Monday, August 23, 2010
#94 - A BRIDGE TOO FAR
“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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.