Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant once had petty prejudices against A Bridge Too Far, which I remember being a favorite of the war-movie specialists who worked on 1941. Although lavishly mounted, I had complaints about the film's tone, which at the time seemed too insistent on maudlin, heart-tugging effects.
I've almost completely reversed my opinion, in that the story told in A Bridge Too Far now seems so ambitious compared to movies made in the last twenty years or so. The film is a daring attempt to make the anti - The Longest Day (from the same author), and is definitely not a feel-good movie about war. This time around the ending is not a glorious victory celebration. No studio would have dared touch such a risky project. Big films made in peacetime about catastrophic military defeats -- Tora! Tora! Tora! and Zulu Dawn -- tended not to become blockbusters. Producer Joseph E. Levine was the last of the high-rolling independent wildcats like Samuel Bronston and Sam Spiegel and took a lot of the risk himself, yet was so masterful at pre-sales that he landed in profit before the movie opened.
This Collector's Edition DVD has been delayed in region 2 for over three years (see the Savant review for Battle of Britain for Savant's explanation of why) but was worth the wait, as the added extras will be a treat for any war movie fan or battle buff seeking to re-wage the disastrous campaign.
Allied command green-lights Field Marshall Montgomery's Market-Garden plan, which starts with a drop of thousands of paratroops to secure a string of bridges on the road between Belgium and Holland. When a massive tank column pours into the lightly-defended German-held territory, Holland will be liberated and the road to Germany's Rhone valley will be open. The hasty plan overlooks a host of drawbacks, including intelligence that the Holland area targeted is not as weakly defended as first thought. Engineers struggle to rebuild temporary bridges to replace those dynamited by the Germans, and the paratroops dropped into the final target town Arnhem are soon cut off, fighting not to secure bridges, but to stay alive. Then the supposedly swift advance by the followup tank corps repeatedly stalls, until a planned three-day dash becomes a nine-day ordeal.
With ace scenarist William Goldman at the typewriter and a dozen top stars enlisted to play main roles, Joseph E. Levine's mega-bucks war picture was as risky as a real wartime operation. To direct he found a reliable man in ex-actor Richard Attenborough, the maker of one fascinating but floppo pacifist musical about WW1 (Oh, What a Lovely War!) and an adventure-biography of Winston Churchill (Young Winston) that did almost as badly. As great art A Bridge Too Far probably doesn't make the mark, as at least 80% of the picture is elaborate second unit work, all high in production value but sometimes less than inspired -- some of the battles are so lovingly photographed that they undermine the stated mission of making an anti-war picture. But Attenborough is great with his actors, who almost overcome the stigma of being movie stars in cameo roles. No matter how bad the odds, we subconsciously wonder why Sean Connery's paratroop commander doesn't lead his men to success.
Connery is fine but other actors make even better impressions. Leading the pack is Anthony Hopkins' sober and thoughtful commander, an unassuming fellow who shows superhuman resilience in a near-hopeless situation. Other British actors give unforgettable first-impression performances. Edward Fox is perfect as the 'jolly good' tank commander that delivers the morale boosting speech that launches the ground assault, and Michael Caine is dependable as the Irish tank corps commander stuck on a stalled juggernaut that refuses to budge.
The Americans are chosen for star-power and are a little more hit and miss. Robert Redford was the deal-making big name for Levine's project, and he's solid as a composite Major given the worst possible suicide mission. James Caan is also in the Sgt. Rock class as a Sergeant who keeps a promise to guarantee an officer's survival. Elliott Gould is amusing and colorful as a cigar chomping engineer. Ryan O'Neal tries to be a hard-bitten tough guy, but comes across as wooden.
Sweetening the deal are Laurence Olivier and Liv Ullmann as Dutch nationals coping with the utter destruction of Arnhem and the mounting casualties. All the best German actors who ever played generals are here (speaking their proper language): Maximillian Schell, Hardy Kruger and Savant favorite Wolfgang Preiss.
About 90% of the complicated story comes across as clear as a bell. We're apprised of the monumental logistical challenges and how poorly some of them were addressed. Communications problems were not taken into account, and optimism tantamount to negligence led to the campaign being launched without contingency plans should things go wrong. Unless one is obsessed with winning, watching Market-Garden crumble into a shambles is a fascinating experience. Only when the battle winds down does the movie seem to drop the ball. We've just watched 170 minutes of agonizing sacrifice, and to see four glum commanders declare the plan a failure and give up just a mile from their goal is horribly frustrating. Perhaps Savant has been asleep at the switch for five viewings over twenty years, but I never exactly get what stopped the Allied advance ... when last we looked, they'd passed the last bridge and only had to put forth one final effort to rescue the thousands of men who trusted them --- and achieve their objective as well. One commander even says as much.
That's not how history turned out, but A Bridge Too Far succeeds in doing everything but letting us in on the Why. It should be noted that the Dirk Bogarde character is set up to take all the flak from other generals and behave as if he alone were responsible for ignoring the danger signals before the attack was launched, whereas the architect of the campaign, Field Marshall Montgomery, isn't even represented except in some opening newsfilm. I suspect the entire truth is just not being told to avoid 'irrelevant' controversy. 2 A half-baked history buff like Savant thinks in emotional terms --- as if Market-Garden could have liberated Anne Frank, who had actually been siezed from hiding in Amsterdam a month earlier.
A Bridge Too Far also swings heavily into a pacifist agenda in its second half, making and re-making the point that all the death and suffering we see is appallingly useless. Liv Ullmann's house becomes a makeshift triage center and Attenborough's camera goes in for frequent 'telling' details that highlight the futility. Mawkish visuals show up that remind us of the shallow-focus red roses of death in Oh, What a Lovely War!. The camera roams around the wounded in Ullman's living room, practically telling us to reach for our hankies. The grim truth of a Dutch resistance fighter placing his dead son's body on a barricade is undercut by a visually lame telephoto focus-pull to the machine gun on an advancing German tank. Wounded soldiers on a hospital lawn play music and 'linger' photogenically. All these episodes are true, but Attenborough's heavy hand makes us resent them. The worst bit is an extended scene in which a brave soldier makes a dash for an airdrop cannister lying under the sights of German guns. He doesn't make it, even though his buddies are cheering him on. The situation seems absurd because Attenborough's choice of angles makes it look as if the German guns should be able to cut down the cheering section as well.
Sony's Collector's Edition DVD of A Bridge Too Far has the same stunning, clean, enhanced transfer that appeared on the earlier disc. The extras are a war-movie buff's dream. An elaborate cable docu comparing the movie to the real battle spells out the campaign in even clearer terms, and provides an excellent account of producer Levine's quest to make one final giant show before retiring for good. Another lengthy featurette has extensive interviews with veterans of the campaign and will be of interest to armchair generals seeking vivid first-hand details from personal memories. A special interview with director Attenborough is a good idea that lets him go on a bit too long on several subjects and tends to be redundant. He makes a general anti-war plea at the end that's clearly aware of modern tensions at the Millennium, disapproving of the eagerness to start wars as if they were a positive option.
There is an extensive behind-the-scenes photo gallery, but Savant's favorite extras are on disc one with the feature. William Goldman's commentary (with an assist from crew members and guest experts) is good, but the Trivia Track feature is sensational. I fell in love with this text-balloon concept several years ago on Mad Max and think it's a great way to impart tons of details and tangential information, even better than a commentary might do. Let's face it, if you're a fan of you've probably seen this picture several times, and the Trivia Track makes it easy to sit through it again to take in all the cool bits of knowledge, offered as they become relevant to the action on screen. The detail on the battle and the real officers represented onscreen are as good as one might find in an authoritative book, and far more accessible. This track pays special attention to deviations from the absoute truth of history and ends up demonstrating just how incredibly accurate the film is. A highly, highly recommended feature.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Bridge Too Far Collector's Edition rates:
Supplements: Commentary, Trivia track, TV documentary, two new featurettes including director interview, Photo Gallery
Packaging: Two discs in Keep case
Reviewed: November 4, 2005
1. This is sort of a Sony-MGM joint venture disc, but as all MGM Home Video Operations are presently overseen by Sony and disclaimers on the discs no longer mention MGM, I'm going to just start calling them Sony discs and drop the pretense.
2. One extra that could not be included is a United Artists - produced making of TV show done when the film was new. It showed all four of the key British generals, including the oft-blamed General Horrocks as guests of the filming, drinking tea and enjoying the re-creation of a mass parachute drop. At the end of A Bridge Too Far we really want these bozos to be put up against a wall and shot, and here they are thirty years later talking about the worst fiasco of the war as if it was a bad patch in a lwinning Rugby season. The fact is that battles like Market-Garden are forever being re-fought and basic facts and the blame are always in dispute. Perhaps the conclusion seems so fuzzy because of a reticence to choose a point of view and start pointing fingers. Can someone more knowledgeable than Savant clear some of this up?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.