Matthew Kresal has just been on to Monty. He's very proud and pleased.
Launched in September 1944, Operation Market Garden was meant to be the battle that would be the beginning of the end of the Second World War in Europe. An ambitious plan to drop 35,000 paratroopers behind German lines in Holland before being linked up with by British ground forces, to say that things didn't go to plan would be an understatement. Based on Cornelius Ryan's 1974 bestseller, this 1977 film presents a epic portrait of the incredible highs and lows of the operation.
Ryan's previous book The Longest Day had been turned into a film in 1962 and it is difficult as a viewer not to make comparisons between the two. Both are large scale films with large all-star casts (with the two films even sharing at least two cast members in different roles Sean Connery and Wolfgang Preiss), action sequences, large budgets and an emphasis on telling a dramatic story while sticking pretty closely to actual events. As with The Longest Day, all of these elements serve the film well.
Given the sheer number of characters that the film presents, the all-star cast is something of a bonus to the film. While having recognizable actors playing roles can be distracting at times, this film is a case of where that casting actually helps rather than hinders. Having actors like Connery, James Caan, Michael Caine, Edward Fox, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier and Robert Redford allows the viewer to have someone to latch onto and remember who that character is and where they are during the film's nearly three hour running time. Even better, all of them turn in solid performances that add to the film's mosaic like portrait of events, though each gets a moment to shine, from Fox's briefing scene as British Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks, Connery as British First Airborne leader Major General Roy Urquhart, Hopkins as paratrooper Lt. Colonel John Frost who leads British troops clinging onto a vital bridge and Hackman as Polish paratrooper leader Sosabowski who serves as something of a voice of oft-ignored reason. Even the smaller roles are well cast including Frank Grimes's Major Fuller, Jeremy Kemp and Denholm Elliott as excruciatingly bureaucratic RAF officers and Arthur Hill as an American Army surgeon. It's a solid cast to say the least.
The production values of A Bridge Too Far are strong and come across at their best in the film's many battle sequences. The recreation of the largest paratrooper operation of the Second World War is no easy feat today, let alone in the pre-CGI era. Yet the film pulls it off magnificently thanks to a combination of effects, costumes and making use of what was likely a handful of surviving pieces of equipment (including transport planes and armored vehicles) which brings it to life splendidly. There's also some strong camera work as well from legendary cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, as well as some incredible point of view shots of paratroopers jumping during the film's two biggest sequences. The use of location filming which often returns to the actual places helps with the film's verisimilitude as well. The editing is strong, especially in the battle sequences which create the air of chaos and confusion to give the viewer an idea of the “fog of war” first hand. Combined together with the direction of Richard Attenborough, A Bridge Too Far is a triumph to watch from a technical point of view as much as it is acting wise.
Screenwriter William Goldman deserves significant praise for being able to take the 670 page novel and create a workable screenplay that, like the book, tells the story of Market Garden from all sides. Having recently read Ryan's book, it was surprising to see how much of the events and dialogue in the film came from it and were well presented on screen. Indeed, many of the sequences that might seem corny and unbelievable, such as where Caan's Sergeant Eddie Dohun rescuing his captain and forcing an Army doctor to look at him, Connery's Major General Urquhart becoming trapped behind German lines and many of the frustrations experienced on both sides, can be directly traced to the original source material. Like The Longest Day before it (which Ryan adapted), A Bridge Too Far allows the viewer a chance to get the feeling of history unfolding throughout.
Yet it does more than just play as a highlight reel of Ryan's book. Perhaps even more impressive, Goldman's script (and the film itself) captures the tone and message of the book. That brave and good men acted courageously and against great odds, but for what purpose many were left to wonder. The film's final minutes portrays this beautifully with little dialogue and a haunting final scene. It's something that further sets the film apart from many others in the war film genre.
Which isn't to say that A Bridge Too Far isn't without flaws. Goldman's screenplay is rather unfair to British Market Garden commander Browning (play by Dirk Bogarde) who becomes something of a stand-in for British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery who always stays off screen which might explain the odd quality to both the writing of Browning and Bogarde's performance. There is also the score from composer John Addison which is sporadic but full of a heroic tone that oddly seems out of place with the events depicted by the film. Both are fairly minor quibbles though given the film as a whole.
A Bridge Too Far is far from your typical war film. That is in large part due to its combination of all-star cast, strong production values and attention to historic events. It's a faithful adaptation of a book that captures its sweeping vision and rich details. Despite some flaws, it's a film that nonetheless stands as an example of both its genre and good filmmaking in general. It also shows the power of film to bring history to life without being patronizing, overly dramatic or dull. That's something rare in its own right.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.