Operation Market Garden is an intriguing choice to use as the basis for a World War II film. This isn't an uplifting story about pluck and determination overcoming impossible odds. There are no sweeping strings or celebratory fireworks bursting in the night sky just before the end credits make their upward crawl. This isn't a tale where the losses may be catastrophic but are necessary to the ultimate success of of the campaign...where the ends justified the means. No, A Bridge Too Far is a story where every worst case scenario envisioned came to pass and then some. I don't want to linger too long on the ultimate outcome of Operation Market Garden, well-documented though it may be, but this is a bleak story, and I appreciate the fact that director Richard Attenborough and company were willing to seek courage and heroism outside of the usual rousing victories. A Bridge Too Far has no interest in romanticizing the horrors of war. This is a deeply critical film that doesn't hesitate to cynically sneer at the arrogant gloryhounds it blames for the toll Operation Market Garden took.
A Bridge Too Far benefits greatly from an outstanding cast, including turns by Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, James Caan, Elliott Gould, Robert Redford, Maximilian Schell, Denholm Elliott, Ryan O'Neal, and Laurence Olivier. This is a film with such a sprawling cast that it can't leisurely establish every last one of its characters, so it's essential that they make an immediate impression...that the performances define the characters rather than rambling exposition or random subplots. A Bridge Too Far juggles an enormous cast carrying out separate missions many miles apart, and the film does a remarkable job of preventing any one of them from getting too lost in the shuffle or becoming indistinguishable from one another. That's not to say every performance is pitch-perfect -- Gene Hackman adopting a clunky Polish accent doesn't work particularly well, for instance -- but they're among the most effective and economical aspects of the movie.
This is a film with a slew of outstanding sequences. The sight of hundreds upon hundreds of paratroopers littering the afternoon sky is astonishing, and the use of P.O.V. shots adds a sense of immersion that makes them especially effective. One memorable scene follows an overeager soldier darting out to retrieve a package from a drop point overrun by Germans. The combination of ecstatic joy, horror, and futility that follows essentially sums up Operation Market Garden as a whole. Crossing a river in a daylight run doomed for failure, Sergeant Dohun's commander slowly bleeding to death from a bullet to the head while his Jeep is trapped in a forest teeming with German soldiers, the initial ambush before the first of the bridges can be taken, one destructive assault claiming thousands of lives after another...so many of these scenes are simultaneously thrilling and haunting.
A Bridge Too Far shouldn't be mistaken for an action film, though, and its three hour length can be rather daunting. Because of the film's emphasis on discussing tactics at length, its disinterest in distilling this enormous operation down to one leg of the campaign or using it as a backdrop to a more traditional dramatic plot, and its determination to cover every last aspect of its planning and execution, the film's pace is slow and deliberate. Operation Market Garden demands this approach; this is a story that can't be conveyed through twelve minutes of backstory and a parade of harrowing battles. A Bridge Too Far wants viewers to know things are certain to go catastrophically wrong well before they actually do. Its goal is for the audience to understand how things veered so far off course...to see the human element behind this series of gross miscalculations without oversimplifying it to good guys in white hats versus the evil, evil Germans. A Bridge Too Far can be a very slow moving, contemplative movie, and I'd imagine it's the sort that's better appreciated with a second viewing. This is certainly not a film for everyone, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear that A Bridge Too Far polarized audiences when it was first released thirty years ago.
I can't quite say that I enjoy A Bridge Too Far, but in a way, that's rather the point. So many of my favorite World War II films -- even the ones with grim, downbeat endings -- tend to be personality-driven. That's not the sort of movie A Bridge Too Far aims to be. War isn't a collection of harrowing but ultimately buoyant, uplifting stories. It can't reasonably even be called a war unless each side suffers heavy losses, and sometimes, those casualties can't be wholly attributed to the enemy. A Bridge Too Far isn't a story many are likely to want to hear, but war is a series of victories and defeats, and both deserve to be explored. The film's challenging pace and ambitious scope are certain to keep many viewers at arm's length, and it's certainly not a nostalgic burst of patriotic glory. I've spent hours mulling over A Bridge Too Far, and few movies prompt that sort of internal debate in me. No matter which side of the coin A Bridge Too Far falls for any given viewer, this is a movie certain to spark discussion and provoke some sort of strong reaction, and I respect that.
Video: A Bridge Too Far is presented on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc with presumably the same MPEG-2 encode as last year's Japanese release. The film's soft, diffused, and intermittently grainy photography certainly isn't unusual for a film produced in the mid-to-late '70s, but it doesn't make for the most instantly dazzling high definition release. There's still a sense of detail and clarity that easily exceeds anything DVD can offer, but viewers should still go in with reasonable expectations. Black levels tend to be weak and noisy, particularly in darker interiors, and contrast remains drab and flat throughout. Its palette is cold and muted, an aesthetic that suits the tone of the movie. Small flecks of dust are frequently visible, and even though they're too few in number to really distract, it doesn't look as if as much effort went into polishing A Bridge Too Far in high definition compared to some of the other WWII films in this wave of Blu-ray discs. This is an adequate presentation, meeting my expectations for a film with this sort of visual style but not exceeding them.
A Bridge Too Far is presented in scope throughout the film proper, although its end credits are curiously pillarboxed.
Audio: A Bridge Too Far features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track, but this is a fairly restrained 5.1 remix, so much so that it's barely distinguishable from stereo. The rear channels are scarcely used at all, reinforcing the score with a handful of other sounds occasionally bleeding through but otherwise lying dormant. Even in the most chaotic battle sequences, the action is entirely anchored across the front speakers. Considering the sheer scope of this campaign and how naturally its setting lends itself to some sort of multichannel atmosphere -- the disorientation of skulking through the crumbling skeleton of a town teeming with snipers, for instance -- the timidity of this remix comes as somewhat of a disappointment. Otherwise, the audio is fine, if still somewhat unremarkable. Dialogue is generally clean and clear, though it's just a touch lower in the mix than I would've preferred. The score by John Addison -- himself a veteran of Operation Market Garden -- is rendered wonderfully, and the machine guns and heavy artillery are accompanied by a throaty low-frequency rumble. None of these elements impress in quite the way that Battle of Britain does, and the film's age does shine through, but it's certainly passable.
The alternate Dolby Digital 4.0 soundtrack is also fairly timid, lacking the robust presence of the lossless audio and similarly shrugging off the rear channels. Other audio options include a 5.1 French dub, a monaural Spanish track, and subtitle streams in English, Spanish, Korean, and Cantonese. The Dutch and German dialogue throughout the film is accompanied by player-generated English subtitles by default.
Extras: Once again, virtually every last one of the extras from the two-disc DVD set has been discarded, among them an audio commentary, a 45 minute documentary comparing A Bridge Too Far to the real-life operation, a trivia track, a photo gallery, and a half hour's worth of featurettes. No, the extras on this Blu-ray disc are limited to a handful of trailers: one for A Bridge Too Far itself along with trailers for Platoon, Flyboys, and Windtalkers. All four appear to be encoded in 1080p, although all but Flyboys are so soft and grainy that they're difficult to distinguish from upscaled standard definition.
Conclusion: A Bridge Too Far isn't a war film for the impatient, although the near-total lack of extras and excessive price tag would likely already have scared off all but the movie's most ardent fans. Owners of the current two-disc collector's edition may want to rent this Blu-ray disc first to judge whether or not it warrants an upgrade: its lossless audio is fairly bland, and the MPEG-2 video is adequate but unexceptional. I have a great deal of respect for A Bridge Too Far, but it's a divisive film, and I'd suggest that those who haven't seen it before wait for a steep drop in price or opt for a rental instead. Recommended, but I would suggest that the uninitiated rent it first.
Related Reviews: If you'd like a second opinion, Stuart Galbraith IV has written a very enthusiastic review of the Japanese Blu-ray release, giving it DVD Talk's highest recommendation.