'A Bridge Too Far' is the name of a book, and of a film based on the book. Both are accounts of Operation Market-Garden
, the first major post-D-Day
operation by the allied forces in WW2. It was an attempt to assault Germany via the Netherlands, a bold operation involving co-ordination between airborne soldiers and a relief force of mechanised infantry. Both components of Market-Garden achieved almost all of their tasks, performing great feats of valour, but it was in vain; the operation was a costly failure. The plan had been devised by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, and was uncharacteristically bold - its use of shock tactics and fast movement brought to mind the biltzkrieg
of four years before. Montgomery's subsequent attempts to paint the operation as a minor success - British casualties were more than twice that of D-Day
three months before - and his refusal to admit defeat or failure were, however, typical of a man who came across as insufferably arrogant.
The book was written by Cornelius Ryan, author of The Longest Day, and published in 1974, posthumously. Ryan had written the book whilst ill with cancer and did not live to see it published. The film was directed by Richard Attenborough and released in 1977. Both the film and book are extremely large and have a cast of thousands, as indeed did Market-Garden itself. Whereas the book is an historically accurate documentary account of the operation, the 180-minute film is inevitably compressed and partially fictionalised, and many of the characters are composites. The film was written by William Goldman, who famous for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride.
Critical consensus is that Ryan's book is a masterpiece, the definitive work on the military operation, written at just the right time; most of the participants were still alive and the fog of war had cleared away. Attenborough's film, however, is muddled due to the fact that Operation Market-Garden involved several large groups of soldiers in different locations conducting interlocking components of a single, complex, grand plan. The film concentrates on spectacle and explosions without fully explaining how the different members of a large, all-star cast relate to each other. Ultimately, it resolves into a series of short vignettes which do not seem to relate to each other; James Caan rescues a captain who we have not met, Robert Redford rides a series of boats across a river, for no obvious reason; Michael Caine leads some tanks along a road, but to where?
Indeed the all-star cast - something shared with the film of 'The Longest Day', in both scope and cost - seemed wasted, as the only actor given enough time to develop a relationship with the audience was Anthony Hopkins who, in 1977, was not yet a major star. The acting itself is variable; most of the players were required to look stoic and determined, Gene Hackman's Polish accent standing out as particularly poor (he mumbles), whilst Elliot Gould seemed to be treating the whole thing as a parody, complete with big cigar. Sean Connery is wasted worst of all; although he looks impressive in his red beret, and radiates screen prescence, he is simply given very little to do. He appears occasionally and delivers almost the last line of the film, but it is never clear why the camera is so interested in him. Of the cast, only Anthony Hopkins was given enough time to gel with the audience, which seemed odd at the time given that Hopkins was not really a 'star', certainly not in the same league as Redford or Connery.
The technical aspects of the film, however, are beyond reproach. A sequence in which hundreds of paratroopers spill from the backs of transport aircraft - achieved for real, with the Dutch army - remains impressive today, and the score is suitably rousing. The 'bridge too far' was filmed on the actual bridge at Arnhem, the real thing.
The cast includesd (!) Sean Connery, Lawrence Olivier, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Robert Redford, James Caan, Elliot Gould, Ryan O'Neal, Dirk Bogarde, Edward Fox, Maximilian Schell, Liv Ullmann, Denholm Elliott, and hundreds and hundreds of extras. The film remains perhaps the last ever 'all-star' vehicle; it was followed later in 1977 by 'Star Wars', which touched off a wave of blockbusters which did not rely on their star power for box office success. By the time movie stars became money-makers again, their salaries had risen so high as to price the 'all-star cast' into the stratosphere.
By a quirk of fate Dirk Bogarde plays General Frederick Browning, under whom he had served in the war. None of the principal cast had fought in Market-Garden, although Terence Young - who directed Sean Connery in the first three Bond films - had commanded a tank on the road to Arnhem. John Ratzenberger has a split-second appearance as an anonymous solider, something he would go on to do in 'The Empire Strikes Back'. Audrey Hepburn was considered for the Liv Ullman role but her salary was too high. In real life she had grown up in Arnhem during the war, and had spent Market-Garden as a starving, frightened girl hiding in a cellar, the malnutrition she suffered permanenmtly affecting her health.