Monday, September 8, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Theirs Is the Glory" (1946)

I've long been a vocal advocate for "A Bridge Too Far," one of the last of the big-budget World War II spectacles and, in my mind, one of the most underrated. It didn't make much of an impact in the States, but was a big hit overseas.

Screenwriter William Goldman noted in his classic tome about the Hollywood biz, "Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade," that the British are very fond of memorializing their disastrous military adventures, while Americans tend to shy away from them.

So it was a surprise to me to discover "Theirs Is the Glory," a 1946 film shot a year after the actual Battle of Arnhem. While "Bridge" depicted the entirety of Operation Market Garden, a bold and (many feel) rash attempt to punch through into Germany and end the war by Christmas 1944, "Glory" focuses on the battle for the last of the series of bridges the Allies were trying to capture. (The bridge that was one too far.)

What's amazing about the film is that it contains no actors or studio mock-ups of the battle site. The actual men who participated in or witnessed the fighting returned to the town of Arnhem one year after the actual events and recreated them for the cameras. "Glory" also contains extensive footage of the actual battle itself shot by newsmen and military photographers.

As a military strategy, the quest for the Arnhem bridge over the Rhine was too clever by half. Paratroopers from the First British Airborne Division, who by necessity are only lightly equipped, were dropped well behind enemy lines near the town and charged with capturing the bridge. This they did, with great derring-do.

Unfortunately, they were only supposed to have to hold it for two days. The column of Allied tanks got bogged down in the mission of linking up the captured bridges, giving time for the German forces to respond and, as one general memorably orders in "A Bridge Too Far," "flatten Arnhem."

Out of some 10,000 paratroopers dropped for the Arnhem operation, only about 2,000 successfully escaped when their forces withdrew after nine days. The rest were killed or captured -- most of the latter being too severely wounded to retreat.

The concept for the film is novel, but it's a better idea than a movie. It ends up playing out like a bunch of disconnected footage of soldiers running hither and fro, in between obvious showbiz pyrotechnics simulating artillery, and falling down from non-existent bullet wounds.

The soldiers are obviously not actors, and don't do very good jobs of portraying themselves. They tend to speak in stilted sentences in that very blasé British way, in which men in terrible peril seem not at all concerned about it. It gets so silly, it reminded me of that scene in Monty Python's "Life of Brian" in which an English soldier is mildly perturbed by a tiger biting off his leg.

Director Brian Desmond Hurst, a more than competent journeyman, tries his best to lend some narrative momentum to the proceedings, spotlighting a few soldiers and focusing on them. But in the end "Glory" feels like what it is, a pastiche starring non-professionals.

So it becomes more interesting to me to see how this little-known film (at least in the U.S.) affected "A Bridge Too Far." I was struck by the similarities of several sequences, and wondered if Goldman was inspired by them (or if he even saw the film). "Bridge" was based on a book by Cornelius Ryan that was published three decades after the events; perhaps Ryan was influenced by "Glory."

The Liv Ullman character, a local Dutch woman who aids the Allied soldier, seemed to have her look and demeanor modeled after a person in "Glory." She even wears a similar woman's suit and also has a religious bent.

One of the most harrowing sequences in "Bridge" is a night crossing of a river using flimsy little boats, with the soldiers getting cut to pieces by German crossfire. There is a very comparable scene toward the end of "Glory," though here it is the withdrawal from Arnhem rather than part of an earlier advance.

"Bridge" has a nerve-wracking bit where the Brits have been forced back from their supply drop sites, and the Allied planes continue to rain down ammunition and other supplies that they desperately need but can't get to. In both movies, a single soldier scrambles out to try to retrieve one of the massive tubes, but dies for his gallantry.

Johnny Frost is a memorable character in "Bridge" played by Anthony Hopkins, a gallant young officer who leads the forces holding the north side of the Arnhem bridge long past anyone's expectations. There are remarkably similar scenes in each film where Frost and his soldiers, now wounded and without hope, lie together in a bombed-out building essentially awaiting their fate. Frost bravely gives the command for those who are fit to escape back over the river.

In "Bridge," though, this is the opportunity for one of the best bits of dialogue in the movie, where a young soldier tells a story about why he always has an umbrella, even in combat, because he doesn't want to be mistaken for a German and knows "no Jerry would carry one."

It may be Hollywood bullshit, but it's smashingly good B.S.

Even though it's not a very good film, mostly what "Theirs Is the Glory" does for me is reinforce how good "A Bridge Too Far" is, in imposing a cohesive story on a massive series of events and large array of people. Goldman's screenplay is really superb, giving us a dozen or so distinctive characters and letting the action play out through their eyes.

The movies have often -- rightly -- been accused of changing around historical records for their own purposes. But sometimes you have to "showbiz up" the tale to get at the nut of the truth. "Glory" tries for verisimilitude and is dull; "Bridge" spritzes things up and soars.

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