Tuesday, September 7, 2010

DVD Review: A BRIDGE TOO FAR (United Artists, 1977)

Remember my post a while back about the great enjoyment my Dad took in watching war movies? Here's one that I distinctly remember Dad and Mom going to the theater to see, back during the "Star Wars Summer" of 1977. A Bridge Too Far marked the end of an era -- the last truly humongous, star-studded WWII epic on the vast scale of The Longest Day and similar blockbusters of the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. The lavish, Richard Attenborough-helmed, painstakingly-recreated story of the Allies' disastrous "Operation Market Garden" in September 1944 would probably have been a much bigger hit had it come out a decade earlier. Instead, it had the bad fortune of being released (1) in competition with one of the cinema's biggest b.o. triumphs of all time and (2) just a couple of years after the end of the Vietnam War. Some potential viewers were not that interested in seeing a movie where America was on the losing side, others resented the fact that the flick wasn't sufficiently anti-war, and everyone seemed far more interested in Imperial Stormtroopers and amusing robots in any case. My parents, however, both loved the movie, and it's easy to see why. Despite a bewildering number of subplots and a relative paucity of good characterizations -- even those based on real people, many of whom contributed technical information to the making of the film -- the movie holds one's attention for nearly three hours and provides an object lesson in how blunders large and small sunk a promising operation that, when it was dreamed up, was thought to hold the key to winning the war in Europe by the end of 1944.

"Market Garden" -- the brainchild of glory-hungry Field Marshal Montgomery -- was intended to hasten German collapse on the Western front by landing paratroopers in Holland, who would then seize key bridges over the Rhine and, aided by fast-moving columns of infantry, open the path to Germany's industrial heartland. A combination of bad luck (including fog that delayed the dropping of additional supplies to the advance units) and, more to the point, slipshod planning and logistics (intelligence failures, radios that didn't work properly, and unrealistic timetables for moving along narrow roads) left small bands of Allied soldiers at the mercy of an enemy that proved to be better prepared and equipped than anticipated. Bridge focuses in particular on the British paratroopers in Arnhem, under the command of Lt. Col. Frost (Anthony Hopkins), who do their stiff-upper-lip derndest to take the bridge and hold off the advancing Germans but are eventually forced to capitulate. Their commander General Urquhart (a super-stalwart Sean Connery) barely manages to get back to safety, but without 8,000 of the 10,000 troops that began the assault. The Americans, who played a supporting role, come off better on screen, especially the cigar-chomping Col. Stout (Elliott Gould), whose men rebuild a blown bridge in double-quick time, and a sergeant (James Caan) who gets a wounded officer back to the medics against all the odds. This last incident seems to have dropped in from a different movie, bearing more of a resemblance to the closely focused personal stories in Saving Private Ryan than the "big-picture" heroics and follies that constitute most of the on-screen action. Gene Hackman provides an unexpected (and unintentional) note of levity as a Polish colonel with an hilariously bad accent. (To be fair to Gene, however, he probably was told to "sound Polish!" and little else.) In contrast to a movie like, say, The Guns of Navarone, the German soldiers who are charged with fighting off the attack are characterized as decent men who respect the rules of warfare. SS Panzer Corps C.O. Bittrich (Maximilian Schell) is portrayed particularly positively, allowing the British in and around Arnhem to evacuate their wounded.

Unfortunately, Netflix only sent us the DVD containing the movie itself; there is apparently a two-disc set out there with lots of extras, but ours was strictly a "plain vanilla" viewing. Bridge has grown in stature since it was released, with many now calling it the last great war movie until Private Ryan came along. It's certainly worth seeing if you're interested in the history of WWII, and even if you just want to see what an "all-star" cast really meant back in the day.

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