A Bridge Too Far
Dir. Richard Attenborough
Premiered June 15, 1977
If some of the scenes in A Bridge Too Far look familiar, it’s because you’ve seen them somewhere else: two episodes of 2001’s classic miniseries Band of Brothers cover much of the same ground, albeit from a very different point of view, because the overall scope of the real-life invasion of Holland requires a breadth of action and character that is most fit for the big screen.
The film opens in 1944. The Allies have liberated France, and General Montgomery is planning an even larger airborne assault than D-Day several months earlier. Believing the German forces in the Netherlands to be mostly “old men and boys,” Montgomery has ordered the deployment of three Airborne divisions to land in three major cities along a single road in the southern Netherlands, each of which is on a strategic river crossing. If the Allies can capture Arnhem, on the Rhine, they can easily capture the west German industrial heartland known as the Ruhr and end the war by Christmas.
The 101st Airborne, led by General Taylor (Paul Maxwell) capture Eindhoven and build a bailey bridge for General Horrocks’ (Edward Fox) and Colonel Vandeleur’s (Michael Caine) tank corps coming up from Belgium. Further north, the 82nd Airborne under General Gavin (Ryan O’Neal) captures Nijmegen, where a bold and deadly river crossing by Major Cook (Robert Redford) is able to capture the bridge there.
But it’s Arnhem, the most important site of all, where the trouble is. Led by General Urquart (Sean Connery), the British paratroopers face unexpected resistance. Anticipating a much fiercer attack from the unseen American General George Patton, the German command has sent two SS Panzer divisions under General Bittrich (Maximilian Schell) to hold the bridge there– a fact known to Dutch Resistance and British recon airmen, but variously doubted and ignored by the higher-ups. Surrounded and losing territory fast, without properly functioning radio, it is up to Urquart and his deputy Col. Frost (Anthony Hopkins) to hold on until reinforcements can arrive.
A Bridge Too Far was the most expensive movie of 1977, and you can tell in all the right ways. The amount of dedication to detail is in every frame, from the sets and locations (many of them where the battles were really fought), to the vehicles, costumes, and special effects. Perhaps most noticeable is the film’s expansive cast, which in addition to those already mentioned includes James Caan, Elliott Gould, Gene Hackman, and Laurence Olivier. This star-studdedness manages to go past the point of distraction to pure delight.
Presiding over it all is director Richard Attenborough, who brings together a perfect mix of Old Hollywood scale, New Hollywood realism, and Blockbuster era production values. As the men’s quarters become more claustrophobic, so to does the camera; and though it thoroughly depicts the horrors of the war (having chosen to depict a famous allied defeat makes that easier than usual), it never ceases to thrill the senses. A Bridge Too Far may not be the best film of 1977– though it’s way up there– but it’s certainly the biggest.
Signs This Was Made in 1977
Several of the generals involved in the operation were technical consultants on the film.
How Did It Do?
Budgeted at $26 million, A Bridge Too Far was the most expensive film of 1977, and came surprisingly close to breaking even (factoring in marketing costs), grossing $50.8 million. Though not a huge sum by today’s standards, even factoring in inflation, it was enough to make it the 7th highest-grossing movie of the year. Critics at the time were oddly cool toward it, and it received no Academy Award nominations; it’s been theorized that this is due to the depiction of a failure on the part of the Allies. This explanation seems inadequate, though I have no better answer.
Next Time: Grand Theft Auto