It’s easy to make a war film that celebrates victory, but I can’t say the same about making a film that tells the story of an overwhelming defeat. Film history is sort of lacking in movie that tell the story of missions or operations that have gone terribly wrong. Arguably, one of the most notorious failures was Operation Market Garden, which happened after D-Day as World War II was coming to a close. Director Richard Attenborough and screenwriter William Goldman took Cornelius Ryan’s in depth book examining the loss and turned it into the grand World War II epic, A Bridge Too Far.
On September 17, 1944, Operation Market Garden was put into effect by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The plan was to drop 35,000 men behind enemy lines and secure a series of bridges so that ground forces could cross them on the way to liberate Arnhem. After only a few days of preparation, the mission began and things soon begin to go very wrong. This film follows different people through different locations and problems, among them being Staff Sgt. Eddie Dohun (James Caan), Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart (Sean Connery), and Lt. Col. John Frost (Anthony Hopkins). As the mission drags on a lot longer than it should have, supplies begin to run low and more soldiers fall victim to the desperate Nazi soldiers.
This films may be one of the most “star studded” movies I’ve ever seen. I almost can’t believe how many people they got to sign on this project. I’ve already mentioned James Caan, Sean Connery, and Anthony Hopkins but the list doesn’t end there. A Bridge Too Far also features Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, Elliot Gould, Ryan O’Neal, Michael Caine, Maximilian Schell, and Laurence Olivier. With a cast like this, you would expect a lot of really emotional and hard hitting performances, but in this case you would be wrong. Sure, the acting is great, but A Bridge Too Far is far from being an emotional powerhouse. In fact, save for a few scenes, this is a pretty cold and objective look at Market Garden.
With this huge amount of actors, it’s pretty obvious that there’s also a huge cast of characters. There’s British soldiers, American soldiers, and Polish soldiers to keep track of along with a couple of scenes of important Nazi soldiers. There came a point in the movie where someone was asking about how others were doing, and I didn’t know who they were talking about. I still have a hard time remembering who was who. I don’t think that’s really my fault either because so much is crammed into this movie. Even at 3 hours long, I felt like it could have gone on for even longer since some of the characters never really got their story arc fully realized. That’s part of the reason why I say this is a very cold war movie rather than an emotionally intense one.
Now while this is a pretty detached move doesn’t mean it doesn’t get pretty wild. There are scenes in this movie that are some of the coolest I’ve seen in a war movie because they feel huge and are executed with perfection. One scene in particular shows the thousands of men being dropped out of gliders, with some of them being show from a first person perspective. There’s also no music playing during this part which makes it extra effective. Some other great scenes include the air force bombing Nazi forces entrenched in a forested area and the nail biting assault on Nijmegen Bridge. There is unfortunately a lot of down time between some of the other better scenes, which often makes everything feel uneven at times.
A Bridge Too Far certainly can’t be called the best World War II film ever made due to some of its glaring issues with character and pacing. There’s so much stuffed into this movie, there really was no way to give every event or character a chance to develop fully without making this some sort of miniseries. Still, there are plenty of scenes that stand out as something truly special. The scale of this movie is large enough to fit the shoes of such a military blunder as Market Garden. If anything, this movie should still be viewed to get an interesting look at history and also for its extraordinary cast.