by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Richard Attenborough
CAST: Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, James Caan, Maximilian Schell, Elliott Gould, Denholm Elliott, Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford, and MANY others
MY RATING: 7/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 63% Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “A Movie Set During an Historic War”
PLOT: A detailed account of an overly ambitious Allied forces operation intended to end the war by Christmas of 1944.
In September of 1944, in an attempt to land a finishing blow to Germany following D-Day, Allied forces launched Operation Market Garden, a bold offensive that would drop over 30,000 soldiers behind enemy lines. The objective was to capture and hold three strategic bridges in the Netherlands, over which a massive column of British tanks would then roll straight into the Ruhr, the heart of Germany’s industrial complex. Neutralize the Ruhr, and taking Berlin would be inevitable. However, as with so many other simple plans in history, multiple factors led to the operation getting bogged down at the third bridge, and after massive Allied casualties, the offensive was abandoned.
Based on a bestselling novel by Cornelius Ryan (who also wrote the novel The Longest Day), the movie of A Bridge Too Far resembles the actual Operation Market Garden, not just in appearances, but also in its ambition, scope, and ultimate failure to achieve its goal. However, as a pure combat movie, I give it credit where it’s due.
First off, look at this cast. There had not been an assemblage of so many of Hollywood’s leading men since 1962’s The Longest Day (“42 International Stars”, that movie’s posters proclaimed). Naturally, most of the actors are pitch perfect in their roles, with one glaring exception. Whoever thought Gene Hackman was just the right guy to play a Polish general was either desperate or foolhardy, or both. Hackman is a talented actor, without question, but his attempt at a Polish accent is a MAJOR distraction from whatever he’s saying. Every once in a while, it even pulls a disappearing act, not that it matters.
ANYHOO. The all-star cast. To offset the lengthy running time, the story is told in semi-episodic fashion, which makes me wonder if someone hasn’t thought about rebooting this movie as a Netflix/HBO/streaming miniseries. I’d watch it. Within each of these episodes, it helps if we remember right away that Michael Caine is the leader of the tank column, Sean Connery is heading up one of the ground units, Anthony Hopkins is holding the bridge at Arnhem, and Elliot Gould is the cigar-chewing American trying to get a temporary bridge put together, and so on. It’s a rather brilliant way of using visual shorthand to keep the audience oriented during its nearly three-hour running time (including an intermission at some screenings).
There is one “episode” featuring James Caan that has literally – LITERALLY – nothing to do with the plot. He plays an Army grunt who has promised his young captain not to let him die. After a grueling ground battle, Caan finds his captain’s lifeless body and, after improbably running a German blockade, holds an Army medic at gunpoint, forcing him to examine his dead captain for signs of life. I read that, unlikely thought it may seem, this incident really did happen as presented in the film (more or less). All well and good. But what does it have to do with capturing bridges? I’m sure the story is in the novel, but the movie takes a good 10-to-15-minute detour from the plot to follow this bizarre story. Did director Richard Attenborough think we needed comic relief or something? I remember liking that story as a kid, but watching it now…is it necessary? Discuss amongst yourselves, I’ll expect a summary of your answer at tomorrow’s class.
I want to mention the combat scenes in A Bridge Too Far. First off, I never served in the armed forces. Well, never in combat. I was in the Air Force for about a week. (Well, Air Force boot camp in Oklahoma for about a week…LONG story.) So, my observations of the combat scenes are less about historical accuracy and more about how they compare to other films. While some of the combat portrayed is rightfully horrific in its own way – the river crossing in those ridiculous canvas boats, the slaughter of the paratroopers, the seemingly endless holdout at Arnhem – a lot of the combat, particularly the tank shelling and the skirmishes at Arnhem, is…I have to say, it’s kind of fun to watch. There’s something, I don’t know, charming about it all. It reminded me of how I used to play with my army men and Star Wars figures, or how I used to run around with neighborhood friends wearing plastic helmets and pretending we were “good-guys-and-bad-guys” while throwing dirt clods at each other and making fake explosion noises. It was movies like A Bridge Too Far that shaped my young impressions of what wartime combat was like, and whether it was realistic or not was irrelevant.
Anyway, enough nostalgia. Here’s the sad truth: A Bridge Too Far, despite its thrilling combat and all-star cast, falls short of delivering a truly meaningful war film. There are half-hearted attempts to drum up some dramatic impact with scenes in a makeshift field hospital and a speech in Dutch from Liv Ullman wearing her best “isn’t-war-awful” expression, but for some reason those scenes fall flat. (I did like the “war-is-futile” scene with that one soldier who runs out to retrieve the air-dropped canister, only to discover…well, I won’t spoil it, but it’s a good scene.)
After writing almost 1,000 words, I’m no closer to explaining why A Bridge Too Far falls short. It’s still an entertaining watch, but I’ve really got to be in the mood for it. It’s rather like reading a historical novel that isn’t particularly thrilling like a Crichton or a Clancy, but it does deliver some eyebrow-raising information. It doesn’t hit me in the heart, but it does feed my brain. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing in the long run, but if movies are about stirring emotions, I must say: A Bridge Too Far is no Saving Private Ryan.
(Sure, I probably could have just said that instead of writing this long-ass review, but where’s the fun in that?)
QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC
Best line or memorable quote:
“Remember what the general said: we’re the cavalry. It would be bad form to arrive in advance of schedule. In the nick of time would do nicely.”
Would you recommend this film? Why or why not?
Ultimately, I would recommend it to film buffs who have not yet seen it. If nothing else, it’s an interesting time capsule movie. This would be the last time for a VERY long time that anyone would attempt to make an epic film with a truly all-star cast. …come to think of it, I can’t think of a major, epic drama since A Bridge Too Far with an actual A-list cast. Can you?