Patton will lead the assault. I would prefer Montgomery, but even Eisenhower isn’t that stupid.
This movie serves as both an unofficial sequel and thematic bookend to The Longest Day. It has an undeserved reputation for being overlong, ponderous and dull. It’s none of those things but I can understand how it could appear that way to people expecting a more conventional war movie.
A Bridge Too Far details, at great length and in exacting detail, the Allied debacle known as Operation Market Garden, an over-ambitious plan by General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery to end World War II by Christmas, 1944, by kicking down the undefended back door of Germany. The main problem with the battle plan was that it depended entirely on Murphy’s Law being repealed. For it to work, nothing could go wrong and, of course, everything did. That focus on the human price of hubris in war, of even the good guys succumbing to “victory disease,” makes this an atypical war movie at the time, more similar in theme to war movies made twenty years later.
The idea was to use paratroopers to seize several key bridges in the Netherlands in the largest airborne operation ever, dwarfing even D-Day. They would then send in the ground forces to punch through to the last bridge in a town called Arnhem and over the Rhine into the industrial heartland of Germany. It was assumed that these bridges would be defended by “Hitler Youth and old men on bicycles.” Ironically, the Germans expect the audacious General Patton in the south and not the plodding Montgomery to lead the attack across the Rhine. This causes them to relocate their reserve SS Panzer divisions to nice out of the way place where they would be safe from Allied air power, namely around a small Dutch town called Arnhem.
Like The Longest Day, also based on a book by Cornelius Ryan, A Bridge Too Far features the proverbial all-star cast, including major stars like Robert Redford in roles that are not much more cameos. Redford is to this movie what Richard Burton was to The Longest Day. He appears briefly at the beginning, but then he doesn’t get his big moment until nearly the end.
The film’s more linear narrative, as opposed to the sprawling, more episodic Longest Day, does allow a few characters to emerge as the starring roles. Sean Connery, the only holdover from the other movie, leads the British paratroops and, in the process, bears the brunt of most of the bad luck. As the person who directly witnesses the human cost of the operation, his is a surprisingly empathetic role for the actor and he gives one of the best performances of his later career. As Lt. Col. Frost, in command of the small force that actually reaches Arnhem and is almost immediately surrounded by vastly superior German forces, Anthony Hopkins subtly allows us to see the humanity behind the stiffest of stiff upper lips.
Gene Hackman plays General Sosabowski, the commander of a Polish paratroop brigade going in with the British, who is prophetically pessimistic about the plan. As the Cassandra figure, the prophet of doom who is condemned to be ignored, he is extremely effective, even if his Polish accent sounds a bit suspect.
The key weaknesses with the movie fall on the shoulders of the Americans. As General Gavin, leader of the 82nd Airborne at Nijmegen Bridge, Ryan O’Neal seems flat and unconvincing. The subplot involving James Caan as a sergeant who holds a surgeon (Arthur Hill) at gunpoint until he treats a mortally wounded young officer is completely superfluous. All of his scenes could be deleted from this movie without harming it at all.
A couple of Yanks do manage to shine, however. There is the aforementioned Robert Redford as Maj. Cook, who leads a dangerous assault across the river to capture the bridge at Nijmegen. His role is brief but he is able to carve out a memorable role that Henry Fonda or Robert Mitchum might have played in another decade. Elliott Gould is colorful as an American engineer who leads a superhuman effort to replace a destroyed bridge. (Trivia fans might like to know that, while Gould’s character is fictional, he is based on Col. Robert Sink, portrayed by Capt. Dale Dye in HBO’s landmark miniseries Band of Brothers.)
The non-English-speaking roles have some real acting luminaries backing up the more visible stars of the film. Laurence Olivier plays a Dutch doctor who winds up treating British casualties in Arnhem. Norwegian film icon Liv Ullman appears as the woman who gets more than she bargained for when she opens her house to him. Both roles are brief but memorable, putting a human face on the civilians impacted by the war around them. Finally, Maximilian Schell plays a German general who manages to be moderately sympathetic despite a brutally direct response to the British presence in Arnhem.
The films PG rating precludes the sort of graphic mayhem typical of more recent war movies, but director Richard Attenborough manages to convey the chaos, cacophony and confusion of warfare. In particular, a scene toward the beginning involving a British artillery and air assault on a German position is one of the most realistic battle scenes in any war movie, even without the R-rated blood and guts. The scenes in Arnhem are similarly convincing.
A few minor deficiencies aside, A Bridge Too Far remains one of the most under-appreciated movies about World War II.
I've got lunatics laughing at me from the woods. My original plan has been scuppered now that the jeeps haven't arrived. My communications are completely broken down. Do you really believe any of that can be helped by a cup of tea?
Couldn't hurt, sir.