July 24, 2013

Movie Review: A Bridge Too Far (1977)

"When one man says to another, "I know what to do today, let's play the war game."... everybody dies." – General Stanislaw Sosabowski (Gene Hackman)

Director: Sir Richard Attenborough

Writers: Cornelius Ryan (Book) and William Goldman (Screenplay)

Producer: Joseph E. Levine

Studio: MGM

Major Stars: Dirk Bogarde, James Cann, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Edward Fox, Elliot Gould, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Ryan O'Neil, Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford, Maximilian Schell

By the fall of 1944, the Allies stood on the doorstep of Germany. Having broken out of the Normandy pocket in July, the Allies swept across France before supply problems brought them to a halt. Fuel and munitions were still being brought through the French port of Cherbourg, over 400 miles away.

British general Bernard Montgomery proposed a solution: a daring airborne attack into Holland. A series of bridges would be seized by paratroopers, ending at the city of Arnhem. As this occurred, a simultaneous advance by armored columns would sweep up the road, securing the bridges and allowing the Allies to use the recently-captured (and much closer) port of Antwerp. Poised to strike directly at the heart of Germany, the war would be over by Christmas.

It was a daring plan. It was a bold plan. It failed.

This plan, Operation Market-Garden, is the background for the classic film A Bridge Too Far. It is, without question, one of the finest war films ever produced. Incredibly accurate in detail and history, A Bridge Too Far takes a unflinching look at not only the cost soldiers pay for a general’s hubris, but the cost civilians pay as well. It also took the unusual (for the time) position of portraying Germans as more than just stereotypical "black-hat" villains.

It's one of the last epic war films, with a immense cast of top-flight stars for the time. It has expansive battle scenes and inspiring moments of heroism. It also has its fair share of sobering moments, least of which is the sullen retreat at film's end.

First-hand knowledge: Actor Dirk Bogarde, who plays Lt. General Browning, actually fought in Operation Market-Garden.

We know early on that things are going to go wrong; aerial photos show German tanks in areas lightly-armed paratroopers are expecting to be unprotected. Rather than change plans, the commanding general discards them and sends the officer who brought him the photos off on medical leave.

It doesn’t get any better once the operation begins; radios don’t work and supplies aren’t dropped. Paratroopers who expected to hold a bridge for two days are forced to hold it for five. Traffic holds up reinforcements. The sheer volume of bad luck is almost unbelievable.

Yet the attack advances. Towns are taken, bridges seized. The Dutch people come out to cheer their liberators. But the attack bogs down and those tanks…those tanks that no one was told about turn the tide against the Allies.

The men portrayed on screen served as advisers on the film, giving it a realism that’s all too rare. Lt. Colonel John Frost (played by Anthony Hopkins), Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart (Sean Connery) and Brig. Gen. James Gavin (Ryan O’Neil) were just some of the officers who helped to give A Bridge Too Far almost a documentary feel.

That’s why we find ourselves swept up in it, believing until the end, even though we already know better, that these brave men can pull it out. When General Gavin’s men take the critical bridge at Nimejgen, the final bridge before Arnhem, the music swells to a triumphant roar. Over and over we see Frost’s paratroopers, cut off in Arnhem, repel numerous German assaults and we believe he can keep doing it.

Everybody Knows Your Name: During the American assault on the Nimejgen Bridge, keep an eye out for John Ratzenburger (Cliff from Cheers) in one of his first film roles.

But in the end, it falls apart. Reinforcements dally at Nimejgen until it’s too late. Frost’s men are forced to surrender. The British 1st Airborne are cut to ribbons before finally being withdrawn. At battle’s end, the war is no closer to conclusion.

What makes A Bridge Too Far different from other films is its candid look at the cost civilians pay in a war. Unlike other movies (such as The Longest Day) we see innocent men and children gunned down. An old lady, driven mad by the war outside her home, is killed by a sniper when she walks out the front door. A mother and child, smeared with dirt and staring blankly into space, wander the shattered streets of Arnhem.

But it is in the ter Horst family where the message comes home. Kate ter Horst allowed the British to set up a field hospital in her home. She helped tend to over 300 British wounded while pregnant. In the end, when the British finally surrendered, she was forced to abandon her home. It had been rendered unlivable, the yard turned into a makeshift graveyard for the British dead.

The final scene is of the ter Horst family hauling their belongings on the same road the Allies advanced down in the beginning of the film. Except they are now refugees fleeing to the west, their lives forever changed by a battle meant to liberate them.

I think its an amusing irony that the best war films tend to carry an anti-war message. A Bridge Too Far is no different, leveling a harsh criticism at those who would throw away thousands of lives on an ill-conceived plan and hardly give it a second thought. It makes us consider the cost to civilians, which is too often ignored. It also, in its own way, tries to destroy the propaganda that accompanies war. The German general in charge of the attack on Arnhem (played wonderfully by Maximilian Schell) is shown as a cold professional. Yet he calls a temporary cease-fire to allow the British to evacuate their wounded. He is not the one-sided evil spectre that propaganda would make him out to be, but a man with his faults and graces.

A Bridge Too Far is at once inspiring and sobering. A testament to the bravery and the foolishness of Man. In its message, its acting and its battle sequences, it stands among the elite of war films.


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