Saturday 5 January 2013

Movie Review: A Bridge Too Far (1977)

A refreshingly accurate World War Two all-star epic, A Bridge Too Far recounts the story of Operation Market Garden. Director Richard Attenborough keeps tight control in recreating a complex military engagement, and brings home the brutality of a massive conflict.

It's September 1944, and the Allies are eager to press home the advantage of the D-Day landings. With the Germans apparently in retreat, British Lieutenant General Browning (Dirk Bogarde) puts into action an ambitious three-pronged paratrooper-led assault, conceived by British Field Marshall Montgomery and approved by Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower. 35,000 men will be air-dropped at three strategic locations near Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem, up to 64 miles behind enemy lines, to seize and hold key bridges in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, armoured divisions of XXX Corps under the leadership of Lieutenant General Horrocks (Edward Fox) will battle northwards up Highway 69, the single road that connects the three cities, hoping to arrive at Arnhem no later than three days after the paratroopers. If successful, the capture of the Arnhem Bridge over the Rhine opens up the German industrial heartland to Allied assault, conceivably ending the war in Europe by Christmas 1944.

Brigadier General Gavin (Ryan O'Neal) leads the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division assault on Nijmegen, while Major General Urquhart (Sean Connery) of the 1st British Airborne Division takes charge of the Arnhem drop, supported by the Polish Independent Parachute Brigade of Major General Sosabowski (Gene Hackman). The US 101st Airborne Division will take control of the Eindhoven bridges, and among its troops are Staff Sergeant Dohun (James Caan) and Colonel Stout (Elliot Gould). Lieutenant Colonel Vandeleur (Michael Caine) of the Irish Guards is tasked with spearheading the charge of XXX Corps up Highway 69.

The operation is only partially successful. Complications due to weather, faulty communications equipment, and poor intelligence about the strength of German forces, added to some questionable tactical decisions, result in slow progress by XXX Corps and leave the 1st British Airborne fragmented and stranded in Arnhem. A small group of Urquhart's men, led by Lieutenant Colonel Frost (Anthony Hopkins), does make it to one side of the Arnhem bridge, but they are stopped by unexpectedly strong German opposition. Both Frost and Urquhart are pinned down and have to defend two separate pockets against ever increasing German strength. Sosabowski's men arrive in Arnhem late and weakened. Meanwhile the Nijmegen Bridge is finally captured four days late after a daring daytime river crossing led by Major Julian Cook (Robert Redford) of the 82nd Airborne.

With the final outcome of the battle revealed in the title, Attenborough's objective in adapting the book by Cornelius Ryan (with a screenplay by William Goldman) is to remain faithful to the key events and the spirit of the operation from all sides, and from this perspective the film is a spectacular success.

With the Germans and Dutch speaking their own language, the sense of authenticity is enhanced, and over the three hours of running time Attenborough is able to keep events on the expansive battlefield comprehensible with remarkable ease. The cameras of cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth zoom in to the front lines for some painfully bloody combat scenes, particularly at Arnhem, where casualties mount, the fighting is at close quarters, entire city blocks are destroyed and scores of men are killed and wounded from both sides. The construction of the Bailey bridge at Son and the heart-stopping under-fire daylight crossing of the Waal river and subsequent battle to capture the Nijmegen Bridge are other front-line highlights.

Attenborough also occasionally pulls back to the strategic level through key conversations to provide an update on the overall progress of the battle from both sides. And when it's time for grand shots to capture the breadth of the largest air drop in history, A Bridge Too Far delivers in breathtaking fashion, scenes of the sky filled with aircraft and parachuting men composed with elegant majesty. The music score by John Addison enhances the drama without being intrusive or unnecessarily jaunty.

With almost every role played by a recognizable face, Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins emerge as the most memorable soldiers, stoically rallying their lightly-armed paratroopers holed up in Arnhem and holding out under intense fire for nine days instead of the planned-for two or three. Michael Caine brings a laconically realistic attitude to the optimistic timeline afforded to the ground troops. Among the Americans, James Caan and Elliott Gould are effective with more personal stories, while Robert Redford is mis-cast and Ryan O'Neal is less than convincing compared to even his low standards.

Laurence Olivier (as a local doctor) and Liv Ullman (as Kate ter Horst, who converted her house to a field hospital and personally tended to the wounded of the 1st British Airborne) lend their considerable talents to represent the local Dutch side of the story. The Dutch resistance, portrayed by a family observing German troop and armour movements and concentrations and passing on intelligence to the Allies, is also featured. To the detriment of Operation Market Garden, not all of this information was believed.

The Germans are portrayed as neither evil nor foolish, and their mistakes, successes and internal arguments are highlighted, not to the same degree as the Allies but more so than in most World War Two movies. Hardy Kruger, Maximilian Schell, Wolfgang Preiss and Walter Kohut take on the roles of the German leaders, including SS Panzer Commander Bittrich and Field Marshall Model, initially caught flat-footed, but rallying to mount a spirited defence along the entire front.

A Bridge Too Far is war film-making at its best, honest, bleak, human and full of the impressive spectacle of armies on the move and the despairing agony of men being destroyed.

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