War on Film: A Bridge Too Far

8 mins read

Taylor Downing reviews a classic war movie

A Bridge Too Far (1977)
A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Making an international, big-budget, action movie about Operation Market Garden was never going to be easy. To start with, the operation was a failure and does not have the feel-good factor of, say, The Longest Day.

Second, although the story of Monty’s ambitious gamble is well known in Britain, it is not well known in America or much of the rest of the world.

Third, to demonstrate the scale of the action – the biggest airborne assault in history – requires vast resources of men, aircraft, and armour.

Finally, the focus of the action is the battle for the bridge at Arnhem, but in the 1970s there was only one location that could possibly be used for filming: Deventer in Holland. The vast film crew of nearly 300 people would all have to be located in Holland for much of the filming.

All in all, it would need a man with a big vision and powerful fundraising powers to make it happen.

‘Million dollar hour’

Joseph E Levine revolutionised the film-making process. Coming from a slum in Boston, Massachusetts, he developed an ability to turn a profit at whatever he set his mind to. He came to film-making relatively late, in his 40s.

An outsider to the Hollywood system, he would raise money by pitching ideas to distributors and raising advances from them that funded not only production costs but also a huge marketing campaign to publicise and promote his movies, which thus always needed big stars.

In the 1960s, he brought Sophia Loren to America in the film Two Women (Vittorio De Sica, 1960). He put her on TV shows, arranged for her to do interviews and photo shoots, and she ended up winning an Academy Award.

In 1974, Levine bought the film rights for Cornelius Ryan’s book, A Bridge Too Far. He appointed Richard Attenborough as directorand William Goldman as screenwriter.

Attenborough was a top name in British cinema, having been a star since his teenage years. He had directed Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), a powerful anti-war film, and Young Winston (1972). He was known to be a safe pair of hands, and had an ambition to revive the British film industry from the doldrums.

William Goldman was equally well established, with a long track record. His screenwriting credits included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), for which he won an Academy Award, and All the President’s Men (1976). He was used to adapting books into screenplays.

Levine then set about doing what he did best. He assembled an all-star cast, with 14 A-list celebrities agreeing to appear, from Sean Connery and Michael Caine to Gene Hackman and Robert Redford.

Levine then sold the project to distributors around the world. By the time the film went into production, he had raised $4 million more than the production budget. As long as production was completed on schedule and on budget, he already had his profit.

Filming lasted for six months across the spring and summer of 1976. Levine put great pressure on Attenborough to keep on schedule for what proved to be a complicated shoot, best illustrated by what became known
as the ‘Million Dollar Hour’.

The Dutch authorities only permitted the crew one hour to film a crucial scene by closing the actual Nijmegen Bridge from 9am to 10am one Sunday morning, 3 October. In the scene, Robert Redford leads the survivors of the 504th Regiment of the 82nd Airborne, who have crossed the Waal river. They must storm the bridge and overwhelm German snipers hiding in the bridge’s ironwork.

If the unit did not get all the shots in the can in that hour, the cost of keeping Redford plus all the others and the entire crew in Holland until the following Sunday morning would have been at least a million dollars. Attenborough got everything he wanted in that hour, and brought the full film in on schedule and slightly under budget.

Brew-up and bridges

The film is epic in every sense, and runs for nearly three hours. It is best remembered today for some of its spectacular para jumping scenes. Attenborough had visited the Imperial War Museum and watched actual footage of the giant air armada, which he tried to recreate.

This was done very effectively using special effects and making clever use of the 11 C-47 Dakotas they actually had. The scenes of the British 1st Airborne Division using gliders were even more challenging, as no Horsa gliders survived. Ten replicas had to be built, many of which were damaged on the ground in a storm.

The film conveys the strategy of Market Garden clearly. Monty (who does not appear) has a plan to finish the war by Christmas, using a giant airborne assault, before his rival Patton can strike into Germany.

General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning (Dirk Bogarde) is delighted with the plan. He had been a great champion of the use of airborne troops since the first parachute units were formed in the British Army on Churchill’s insistence in 1941.

This was his moment, and he was not going to let anything get in its way. So he ignores the evidence from the Dutch resistance and from aerial photography that two Panzer divisions are resting up in the woods around Arnhem.

Robert Redford as Major Cook in A Bridge Too Far.
Robert Redford as Major Cook in A Bridge Too Far.

The plan is for the American 101st, the ‘Screaming Eagles’, to seize the bridges at Eindhoven. The 82nd Airborne, the ‘All American’, led by General Gavin (Ryan O’Neal) are to capture the bridges at Nijmegen, and the British 1st Airborne, the ‘Red Devils’, led by Major-General Roy Urquhart (Sean Connery) will capture the bridge at Arnhem, supported by the Polish 1st Brigade led by General Sosabowski (Gene Hackman).

XXX Corps, led by Lieutenant- General Brian Horrocks (Edward Fox), will drive up the road linking the bridges and relieve the British at Arnhem after just two days. At the forefront of his operation will be the Irish Guards, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Vandeleur (Michael Caine).

Several themes emerge. The British are cocky and confident. This is the last big operation of the war in which the British will play the major role. Horrocks tells his officers, ‘This is a story you will tell your grandchildren – and they will be mightily bored by it!’ British officers are constantly talking about turning up for the ‘party’. They believe they will only be up against Hitler Youth and ‘old men on bicycles’. Goldman captures well a laid-back form of British arrogance in his script.

The Americans and the Poles are, in general, more sceptical about the operation. In particular, they are very critical of how slow XXX Corps are at advancing up the single road that links the bridges.

After Major Cook (Robert Redford) has led his men to capture Nijmegen bridge and opens up the final route to Arnhem, he finds the British tanks have halted and are parked for a brew-up. He is furious and shouts at the British tank commander, ‘You can’t just stop here and drink tea!’ The commander replies that he has orders not to go forward without the infantry and they have not turned up. More valuable time is lost.

The scenes around Arnhem are well done. Many of the jeeps are wrecked in the gliders on landing. The radios do not work. Nevertheless, 2nd Para is led by the hero from the 1942 Bruneval Raid, Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost (Anthony Hopkins). He is again supremely confident, telling his batman to pack his golf clubs and his dinner suit.

His battalion occupies the north end of the bridge, but SS troops are at the other end and a series of fierce engagements follow as they await the
arrival of XXX Corps. Eventually, the SS troops, who cannot dislodge them, decide to flatten Arnhem and send in their heavy armour.

Slowly, as the days pass, cut off from the rest of the paras who cannot fight their way to the bridge, the situation becomes hopeless. About 2,000 British paras finally escaped across the Rhine. Another 8,000 were killed, wounded, or ended up in captivity. But the Brits are always depicted as good losers: as the wounded finally surrender, the men softly sing ‘Abide With Me’.

The Germans are conveyed, as they usually were in British films of the period, as rigid, stiff, and rather pompous. They are all in awe of their commanders Field Marshal von Rundstedt (Wolfgang Preiss) and Field Marshal Model (Walter Kohut), who thinks he is so important that the para-drop is merely an attempt to kidnap him.

Sean Connery as Major-General Roy Urquhart in A Bridge Too Far.
Sean Connery as Major-General Roy Urquhart in A Bridge Too Far.

Interestingly, the commander of the 10th SS Panzer Division, Heinz Harmel, who was living in the Federal Republic at the time, did not want to be mentioned in the film. His name was changed to Karl Ludwig (Hardy Krüger). But at least they are played by German actors and speak in German.

The Americans display great heroism in the field. At one point, Sergeant Dohun (James Caan) drives his wounded captain through German lines to get him to a field dressing station, then threatens the surgeon with a gun, telling him to treat the officer next.

The film-makers claimed to be accurate in their portrayal of events. Some of those who had taken part were contracted as consultants. Colonel John Frost was initially horrified at seeing Anthony Perkins playing him, and thought the script skated over the true heroism of some of his men at Arnhem. On the few times he was on set, he occasionally intervened to make a shot look more realistic, like when he told Perkins not to run so fast when crossing a road under sniper fire: ‘You have to show the Germans and your own men your contempt for danger.’ In the end, however, Frost became an admirer of the film.

Flawed narrative

Certainly, the film captures the wretchedness of the British paras as they hold out for day after day in their tiny enclaves around Arnhem. But much of the action is unconvincing and the combat scenes are clichéd in the extreme.

There is, however, some excellent Second Unit filming that captures many details like, for instance, the para’s jump cords rattling as they leave the C-47s, or the tracks of the Shermans as the tanks start up. These are little details that are rarely seen in big-budget movies.

The presence of the stars in Bridge obviously brought audiences into cinemas. But it is also a major burden. Goldman has written that the real heroes of the daylight crossing of the Waal river at Nijmegen by the US 82nd Airborne were the second wave, who watched the first being slaughtered but then still got into the flimsy little boats and went forward into German fire. However, as Robert Redford was in the first wave, there was no way his heroism could be upstaged by men who came next.

Most of the stars in Bridge are not convincing as senior army commanders. Sean Connery and Michael Caine seem very matey. And although Ryan O’Neal was the same age as General Gavin, he comes across as far too young and with none of the charisma that surrounded a remarkable leader like Gavin. It looks rather as though O’Neal turned up just to collect his pay cheque.

Only Dirk Bogarde is reasonably convincing as Browning, a confident man who comes to doubt the possibility of success. Overall the film is far too top-heavy, becoming a vehicle for its stars rather than an assessment of what went wrong.

Comparisons are often made between Bridge and Theirs is the Glory, a low-cost British feature film made the year after the war (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1946). The contrast between the two films could not be greater.

There are no major stars in Glory. It was shot almost entirely in the actual locations where events had taken place, and features many of the paratroopers who had taken part in the battle, several of whom had only just got back home from captivity.

Original footage shot by the Army Film and Photographic Unit was used in what today would be called a drama-documentary. It also features Stanley Maxted, the BBC reporter embedded with the paras who recorded radio reports under gunfire, playing himself. This film, to modern eyes, is a little slow in places but has an authenticity way beyond anything in Bridge.

Despite the concern of the filmmakers to be accurate, A Bridge Too Far is a deeply flawed movie. Its para-jumping scenes are superb, but otherwise it is clichéd in its depiction of events, and Levine’s determination to pack it with stars, instead of being its great strength, is its greatest weakness. Readers would be better off viewing the original 1946 depiction of events.

This article was published in the August 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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