A Bridge Too Far (DVD, 2008, Canadian Collector's Edition)

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"I've always thought we tried to go a bridge too far...."

Feb 3, 2004 (Updated Jul 18, 2006)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Accurate and well-crafted. Great cast. Fine script and score. Good direction.

Cons:It depicts a defeat rather than a victory...and who remembers this film except history buffs?

The Bottom Line: Despite its downer of an ending, this is really an underrated and underappreciated movie. It deserves to be seen at least once!


A Bridge Too Far, Richard Attenborough's (Gandhi, Chaplin) epic recreation of one of the most controversial battles of World War II, is one of those films that fall under the category of "glorious failure." Like the subject it vividly depicts (Operation Market-Garden), it was a well intentioned and daring endeavor, yet it failed to capture a receptive audience and was quickly forgotten by all but a handful of history buffs and film critics (Judith Crist, a respected reviewer of the time, called A Bridge Too Far a "definitive World War II movie").

Lt. General Horrocks: This is a story you will tell your grandchildren; and mightily bored they'll be.

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Looking back on June 1977, it's not terribly surprising that A Bridge Too Far was not as successful as producer Joseph E. Levine and director Attenborough hoped it would be. Saigon's fall two years earlier was still fresh in most Americans' minds, and in the immediate post-Vietnam era, audiences were not ready to embrace a big The Longest Day type war movie. If they wanted cinematic fireworks, they preferred to see dark anti-heroes or quirky, non-conformist cops instead of GIs and Tommies fighting against German soldiers. Worse, the movie is atypical because it deals not with an Allied victory (as most Hollywood war movies often do) but with a bitter defeat. And just as the presence of German tanks in Holland doomed the real Operation Market-Garden, the May 25, 1977 release of a space-fantasy film known as Star Wars stole much of A Bridge Too Far's thunder...and audience.

It's too bad, because Attenborough's film, with a well-written screenplay by William Goldman (All The President's Men, The Princess Bride) and based on Cornelius Ryan's final World War II bestseller, is one of the best war movies ever made. Made for what was then a staggering $25 million and starring a roster of international A-list stars, including Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Elliott Gould, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Hardy Kruger, Sir Laurence Olivier, Ryan O'Neal, Robert Redford, Maximillian Schell, and Liv Ullmann. (The roster of supporting actors is even longer, but if you look closely at the scenes depicting the daring crossing of the Waal River by American paratroopers, you'll recognize John Ratzenberger, best known as Cliff
Claven from TV's "Cheers.")

Col. Robert Stout: Could you get a message down to XXXth Corps on that dingus?
Radio Operator: Yes, sir. Uh, we just got word from the 82nd up ahead. They captured the Grave bridge completely intact!
Col. Robert Stout: Aw, that's terrrific. Except XXXth Corps ain't about to reach the godam intact Grave bridge until the godam Son bridge gets fixed. Tell our British cousins to hustle up some Bailey stuff.
Radio Operator: Yes, sir.
Col. Robert Stout: I'll meet 'em in Eindhoven when they get there. Tell those schmucks to do this right and have their Bailey stuff at the front of their column. Got that?
Radio Operator: Yes, sir.
Col. Robert Stout: And be sure to say please.
Radio Operator: Yes, sir.



A Bridge Too Far chronicles the nine-day Battle of Arnhem, which was the site of a coveted bridge over the Lower Rhine and the primary objective of Operation Market-Garden, an ambitious and daring attempt by the Allies to secure a crossing over that big river obstacle and outflank Germany's fortified defenses. It is the fall of 1944, and despite stunning advances by American, British, Canadian and French forces in Normandy and elsewhere, the Allied "blitz" across northwest Europe is losing momentum. The Allied armies have captured none of the vital Channel ports close to Britain and are still bringing their vast supplies from the beaches at Normandy, now 400 miles away from the front lines. Their momentum carries them as far as the Dutch border with Belgium and the big port of Antwerp, but the Germans hold the approaches to the harbor along the Schelde River, thus denying the Allies its immediate use.

Furthermore, as the film's brief but revealing documentary intro explains, the rivalry between Britain's Field Marshal Montgomery and U.S. General Patton "had never been more fierce." Each one wanted supplies and men for his own army's drives into Germany; "each one wanted to beat the other to Berlin."

In September of 1944, Montgomery (who never appears in the main part of the film) devised a plan code-named Market-Garden. He proposed an airborne assault to capture a series of bridges using three and a half divisions of the First Allied Airborne Army. The Americans were assigned to take the bridges around the Dutch cities of Eindhoven and Nijmegen; the British 1st Airborne Division and a Polish brigade had to capture the bridge at Arnhem. At the same time, a British armored corps would "drive like hell" along a single highway and link up with the paratroopers. It was, as Gen. Frederick Browning (Bogarde) says early on in the film, "the largest airborne operation ever mounted," involving 35,000 paratroopers arriving via parachute and gliders, thousands of aircraft, and a ground force that included over 20,000 vehicles ranging from Sherman tanks to jeeps. It was planned, mounted and launched in a week's time, and it was optimistically scheduled to take three days or slightly more.

But even given the state of the German army in the West at the time, Market-Garden failed. As the film accurately points out, Allied estimates of German strength, capabilities and morale were way off base, and evidence of German armor near the critical Arnhem crossing was summarily dismissed. (And even though the actual number of German tanks never amounted to more than a battalion's worth -- even though the panzers belonged to two SS divisions, there were still enough to overrun a division of lightly armed paratroopers.) Worse, overconfidence led to Market-Garden's biggest weakness -- a schedule so rigid that it did not take into account bad weather, blown bridges, traffic jams, and stiff enemy resistance...factors that cropped up from the first day.

A Bridge Too Far is a sequel, of sorts, to Darryl F. Zanuck's 1962 D-Day epic The Longest Day, and both movies have much in common. Both are presented in semi-documentary style, although A Bridge Too Far is in color and only locations are identified rather than historical characters. (The matter of location identification is important, but I'll discuss that issue later.) And of course, both are based on Cornelius Ryan's best-selling non-fiction books about the Allied liberation of Europe. (There is a third book, The Last Battle -- about the fall of Berlin --, which I believe was slated for production in the mid-1960s but either never made or released.) Yet one became a popular box-office hit and a classic of the genre while the other withered away in theaters.

Consider this. In the film's second act, the British paratroopers near and in Arnhem are surrounded by the Germans and running out of food, medical supplies, and ammunition. Bad weather has prevented resupply air lifts from taking off from England. The radios, which worked fine in North Africa and other dry climates, are worthless in water-logged and heavily wooded Holland. The Garden forces are behind schedule due to a blown bridge, German shelling of the single road, and tactical mistakes by Allied commanders. This delay is allowing the Germans to overrun the British drop zones, and without radio links to the Royal Air Force, the C-47s that do make it to Arnhem are dropping supply bundles to the enemy.

Here, writer Goldman has set up one of the most poignant moments of the film, made even more tragic because it really did happen: A young British paratrooper spies a supply canister falling from the sky just outside the 1st Airborne's perimeter. He knows German soldiers are in the woods beyond, yet he hopes he can reach the heavy canister and retrieve it and its precious contents.

He runs pell-mell toward the canister. One of his buddies says, "He'll never make it. The bleedin' snipers'll get him." But as he reaches the canister, removes it from its parachute harness, and manages to lift it to his shoulders, the mood of the others is suddenly more optimistic. Encouraged by his success, the "lads" cheer him on and urge him to run faster.

But just when the onlookers (both on screen and in the audience) think the young paratrooper is safe, a single shot pierces the silence and a bullet strikes him dead. Worse, the canister falls to the ground, breaks open....and reveals that the cargo wasn't food, medicine, or ammo, but a shipment of the British Airborne's distinctive Red Berets.

As a World War II buff, I found this film so compelling when it first came out in theaters that I saw it twice, the first film I had ever liked so much that I was willing to pay two tickets' worth. It is magnificently shot by the late Geoffrey Unsworth (Superman: The Movie) and has one of the most stirring musical scores of its genre (composed by John Addison). It is, despite having to rely on some Hollywood conventions (Elliott Gould's character, Col. Bobby Stout is a fictional composite of various American regimental commanders) and cinematic shorthand, one of the more accurate recreations of a historical battle. It is violent and not very triumphant, to be sure, but by today's standards it is not as gory as, say, Saving Private Ryan or We Were Soldiers.

(Quality wise, it's better than The Longest Day, since it avoids the "rah-rah-we-are-the-good-guys" spirit that permeates the 1962 film, and is more accurate than Jack Smight's dreadful all-star bomb Midway.) The casting choices were good (Ryan O'Neal, never one of my favorite actors, at least looks a heckuva lot like Gen. Jim Gavin!) and no one star dominates the film, which is amazing considering that these were A-list actors (except maybe Gould, whose star was waning after his M*A*S*H heyday) of the time.

Lt. General Frederick "Boy" Browning: Hello, Roy. How are you?
Maj. General Roy Urquhart: I'm not sure I'll know for a while. But I'm sorry about how it turned out.
Lt. General Frederick "Boy" Browning: You did all you could.
Maj. General Roy Urquhart: Yes, but did everyone else?
Lt. General Frederick "Boy" Browning: They've got a bed for you upstairs if you want it.
Maj. General Roy Urquhart: I took ten thousand men into Arnhem. I've come out with less than two. I don't feel much like sleeping.


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I have owned this movie in two formats, VHS full-screen and wide screen DVD. I prefer the 1998/2005 MGM DVDs to videotape because the older format's picture aspect actually gives the viewer less of the film than the wide screen format (which is how the movie was shot and exhibited at the theaters). The DVD version not only corrects some spelling mistakes in the subtitles (yes, all the Germans and Dutch characters speak in their native languages) but also includes the location identifiers I mentioned earlier, which the VHS version (full screen edit) lacks. Market-Garden took place over a large part of Holland, so it's essential for the viewer to know where certain events are taking place.

In 2005, Sony Home Entertainment and MGM released a 2-disk Collector's set that includes the following extra features:

2-Disc Keep Case, Widescreen , 2.35:1, Closed Captioned, Color

DVD Features: Subtitles: English, French, Audio Track 1: English, Dolby Digital 5.1, Audio Track 2: English, Dolby Digital 2.1 Surround, Audio Track 3: French, Dolby Digital 5.1, Audio Track 4: Commentary by Screenwriter William Goldman and key crew members


Major Cast:

Dirk Bogarde .... Lt. Gen. Browning
James Caan .... SSgt. Eddie Dohun
Michael Caine .... Lt. Col. J.O.E. Vandeleur
Sean Connery .... Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart
Edward Fox .... Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks
Elliott Gould .... Col. Robert Stout
Gene Hackman .... Maj. Gen. Stanislaw Sosabowski
Anthony Hopkins .... Lt. Col. John Frost
Hardy Krüger .... Maj. Gen. Ludwig
Ryan O'Neal .... Brig. Gen. James Gavin
Laurence Olivier .... Dr. Jan Spaander
Robert Redford .... Maj. Julian Cook
Maximilian Schell .... Lt. Gen. Wilhelm Bittrich
Liv Ullmann .... Kate Ter Horst


Recommend this product? Yes

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