Dir. Richard Attenborough. Starring Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Ryan O’Neal
In that subgenre of war movies which has to do with soldiers in battle, there’s a moment I always look for and rarely find. An officer, typically a name-brand actor, tells subordinates to move ahead on a position knowing that doing so will get them killed. The first time I thought about it was in The Thin Red Line, where Jared Leto orders a pair of men forward; both are killed, but it shows Leto’s character where the Japanese fire will come from. The first time I saw it was in Gettysburg, where Jeff Daniels tells C. Thomas Howell, “Tom, plug that hole over there.” Howell leaps forward, plants his sword in the ground, and opens fire with his pistol; the two of them are playing brothers in that movie. And now I’ve seen it again in A Bridge Too Far, a war movie which takes up that mantle seriously. Robert Redford is playing Julian Cook, who I kind of expected to see get blown away at seven or eight points in the scene where he and his little group of men attack a bridge held by the Nazis via rowboats. He is on one end of the bridge with a few other men. He splits the group. Four men are sent to the other side of the bridge to “draw fire,” in Cook’s words, while he and another man try to pick off some of the German soldiers on his side. The four men run over; there’s a cut where we see that one of them is dead on the bridge. It’s war in a single image: human life is worth less than the achievement of an objective. For those of us who value human life, a group which by the looks of things appears to be thinning out rapidly, it’s the reason why war is so hateful.
Ironically, A Bridge Too Far matches that essential moment with arguably the greatest triumph of the entire movie. Cook’s gallantry which allows British tanks to cross the bridge at Nijmegen is, with the exception of the literal flag waving that occurs in the first half of the picture as troops move through liberated Holland, the great flag-waving moment of the entire movie. It’s also basically meaningless. At this point, Operation Market Garden is clearly doomed, and has been since the point where Browning (Dirk Bogarde), in command of the operation and clearly dreaming of the accolades he will receive as the one who broke German resistance and ended the war by Christmas, ignored any critique whatever of his plan. Browning believed that the Germans would fold in at the first sign of Allied troops, that their lines were held by old men and schoolboys, that their tanks were gone. None of these assumptions (some of which were disproved by reconnaissance made before Market Garden even began) were backed up in evidence. Further foul-ups include the failure to supply Urquhart (Connery) and his men with radios that worked, dropping the commands of Urquhart and Gavin (O’Neal) much too far from their targets, the reliance on a one-lane road for literally everything. At the end of the movie, four British officers, an American officer, and a Polish officer stand at a high vantage point and decide to end the assault. They immediately offer up their suggestions as to what sent the operation astray. It is the Pole, Sosabowski (Gene Hackman), who puts his finger on Market Garden’s faint pulse: men like them decided to play “the war game,” and from there the result was never in doubt.
A Bridge Too Far has a reputation as a longish movie, which I literally understand given that it nearly hits the three-hour mark, but which I do not understand in the sense that it’s meant. If it feels long, that means it doesn’t feel fun, and I’m always a little leery about a war movie that’s enjoying itself too much. A Bridge Too Far (177 minutes) is not like Saving Private Ryan (169 minutes), The Guns of Navarone (158 minutes), The Dirty Dozen (150 minutes), or Inglourious Basterds (153 minutes), four movies which are much more popular and which run the gamut for me between “exhausting and mediocre” to “well-made, well-conceived triumph.” It has taken the opposite approach to all four, in which fairly small teams of men (occasionally assisted by women) try to complete a single mission over the course of the movie. A Bridge Too Far is, by virtue of its subject matter, about two different missions. Many of its biggest stars never share the screen at the same time. Aside from the fact that we never see, say, Redford and Connery together, Laurence Olivier and Liv Ullmann may as well be living through a different war from O’Neal and Bogarde. This is, as I understand it, the point. My thought here is that if A Bridge Too Far is an extra twenty minutes longer than a movie which is about fewer people doing much less, than A Bridge Too Far is a masterpiece of economy. The movie is focused on different targets under assault by different people, nimbly ducking between four languages, clarifying the difference between Nijmegen and Arnhem and who’s where at what time. It’s not a lot of fun, but just because it’s a movie your dad loves doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be much fun. The movie I think it is most similar to, in terms of scope and a huge cast to keep track of, is Inglourious Basterds, which I’d also say is the best movie of the five I’ve mentioned in this paragraph. One of those movies ends with the triumph of assassinating Hitler and carving a swastika into an opportunistic Nazi’s forehead; the other ends with a doctor, a housewife, and a goose-stepping child marching away from their home because the operation turned it into a field hospital. To be concise, these movies are out for different things.
A Bridge Too Far is a scary movie. There’s one scene where Vandeleur’s (Michael Caine) tanks are advancing, and we can tell that they are about to be subjected to enfilade fire by the German artillery hiding out in a forest. The Nazis strike first. They blow up a couple tanks. The tanks mobilize and return fire. For a few uninterrupted minutes, explosions roar and nothing else is audible; we can see Vandeleur speaking into his radio to command his tanks, but we can get only scattered words from our perspective. The smoke from the explosions, the dust turned up, absolutely envelops the field. It does not take long for the tanks to clean up the German troops, but it is a truly horrifying scene; confusion begins to reign, and there is no safe place on the field for anyone. It is a powerful sequence because it prefigures that scene with Julian Cook later on; everything is just another objective, only the objective is one which is executed with maximum volume and shock. There are other sequences, like those which involve Frost’s (Hopkins) troops in Arnhem, which give us some sense of that fear, but there’s something else about the saga of John Frost which appeals to me in this movie.
It’s well and good to say that you’ve sacrificed for a victory. Thus those other four movies which are more enjoyable in large part because they depict Allied triumph, even at the cost of characters we come to really like a great deal. We can say that it’s worth it to have lost Tom Hanks or Jim Brown because their deaths helped to accomplish some objective, or even played some role in helping to win the war. It’s hard to look at what Frost and his paratroopers do at Arnhem, which is to occupy a position, fight bravely to advance it, find themselves surrounded through no fault of their own, and then either die fighting or surrender. There is something glorious in that Charge of the Light Brigade sense here, I suppose, but one chooses life over glory, and in those who make decisions regarding our lives, competence over vainglory. Frost’s paratroopers are the heart of A Bridge Too Far. While Frost is in his own way as unprepared for the likelihood of disaster as Browning or Horrocks (Edward Fox), asking his orderly if there’s room for his dinner clothes in his luggage and blowing on a horn from the foxhunt, he adjusts faster. In the field, he and his men are forced to reckon with the reality of Browning’s failures of positive imagination, and to reckon with in lives. I’ve never found soldiers singing hymns together to be particularly moving stuff (although someone must, given how many movies rely on this bit), but there is something fittingly Psalm 137-sad about these men whisper-singing a song in a language that their captors don’t speak. The dead will have merely been courageous, but not victorious; their sacrifices will have been in vain. It’s a vitally brave choice in storytelling.