Go figure that a movie about a military operation that was thwarted by excessive ambition would itself be thwarted by excessive ambition. Based on the doomed World War II campaign code-named Operation Market Garden, which was staged in late 1944 by Allied forces eager to maximize the gains of D-Day by ending the European component of the war with a push across Holland into Germany, A Bridge Too Far features one of the most impressive all-star casts of the ’70s, in addition to spectacular production values and a few powerful depictions of heroism and tragedy. Furthermore, the movie deserves ample praise for bucking war-movie convention by dramatizing a campaign that didn’t work. And, indeed, the theme evoked by the poetic title—sometimes, just one X factor stands between glory and ignominy—comes across in several key performances. Yet occasional glimpses of effective storytelling do not equal a completely satisfying movie, and A Bridge Too Far fails on many important levels when analyzed in its entirety.
The movie is hard to follow, because it tracks too many characters in too many locations, and because, quite frankly, director Richard Attenborough fails to give greater dramatic weight to crucial moments. Everything in A Bridge Too Far is presented with almost exactly the same measure of gravitas, so Attenborough squanders interesting potentialities found throughout the movie’s script, which was penned by two-time Oscar winner William Goldman. Clearly, Attenborough and Goldman were both stymied, to a degree, by the sheer scale of the undertaking; producer Joseph E. Levine made it plain he wanted this movie to equal the 1962 epic The Longest Day, another all-star war picture based on a book by Cornelius Ryan.
Yet while The Longest Day had the advantages of a triumphant subject (D-Day) and a receptive audience (moviegoers still embraced pro-military themes in the early ’60s), A Bridge Too Far is a far different creature—a story of battlefield hubris made at a time when America was still reeling from the traumas of the Vietnam War. So, even if the movie possessed a clearer narrative, chances are it still would’ve been the wrong movie at the wrong time.
Having said all that, A Bridge Too Far has many noteworthy elements. The subject matter is fascinating, since Ryan’s book itemized the innumerable strategic errors made by the Allies in planning Operation Market Garden—beyond problems of scale, since the campaign involved things like an air drop of 35,000 paratroopers, the plan was so contingent upon component elements that if any one piece of the plan failed, the whole campaign would collapse. Therefore, the movie is a study of men who represent the margin of error that Operation Market Garden cannot afford—whether they’re Americans, Brits, or Poles, the soldiers in this movie try to achieve the impossible even when it’s plainly evident success is beyond their grasp.
The most vivid moments involve Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins as British officers trying to hold the Dutch town of Arnhem for days on end despite a crippling lack of reinforcements and supplies. Robert Redford dominates a key sequence in the third and final hour of the movie, playing an American officer who leads a seemingly suicidal charge across a heavily fortified river in broad daylight. Maximilian Schell makes an elegant impression as a German commander capable of mercy and ruthlessness, while Dirk Bogarde is appropriately infuriating as Schell’s opposite number on the Allied side, a British general who refuses to acknowledge the possibility of failure.
Unfortunately, many promising characterizations are merely sketches: Actors Michael Caine, Edward Fox, Elliot Gould, Gene Hackman, Hardy Kruger, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, and Liv Ullmann each have colorful moments, but all are badly underutilized. And as for James Caan, his entire showy sequence could have been deleted without affecting the story, since his subplot feels like a leftover from a World War II movie actually made during World War II. Ironically, though, his are among the film’s most memorable scenes.
A Bridge Too Far: FUNKY