Skip to main content

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.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out (2019)
(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It's their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can't eat scenery!

Local Hero (1983)
(SPOILERS) With the space of thirty-five years, Bill Forsyth’s gentle eco-parable feels more seductive than ever. Whimsical is a word often applied to Local Hero, but one shouldn’t mistake that description for its being soft in the head, excessively sentimental or nostalgic. Tonally, in terms of painting a Scottish idyll where the locals are no slouches in the face of more cultured foreigners, the film hearkens to both Powell and Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!) and Ealing (Whisky Galore!), but it is very much its own beast.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993)
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Of course, one m…

You're a dead tissue that won't decompose.

Collateral Beauty (2016)
(SPOILERS) Will Smith’s most recent attempt to take a wrecking ball to his superstardom, Collateral Beauty is one of those high concept emotional journeys that only look like a bad idea all along when they flop (see Regarding Henry). Except that, with a plot as gnarly as this, it’s difficult to see quite how it would ever not have rubbed audiences up the wrong way. A different director might have helped, someone less thuddingly literal than David Frankel. When this kind of misguided picture gets the resounding drubbing it has, I tend to seek out positives. Sometimes, that can be quite easy – A Winter’s Tale, for example, for all its writ-large flaws – but it’s a fool’s errand with Collateral Beauty.

Now we shall keep our mysterious rendezvous.

Ice Station Zebra (1968)
The fourth big screen adaptation of an Alistair MacLean novel, Ice Station Zebra was released in the same year as the more successful Where Eagles Dare. 1968 represents probably the high water mark for interpretations of the author’s work, although The Guns of Navarone remains the biggest hit. As with most movie versions of MacLean novels (or, let’s face it, movie versions of anybody’s novels) fans of the book find much to gripe about; the latter half diverges greatly from the page. Those who complain about the languid pace are onto something too. To be sure, there’s an array of valid criticisms that can be levelled at Ice Station Zebra. But it also has a factor going for it that elevates John Sturges’ movie, and keeps me coming back to it; the über-cool presence of Patrick McGoohan.

The man who played The Prisoner (he filmed Zebra during a break from the TV show, which helps to explain the only truly hopeless episode in the run; Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, …