Monday, August 23, 2010

#94 - A BRIDGE TOO FAR



BACK-STORY: 

“A Bridge Too Far” is basically a sequel to “The Longest Day” and suffers a bit in the comparison. They are both based on books by Cornelius Ryan. ABTF was released in 1977, three years after the book. It has a similar format as its sister film – the all-star cast in a war epic. The movie was something of a flop which should not have been a surprise given that it was about a mostly British affair and a loss at that.  It did not help that the film clocks in at around three hours.  Given the odds stacked against it, the movie mirrors the event it portrays in that respect.

OPENING SCENE:

A woman’s voice narrates black and white footage relating the war up until then. The narration is effective in bringing the audience up to speed on the war in 1944 and is crucial in explaining the strategic dilemma facing Eisenhower. Ike is dealing with two prima donna generals – Montgomery and Patton – each of whom has a sure-fire plan to win the war quickly. Of course, each plan involves giving them most of the scarce resources for their roll of the dice. Montgomery’s plan is codenamed Operation Market Garden and Eisenhower opts for it in a decision that smacks of politics (although the movie does not make it clear why Ike chose Monty over Patton).

SUMMARY:

The Germans are retreating and Gen. Von Rundstedt is pessimistic. The German characters speak German and the movie has subtitles – an early clue the producers are serious. Meanwhile, at British headquarters, Lt. Gen. Browning is outlining Operation Market Garden. The plan will end the war in 90 days. It will be the biggest airborne operation ever. The plan calls for dropping thousands of British and American paratroopers behind enemy lines to capture three key bridges to open a corridor that will be exploited by the British XXX Corps which will move over 60 miles in two days to reach the last bridge at Arnhem. Or so the plan calls for. If you know nothing about Operation Market Garden, but do know about the British army in WWII and Montgomery in particular, you know this movie will not have a happy ending. The plan calls for daring and speed – two words not associated with the British in WWII.

One of the movies themes of bad luck is apparent in the next scene as Rundstedt moves a resting Panzer unit to the “quiet sector” of Arnhem. The second theme of overly optimistic high command is emphasized when Browning refuses to believe intelligence reports which include photo recon indicating Arnhem will be very well defended by a paratroopers worst nightmare – armor. And even if they are true, Browning says “This time the party is on and nobody is going to call it off”. The Browning family could not have been happy with his portrayal in the film. It is clear he represents a composite of Browning and Montgomery and his character would have struck a chord with the post-Vietnam audience. The third theme of incompetence and disregard for losses is apparent when the British parachute leaders are informed they will have to land 8 miles from the Arnhem bridge.

The take-off and landing of the paratroopers is handled in a great scene featuring thousands of extras and authentic aircraft. No CGI here! We even get the perspective of the paratroopers as they bail out and drift to earth. The landings go according to plan. That will be the last time anything goes according to plan.

Meanwhile, the XXX Corps led by Gen. Horrocks (Edward Fox) and spearheaded by Gen. Vandeleur (Michael Caine) start down the single lane, raised highway. Horrocks instruction to “Ride like hell… speed is the key” is ominous to any student of the British army in WWII. The attack is preceded by an impressive artillery bombardment with lots of explosions. The Germans are realistically portrayed as withstanding the chaos and then opening fire to take out several tanks which are exposed on the raised road. The British call in fighter-bombers which blast the hell out of the enemy causing them to surrender but it is a bad omen for keeping the timetable.  The road soon acquires the nickname "Hell's Highway".

The 101st Airborne led by a Col. Stout (Elliot Gould) assault the first bridge only to have German 88s take it out moments before they reach it. A bailey bridge will be needed. Luckily for the Allies, the German Gen. Model is mirroring Browning’s “I won’t believe anything that does not fit my preconceived notions” philosophy by refusing to blow the other bridges.

The British arrive at Arnhem with no resistance, but without their commander Gen. Urquhart (Sean Connery) who has been separated from the unit and spends most of the movie working his way back. They assault the bridge led by the stereotypical British officer carrying an unopened umbrella (based on an actual person who survived the battle, but not in the movie). They knock out a pillbox when a flamethrower accidentally cooks off ammunition nearby. In a great scene, the Germans counterattack using armored cars that are taken out by British bazookas. So far, so good, but what happens if the Germans bring up armor?

The movie now veers away from its command-centric story line to tell the tale of Ssgt. Eddie Duhon (James Caan). Duhon locates the body of the supposedly dead Capt. Johnson and in an homage to the Jeep drives through a forest and then through a German unit under fire to reach a hospital. The doctor refuses to work on the hopeless case until Dohun pulls a pistol and insists. The Capt. is saved and the doctor decides not to court-martial Dohun.

We get a realistic and informative look at the building of a bailey bridge (possibly unique in war movie history). The XXX Corps crosses the bridge and is on its pokey way again, but way behind schedule. Surprise!

In Arnhem, armor arrives and a tank crosses the bridge into the town and into the British position. House to house fighting begins and the casualties mount including the resistance/spy family introduced earlier in the movie.  The British are gamely led by Lt. Col. Frost (Anthony Hopkins).   We also meet our opening footage narrator Kate ter Horst (Liv Ullman) as a Dutch woman who allows her house to be used as a hospital and helps the wounded with an elderly doctor portrayed by Sir Laurence Olivier. ( I guess Marlon Brando was not available ).

At Nijmegen, the Americans are forced to make a daring, daylight combat assault across the river in flimsy boats (which are slow in arriving, thus accurately portraying the “hurry up, then wait” nature of warfare). Maj. Cook (Robert Redford – paid $2 million for seemingly 5 minutes of work) leads the assault repeating the “Hail Mary” (there are no atheists in assault boats). The scene accurately reflects the suicidal nature of this type of action, but also what determined men can do in the face of ridiculous odds. The Germans attempt to blow the bridge which would have meant the assault would have been in vain, but the charges do not go off. Not all luck in war is bad. However, instead of bursting ahead, the British armor hunker down to brew their tea as they wait for their infantry to come up. Cook confronts the British commander in a moment which must have resonated with American vets of the European Theater. He angrily points out that “those are British troops in Arnhem. They’re hurt bad. And you’re just gonna sit here and drink tea?”

The Polish brigade is sent to reinforce the British in Arnhem. They are led by the reluctant Gen. Sosabowski (Gene Hackman) who knows the mission is doomed, but reflects another theme of the movie – good soldiers swallow their doubts and wade in. The landing is a bloody disaster and only a few Poles reach the British. By this time, the Germans are overwhelming the lightly armed British in the streets of Arnhem and they get orders to withdraw as best they can. Only a few, including Urquhart, manage to escape through the woods during the night. Urquhart confronts Browning about Montgomery’s summary of the operation as being 90% successful. Browning responds that “I always thought we tried to go a bridge too far”.

THE FINAL SCENE:

Kate and the doctor leave her ruined house and join a long line of refugees. The movie fades with the refugees moving out of frame. Not a happy ending. No Doolittle raid like in “Pearl Harbor”. Bizarrely, in a movie that begins with a tidy review of the war up until the operation, there is no preview of what happens next, nor are the events of the film put in perspective.

RATINGS:

Action - 8 ( not graphic )

Acting - 8 ( especially Connery, Caine, Gould, and Hopkins )

Accuracy - 9

Realism - 9

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?

I do not think most would. My wife found it to be too “military”. It is a very macho movie, but does have one significant female character – ter Horst. Surprisingly, Ullman’s character was based on a real person and not just simply thrown in to attract a female audience. The “Angel of Arnhem” is accurately portrayed.  It is also long, even for a war movie.  Not a good selling point for women.

ACCURACY:

Gen. Urquhart described the movie as a “reasonably accurate spectacular”. This is a fair description of a movie that tried hard to make a realistic, yet entertaining retelling of a complicated military event. This effort is obvious from the multitude of technical advisers which included Urquhart, Horrocks, Gavin, Vandeleur, and Frost. It would have been hard to stray far with those guys on the set.

The basic facts are not tampered with so it is a good history lesson about Operation Market Garden. Since this failed campaign had been gathering dust historically speaking, the filmmakers do an admirable job of reminding us of the sacrifices the soldiers made in the operation. They deserved the recognition the movie brought. The movie also accurately portrays how command decisions can be flawed and even the best plans do not survive the first clash of arms. The role of SNAFU in warfare is also clear in the events portrayed.

One character in the movie allows for a discussion of how Hollywood will tamper with a perfectly good story to “enhance it for your viewing pleasure”. I am referring to the Eddie Dohun tale. First, his name was Charles ( I guess Hollywood did not think Charles was cool enough ). Second, his buddy Capt. “Legs” Johnson was already in the hospital’s “dead pile” when Dohun located him (having come to recover Johnson’s wallet). Johnson had received his head wound while riding on the hood of a jeep which was evacuating him because of an earlier shoulder wound. There was no mad dash in a jeep driven by Dohun. Dohun does force a doctor at gun point to save Johnson’s life, but the doctor did press charges. A Lt. Col. put Dohun under arrest for one minute and then released him. Is the movie’s version more entertaining? Yes, but I would argue the real story was good enough to begin with. This is what separates war movie fanatics from average Joes, I guess.

CRITIQUE:

The obvious thing to do is to compare this movie to “The Longest Day”. In some ways it is a sequel and we all know about sequels – they seldom live up to the original. However, ABTF has some big shoes to fill and it is probably asking too much for it to surpass or even equal its parent. Technically, it is a superior film. The airborne landing scene and the fighting in Arnhem are superior to any action in TLD. Compare the combat in Arnhem specifically to the scenes in Ouistreham and you will see what I mean. Also, for those of you of the younger generation, ABTR is in color! Alas, you still have to read when the Germans talk.

Another comparison is ABTF is more command-centric than TLD. There is only one grunt character – Dohun. TLD is full of privates. I do not know if it reflects the difference, but Sean Connery portrays a private in TLD and he has been promoted to general by ABTF ( think on that ). It does not have to be either/or as TLD proves with its blend of scenes showing the strategic ( the generals ) and the tactical ( the foot soldiers and their officers ). ABTR does not blend as well.

I admire the guts of the producers and director Richard Attenborough in making a movie that is a history lesson and a downer at that. I cannot believe the marketing people were thrilled with that. Kudos for swimming upstream.

The movie came out in the mid-seventies and reflects the transition from old-school war movies ( like TLD ) to the more cynical modern war film ( Patton ). It clearly reflects the post-Vietnam view of the military and warfare in general. The emphasis on SNAFU, clueless strategists, the waste of human lives, and pressing on with flawed plans are apparent in the movie.

CONCLUSION:

"A Bridge Too Far" is a movie that deserves a better reputation.  It covers an operation, Market Garden, that would otherwise be forgotten by most moviegoers.  It is a good bookend to the all-star war epics that began with "The Longest Day".  One critic referred to it as "the last dinosuar".  You could argue that it is the second best of that genre which includes "Tora! Tora! Tora!", "The Battle of Britain", "Battle of the Bulge", and "Midway".  Although it is a downer because the Allies lose, we Montgomery-haters can enjoy the discomfiture of the limeys.

"Bridge' is a good example of a war movie that appeals to war movie buffs, but not to average viewers.  A lover of war movies is cautioned to not watch this movie with soemone who is not a fanatic.  You will be frustrated by their lack of respect for the craft and fidelity to the truth of the moviemakers.  

14 comments:

  1. I remember watching it with my mother when I was a kid and she enjoyed it a lot. I was asking myself when rewatching it recently if I prefer it to The Longst Day. I am not sure. Since I am interested in themes, what I like here is the "Holding a Bridge"- theme. Sure it is not the first movie to focus on this strategical aspect but it is a famous one. A recurring theme in war movies. How many movies are there about bridges? Saving Private Ryan comes to mind, of course. Any others you remember apart from The Bridge?

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  2. Let me go out on a limb and mention "Bridge on the River Kwai" LOL I'm on a roll - "The Bridges at Toko-Ri" Cha-ching! How about Danny's death on a bridge in "The Man Who Would Be King"? I think there are movies about destroying strategic bridges than holding them.
    I prefer "Day" because of the grunt characters like Red Buttons. It also has a little humor like one of my favorite war movie lines - "Damn traitors!" (when the carrier pigeon flies toward German lines).

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  3. I forgot to mention "Braveheart". Oh wait, there is no bridge for the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Curse you, Mel Gibson's huge salary!

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  4. Well after Saving Private ryan, Band Of Brothers, The Pacific...I tend to compare ....still the action was o.k. but not detailed. A lit bit long.

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  5. the war movie buffJuly 20, 2011 at 9:19 PM

    That is a pretty stiff standard to hold movies up to, but I agree with you.

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  6. TCM even did a marathon once of "strategic bridge" movies. Besides A Bridge Too Far, River Kwai, and Toko-Ri, there was The Bridge at Remagen.

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  7. Market Garden was a disaster, but isn't that true of most airborne assaults? Demiansk, Dnepr, and the Ardennes were failures, and Crete, Sicily, and Normandy all resulted in such heavy casualties that they may have been Pyrrhic victories. That any airborne operations succeeded at all is a credit to the paratroopers' valor, not to the strategic planning of their leaders.

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  8. Great point. However, it could be argued that the airborne assaults in Market Garden were successful, but the ground assault was not. In many cases of airborne assaults, it's a case of generals wanting to play with their shiniest toys. In the case of Hitler and Crete, his toy was banged up so badly he never took it out of the toy chest again.

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  9. I guess by 1977, Sean Connery was too big a star (and too old) to play a private.

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  10. What is it with you Americans and the belief that it was you who came riding to our/Europe's rescue in the dark days of WW2? Why do you dislike Monty so much and why do say that two words that cannot be associated with the British 'daring and speed' (can I suggest you research the Desert Rats/the formation and subsequent sucesses of the Commando's and any one of the raids carried out by the LRDG/SAS during WW2).
    Just because your forces have a habit of inflicting blue on blue incidents and simply invading en masse those countries which defy your God given beliefs (please, get of the God bus once in a while) do not question what was/is simply the best fighting force (man for man - we don't allow women to serve front line, unlike you mugs) in the world.
    I thank you

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    1. Women are not front-line troops in the U.S. Military. Women are allowed to serve in combat zones but they are not combat troops. They are things such as truck drivers, medics, nurses,cooks,etc. Men are still the only ones who are front-line troops.

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  11. I do not blme the British Army for being conservative in its tactics. That was justified after what the country had gone through and its limited resources. I do find fault in American tactics which tended to be bull-headed and willing to trade casualties for speed. But the fact is that given the goals of the operation, it required an American attitude rather than the British attitude. I would argue that Montgomery went out of his comfort zone in planning this operation and it was unwise to pair up the riskiness of an airborne assault with the risk-averse British ground forces. I admit England's special forces were awesome, but part of the reason why they stand out is because they were so different than the regular army in tactics.

    You can argue that the Soviet Union did more to win the war than the British and Americans combined, but you cannot argue that the U.S. did not come to the rescue of England.

    As far as Montgomery goes, he fit the British way of war perfectly. That does not make him a great general. That simply makes him a good British general.

    Lastly, what do the actions of the Bush Administration (I'm assuming that's who you are referring to) have to do with a discussion of WWII? Do you wish we would have kept our Christian noses out of WWII? And if you are referring to the British Army of WWII as the best fighting force, you have got to be kidding! It's one thing to be patriotic, it's another thing to be chauvinistic.

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  12. It's still sad to me to see the American vs British argument dragged out once again.
    FACT: Britain was at war for two exhausting years before the US joined them in a life and death struggle against Germany. (please don't bring up lend-lease because that was a presidential initiative passed behind the back of the American electorate). It took Pearl Harbor and Germany declaring war on the US for that great nation (really written without irony) to involve itself "over there". There was no "saving" involved. Once the United States had its foot in it, there was really no backing down.

    As for "A Bridge Too Far" I don't see why a movie has to be about battles won to have any box office success. Wasn't "Titanic" a success? Isn't it about the lessons learned? Also, one of Hollywood's dirty little secrets is that movies can make their money back outside the narrow confines of the Unired States' borders. Many many films have paid for themselves from foreign box office revenues, tv and video sales. From 1978 onwards, Hollywood learned to tap into the VHS-BETA market.

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  13. Lend-Lease was an act of Congress, not a presidential initiative like the Destroyers for Bases Deal or Cash and Carry. The fact that we had the war thrust upon us does not change the fact that Great Britain could not have won the war without us. Nor could we have won without the British. It was an awesome partnership.

    As far as the production of the movie, I think it is very commendable that it was made even though there was no significant demand for it. I was trying to emphasize the guts that went into producing it. I take your point about looking at the totality of box office receipts.

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