British Field Marshal Montgomery, trying to outdo the military success of America's General Patton, devised an ambitious plan named "Operation Market Garden" which he believed would end World War II. The operation called for 35,00 Allied paratroopers to be dropped behind enemy lines in Holland. They were to forge a path over which armored forced could move to Arnhem. If they took the last bridge, the Allies would be able to strike into the Ruhr and bring the war to a close by Christmas of 1944.
But the plan was riddled with flaws. The British ignored intelligence reports indicating that some German panzer divisions in Holland could be in trouble. They went into action too swiftly with faulty equipment and too little ammunition. And they planned long marches without proper regard for rest and supplies. In the nine days of "Operation Market Garden" the combined Allied losses totaled 17,000.
Adapted from Cornelius Ryan's best-selling 1974 novel, A Bridge Too Far recreates this complicated and tragic military venture with breathtaking sweep, historical accuracy, and a sober-eyed humanism. Here we experience in all of is variety and stupidity, anguish, and pain of war. Richard Attenborough (Oh! What a Lovely War, Young Winston) has orchestrated this three-hour film with the skill and bravado of a five-star general. The movie has very little of the leaden dialogue and dramatic stiffness of its recent cinematic predecessors Tora! Tora! Tora! or Midway.
Attenborough has also assembled a superb international cast. These are stellar performances by Dirk Bogarde as Montgomery's operational deputy, a man who pushes ahead with "Marked Garden" despite knowledge presaging its foolhardiness; Anthony Hopkins as Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Frost, the hero of Arnhem who displays dignity under pressure; Edward Fox as General Horrocks, a British tank force commander who lifts the spirits of his men by telling them they are the "cavalry" coming into rescue besieged homesteaders; and Robert Redford as Major Julia Cook, a courageous American who leads his men in the assault on the Nijmegen Bridge.
In a movie with such breadth, one would not expect small incidents to stand out. Yet most of the success of A Bridge Too Far can be attributed to a host of gripping, humane, and well done vignettes:
- The British paratroopers land in Holland and are greeted by a band of insane escapees from a bombed-out mental hospital.
- An obsessed American sergeant saves the life of his badly wounded superior by forcing a doctor at gunpoint to patch him up.
- An old Dutch woman whose home has become the operational center of attack on the Arnhem Bridge protests the soldiers' intrusion into her sanctuary.
- A German Lieutenant General shows compassion for the defeated Allied troops at Arnhem.
- A old Dutch woman volunteers her home for a makeshift hospital to treat the battered and maimed victims of battle.
- In a moment of solidarity and mutual fright, this same group of wounded men sing the hymn, "Abide With Me."
A Bridge Too Far has set a high standard for war films made in the future. With its portrayal of human folly, suffering, and valor, the movie helps us realize along with Saint Exupery that "War is not an adventure. It is a disease." Attenborough has stated in an interview: "Despite the gallantry and bravery and selflessness, there was in the end a terrible destruction of human dignity and self-respect…I don't' think anyone could come out of this movie and say there was one vestige of glamour left in war, in battle, in the destruction of human beings." If he is correct, for $26 million, producer Joeseph E. Levine got a bargain.