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Why do all my generals want to destroy my bridges?

A Bridge Too Far
(1977)

(SPOILERS) Deliberate and measured – some might say ponderous – was always the hallmark of Sir Richard Attenborough’s directorial career, but for the most part, that works to the benefit of A Bridge Too Far. It offers a liberal smattering of both personalised and cast-of-hundreds action sequences, but essentially his recounting of Operation Market Garden is all about talk, deliberation and a cavalcade of miscalculations, hubris and outright idiocy. Yes, there’s plenty of spectacle (and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame, is no slouch in that regard), and the expense is all up there on screen, but its effectiveness comes from following William Goldman’s wordy screenplay.

Despite such pressures as producer Joseph E Levine putting his fortune on the line to get the film made and requiring that – in order to hit a release date – it went into production before he had even started on the screenplay, Goldman recounted that “Until the reviews came out, A Bridge Too Far was probably the best experience I’ve had in films”. He put that – which is to say, the American reviews, as A Bridge Too Far was notably nominated for Best Film BAFTA – partially down to their not wanting to believe key (factual) aspects of the “miasmal, mistake-filled conflict” that was the allied endeavour: “We were too real to be real”.

Goldman did rather overstate the picture’s box office failure in the US compared to the rest of the world, though (it came sixth for the year, nothing like as successful as the top four, or even five, but in adjusted terms it made $200m at a cost of $120m or thereabouts). Notably, however, it was teetering on the brink of a new form of popular moviemaking. This was the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the influx of the blockbuster, and a year before The Deer Hunter would entirely reframe the approach to telling war stories. Which isn’t to say A Bridge Too Far was pro-war – far from it – but it was a relatively bloodless, accessible affair, with the most extreme elements being a spot of cursing from James Caan.

It also tempered its heroism in a manner that distinguishes it from, say, Saving Private Ryan’s last-ditch nobility in the face of onslaught. Goldman commented that “Arnhem will probably go down as the last major battle in which any of the old romantic notions of war still held true” with regard to heroism on both sides. Whether or not that’s the case, the overriding sense is of any kind of rallying virtue being entirely undercut by the stark failure of the enterprise. Sure, we have Caan saving his captain in a daredevil driving routine that earned the scorn of critics (but which, according to Goldman, was all true), but more emblematic is the soldier who runs out to grab airdropped supplies and is gunned down upon very nearly getting them back… only to reveal the canister was full of useless berets.

The writer characterised the picture as a “cavalry-to-the-rescue story” (as Fox’s Horrocks says), in terms of the requirement to distil its unwieldy elements, but one in which the cavalry came up short. He also decided that, since all his main characters (the star parts) factually survived, he needed to make up types to kill; many of these extraneous roles feel like a mistake, the kind of padding you get in a disaster movie (and let’s face it, Levine’s model is exactly that of the Irwin Allen; get in enough big names and you have your feature sold for you). While the demise of Christopher Good’s character (based on Major Tatham-Warter, who survived) provides Hopkins with a poignant moment, there’s the Dutch resistance kid who gets killed, and rather tiresome Liv Ullmann and Laurence Olivier tending the wounded (although they don’t get killed).

Most entertaining is the stiff-upper-lip aspect of the British officer class, ranging from the recklessly unconscionable (Bogarde’s Browning ignoring all the warning signs) to at-a-glance frivolous but not so when up close and personal (Fox’s Horrocks), to dependably humane (Hopkins), to simply amusing (Michael Caine doing his posh voice and having a ball). The best part probably goes to Connery, though, permanently exasperated by the circumstances (radios not working, supplies dropped behind enemy lines) and surrounded on all sides (at one point shooting a German just outside the window!) He’s provided the final exchange with Browning, mystified that Monty could see the operation as a success.

Unfortunately, the American stars fare less well. Redford comes on two hours in with effortless confidence and conviction – reciting his Hail Marys during the shelled daylight river crossing at Nijmegen – even if he lacks a regulation haircut, and Caan’s hero cameo works for what it is. Gould chews cigar reasonably. But Gene Hackman’s Pole is a performance based on sounding hard Gs and looking pissed off (he can do the last part).

Ryan O’Neal, with the largest role among the American contingent, is an outright disaster, though. Goldman commented “A lot of people didn’t believe Ryan O’Neal in the role of General James Gavin” on the basis of his being too young (he was actually age appropriate); it’s not. It’s because he’s terrible and looks hopelessly out of his depth and outclassed in any scene with his peers (even Redford). At one point, there’s a hero line about him being slightly tetchy because he may have cracked his spine parachuting in, but it utterly fails to give him any welly.

The German side is amusingly as oblivious in places as the British top brass, with a refusal to believe the enemy could want to take the bridges if they parachuted so far away, and dismissing enemy maps found as misdirection. Maximilian Schell (great in the same year’s – superior – Cross of Iron) is more sympathetic, and even offers Ant some chocolate (“It’s very good. Your planes dropped it to us yesterday”).

It’s not so much a “war is hell” as a “war is a massive blunder” film, without the satirical content of Oh! What a Lovely War or The Charge of the Light Brigade, a tone perfectly captured by John Addison’s deceptively jaunty-military score. Some cite A Bridge Too Far as a bit of a bore (see those American critic reviews), but I find the scale and procession of tactical blunders, and the star-heavy cast, keep it interesting for the most part. I’m not an enormous fan of Sir Dickie as director – a very emotional man, noted Goldman “He will cry if you tell him the wind is changing” – but this is probably his best work, and while it may not be Goldman’s, he deserves maximum credit for even attempting to juggle and synthesise all these elements into a coherent narrative.

It did lead to him forswearing any further stories that involved living people (the actual Frost called him, upset about being given a line he didn’t say, because it would make him seem self-inflating – it ended up with someone else). There was also a deal with Levine that inadvertently ended up casting Goldman into the Hollywood wilderness for a spell (writer, director and producer collaborated on Magic the follow year, though). As for the costly gamble of A Bridge Too Far, it paid off; with stars to sell it internationally, it was in profit before it was even released. Added to which, Attenborough brought it in on schedule and under budget. A few years later, post the Heaven’s Gate debacle, and the kind of risks involved here would be blanched at even by major studios.



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