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.

Popular posts from this blog

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was