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A Bridge Too Far

Directed by Richard Attenborough with Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Elliot Gould, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Hardy Kruger, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O'Neal, Robert Redford, Maximilian Schell and Liv Ulmann, 176 minutes, color, 1977

A Bridge Too Far

By Carter B. Horsley

This epic movie about Operation Market Garden, the attempt by the Allies to catch the Germans by surprise in 1944 and capture several bridges in Holland to prepare for an invasion of the German industrial regions near the Rhine, is near perfect.

The bold plan was masterminded by General Montgomery and called for the largest parachute drop in history. Based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan, the author also of "The Longest Day," the source for another movie, this film is perhaps the most star-studded movie, other than compilations, ever made.

As superb as the cast is, the film's bravura is best in its action sequences, which are splendid, especially when seen in widescreen mode on DVD. The parachute jumps, in particular, are truly spectacular and almost otherwordly. Indeed, the cinematography is magnificent throughout much of the film, making spectacular use of the wide-screen format, and the sound effects of battles are startling.

As the title suggests, the Allies' plan was doomed to failure and the operation proved to be a catastrophe. Director Richard Attenborough, who also directed the anti-war film, "Oh, What a Lovely War," pulls no punches in dramatizing the plan's many flaws, not the least of which was an unwillingness to counter Montgomery's ill-conceived and rash plan despite intelligence reports that should have been heeded about German strength in the area.

Montgomery is shown briefly in the documentary, black-and-white prologue to the movie, but is not portrayed in the technicolor film. Dirk Bogarde brilliantly plays his chief officer for the operation, Lt. General Frederick Browning, as something of a martinet who clearly chooses to ignore the intelligence reports so as not to upset Montgomery's plans - "the party's on!" The stiff-upper-lipness of the British is much in evidence, but, as priggish as Browning, and others, are made to appear, so too is the heroism of many of the British and American troops.

Indeed, what sets this epic apart from many others of the genre is that it gives pretty equal weight to the officers and planning and the grunts in the line of fire. It attempts to cover all the different parts of this very complex operation and for much of the time it does so clearly. Inevitably, however, some scenes go on for quite sometime and one wonders what is happening in other sectors.

While Sean Connery has, perhaps, the highest visibility in the film, his character, Major General Urquhart, gets trapped and his frustrating role is not terribly interesting, although Connery never disappoints, of course. Laurence Olivier and Liv Ulmann are Dutch residents who assist the wounded and they are marvelous. A speechless sequence of Olivier being driven through the battlefield is fabulous for his minute facial expressions. Michael Caine as Lieutenant Colonel J. O. E. Vandeleur is superbly roguish but disciplined and full of humor. Robert Redford and James Caan are stoically heroic, as expected, but manage to convey a very good sense of fear and terror and determination and Caan's jeep race through a forest is a formidable cinematic experience. Elliot Gould chomps on his big cigar a bit too much, but his fervor in overcoming obstacles is strong and just falls into the believeability range of what individual leadership can mean in a campaign. Ryan O'Neal gives a fine performance as Brigadier General Gavin that displays much more depth than we are accustomed to in his performances. Hardy Kruger as Major General Ludwig and Maximilian Schell as Lieutenant General Bittrich both give excellent and sophisticated performances as alert German officers.

It is Bogarde and Edward Fox, as Lieutenant General Horrocks, however, that steal the acting honors, the former with his measured and authoritative formality, and the latter with his exuberance.

The only two off-notes are Anthony Hopkins and Gene Hackman. Both are convincing but the former's initial casualness, wondering if he should take along his dinner jacket, and the latter's very pronounced Polish accent are somewhat jarring. Hopkins seems content with fate and Hackman outraged at it but both convey deep inner strengths that make their characters a bit more memorable than many others.

All of these actors contribute much more than mere cameo performances, but this film is more than just a magnificent, sweeping overview of a botched campaign and the little things that can and often do change the course of history. Perhaps more than any other war film, it bristles with energy and momentum, without recourse to the quick edit tricks and special effects that would characterize many later films. The campaign was supposed to over in just a few days. It lasted perhaps three times as long, still a relatively brief period as far as most campaigns were concerned. The viewer never tires despite its length and indeed most would probably desire it to be even longer. The editing and the cinematography are great, especially in an early ambush on the one-lane highway at the start of the dash towards the first bridge. There is action aplenty throughout the film.

The film will not add to General Montgomery's historic glory, nor General Browning's, but it certainly depicts an indelible image of the madness and vagaries of war as well as the often stunning heroism of individuals.

Almost two decades later, "Saving Private Ryan" (see The City Review article) would set a new standard for films about World War II, with fantastic cinematography, great acting and very memorable emotional content, but it was much more of a story about individuals than armies. As such it was in the noble tradition of such films as "The Story of G. I. Joe," "The Thin Red Line" with Keir Dullea, "All Quiet on the Western Front," "The Bridges at Toko-ri," "Platoon," "Paths of Glory" (see The City Review article), "The Naked and the Dead," "A Walk in the Sun," "Sands of Iwo Jima" and "Attack."

The wider approach, of course, has been typefied by such impressive films as "Midway," "Tora, Tora, Tora," "The Battle of Britain" and "The Longest Day," all of which pale beside "A Bridge Too Far."

The rousing score for "A Bridge Too Far" is by John Addison, who also did "Tom Jones," "A Taste of Honey" and "The Entertainer" and it is one of best ever, certainly the finest ever done for a war movie.

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This film ranks 41st in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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