough's epic recreation of Operation Market-Garden, one of the most controversial battles of World War II, is one of those films that fall under the category of "glorious failure." Like the subject it vividly depicts, “A Bridge Too Far” was a daring endeavor, yet it failed to capture a receptive audience and was quickly forgotten by all but a handful of film critics (Judith Crist, a respected reviewer of the time, called ”A Bridge Too Far” a "definitive World War II movie")

Based on Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 best-selling book, producer Joseph E. Levine and director Richard Attenborough, working from a screenplay by William Goldman (“The Princess Bride”) recreated the Anglo-American Allies’ ill-fated attempt to capture a bridgehead across the Lower Rhine river in German-occupied Holland in the fall of 1944.

As in Ryan’s non-fiction book, “A Bridge Too Far” tells the tragic story of Operation Market-Garden, a risky plan to capture a series of bridges along a 64-mile-long highway from the Dutch city of Eindhoven to Arnhem, where a major bridge spanned the Neder Rijn (Lower Rhine), the last natural obstacle between the advancing Allied forces and Nazi Germany.

Devised by Britain’s ambitious Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, the plan was divided into two distinct operations: Market was a daylight parachute drop on Holland by 35,000 British, American and Polish paratroopers. Their mission was to seize and hold the bridges until they could be relieved by the armor and infantry forces of the British XXX Corps. This armored element of the plan was code-named Garden.

Montgomery’s plan was daring, but it was also a risky gamble. For the plan to work, every bridge between Eindhoven (which was close to the Belgian border) and Arnhem had to be seized intact. The armored forces had to punch through the German defenses and relieve the airborne forces before the Germans could recover and mount a serious counterattack.

In addition, due to a shortage of transport aircraft in September of 1944, the three Anglo-American airborne divisions and the Polish 1st Airborne Brigade could not be dropped on the same day. For the operation to work as planned by Montgomery, the weather in England and Northwest Europe had to be good for three days in a row.

If all the elements of Market Garden worked, and if Montgomery’s optimistic appraisal of German forces in Holland were right, the Allies would capture a bridgehead over the Rhine and capture the industrial heartland of the Third Reich – the Ruhr Valley. If all went well, World War II in Europe would end by Christmas of 1944.

Unfortunately, as the movie unfolds, the viewer realizes early on that things did not go as well as Montgomery planned. The German defenders in Holland were not a bunch of old men and inexperienced young boys. The weather, which was good for the first airdrops on September 17, 1944, deteriorated for several days and held up the second and third airlifts. And, despite British intelligence estimates that said otherwise, there were German panzers in the Arnhem area, which spelled disaster for the British and Polish paratroopers tasked to capture the Rhine bridge.

Col. Robert Stout: Could you get a message down to XXX Corps on that dingus?
Radio Operator: Yes, sir. Uh, we just got word from the 82nd up ahead. They captured the Grave bridge completely intact!
Col. Robert Stout: Aw, that's terrrific. Except XXX Corps ain't about to reach the godam intact Grave bridge until the godam Son bridge gets fixed. Tell our British cousins to hustle up some Bailey stuff.
Radio Operator: Yes, sir.
Col. Robert Stout: I'll meet 'em in Eindhoven when they get there. Tell those schmucks to do this right and have their Bailey stuff at the front of their column. Got that?
Radio Operator: Yes, sir.
Col. Robert Stout: And be sure to say please.
Radio Operator: Yes, sir.

My Take:

As a World War II buff, I think “A Bridge Too Far” is compelling even though it is the chronicle of a disastrous Allied military blunder.

Producer Joseph E. Levine invested a then-staggering $25 million to produce this unofficial sequel to 20th Century Fox’s “The Longest Day,” which is also based on a book by Cornelius Ryan. Levine tasked Richard Attenborough to make the film as authentic as possible. This meant rounding up several dozen C-47 aircraft, four operable Sherman tanks; several fiberglass mockups of the World War II-vintage tanks were built and mounted on Land Rover vehicles to add more Shermans on screen.

Levine also insisted on shooting the film as close as possible to the real Dutch battlefields, so most of “A Bridge Too Far” was shot in The Netherlands, with a few additional scenes filmed in England’s Pinewood Studios.

“A Bridge Too Far” was magnificently photographed by the late Geoffrey Unsworth (“Superman: The Movie”) and features a stirring musical score by composer John Addison.

“A Bridge Too Far”, despite having to rely on some Hollywood conventions and cinematic shorthand, is one of the more accurate recreations of a historical battle. It is violent and not very triumphant, to be sure, but it is not as gory as Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” .

In some ways, “A Bridge Too Far” may be better than “The Longest Day,” since it avoids the "rah-rah-we-are-the-good-guys" spirit that permeates the 1962 film. The casting choices were good and no one star dominates the film.

Ironically, several critics panned some of the casting decisions by Levine and Attenborough, and at least one choice was highly controversial.

The critics, who probably did not know anything about the real events or persons involved in Operation Market Garden, chided the filmmakers for casting 36-year-old Ryan O’Neal as Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin. They said an audience would never believe that a general officer could be so boyishly young. What they did not realize was that Gavin, who was promoted to the rank of two-star general after Market Garden, was 37 in 1944 and was the U.S. Army’s youngest general during World War II.

The film’s biggest controversy was not so much in who was cast as British Gen. Frederick Browning, but how his character was portrayed in the movie. The actor who played Market Garden’s commander, Dirk Bogarde, had served on Field Marshal Montgomery’s staff as a young officer in 1944 and had met Browning during the war. He objected to William Goldman’s depiction of Browning as the supercilious, overconfident airborne general but played him as written in the script.

Browning’s widow, novelist Daphne Du Maurier, and some of the late general’s friends were also incensed by Browning’s portrayal in “A Bridge Too Far.” Du Maurier went as far as to ask Lord Louis Mountbatten to excuse himself from the London premiere, but Mountbatten declined, saying the Royal Premiere was a fundraiser for a charity.

Lt. General Frederick "Boy" Browning: Hello, Roy. How are you?
Maj. General Roy Urquhart: I'm not sure I'll know for a while. But I'm sorry about how it turned out.
Lt. General Frederick "Boy" Browning: You did all you could.
Maj. General Roy Urquhart: Yes, but did everyone else?
Lt. General Frederick "Boy" Browning: They've got a bed for you upstairs if you want it.
Maj. General Roy Urquhart: I took ten thousand men into Arnhem. I've come out with less than two. I don't feel much like sleeping.

Major Cast:

Dirk Bogarde .... Lt. Gen. Browning
James Caan .... SSgt. Eddie Dohun
Michael Caine .... Lt. Col. J.O.E. Vandeleur
Sean Connery .... Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart
Edward Fox .... Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks
Elliott Gould .... Col. Robert Stout
Gene Hackman .... Maj. Gen. Stanislaw Sosabowski
Anthony Hopkins .... Lt. Col. John Frost
Hardy Krüger .... Maj. Gen. Ludwig
Ryan O'Neal .... Brig. Gen. James Gavin
Laurence Olivier .... Dr. Jan Spaander
Robert Redford .... Maj. Julian Cook
Maximilian Schell .... Lt. Gen. Wilhelm Bittrich
Liv Ullmann .... Kate Ter Horst

DVD Specifications (2005 Special Collector’s Edition)

2-Disc Keep Case, Widescreen , 2.35:1, Closed Captioned, Color

DVD Features: Subtitles: English, French, Audio Track 1: English, Dolby Digital 5.1, Audio Track 2: English, Dolby Digital 2.1 Surround, Audio Track 3: French, Dolby Digital 5.1, Audio Track 4: Commentary by Screenwriter William Goldman and key crew members

Blu-ray Specifications:

  • Format: Multiple Formats, AC-3, Blu-ray, Color, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound, Dubbed, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: English (DTS 5.1), French (Dolby Surround), Spanish (Dolby Surround)
  • Subtitles: French, Spanish
  • Dubbed: English, French, Spanish
  • Region: Region A/1
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
  • Studio: MGM
  • DVD Release Date: June 3, 2008
  • Run Time: 175 minutes