Monday, October 6, 2014

Reeling Backward: "A Bridge Too Far" (1977)

Recently this column focused on "Theirs Is the Glory," a fairly unique film in which the actual participants of the failed Allied stratagem to end World War II by Christmas 1944, Operation Market Garden, returned to the site of the battles one year after the fact to recreate the action for a motion picture. The same military operation later became the basis for the 1977 feature film, "A Bridge Too Far."

In my essay on "Theirs Is the Glory," I mostly concentrated on the similarities between it and "Bridge," wondering if screenwriter William Goldman or author Cornelius Ryan, on whose book the latter film is based, were influenced by the earlier picture. That inspired me to go back to "A Bridge Too Far," and see how it has held up to my memory.

It only reinforced my opinion: "A Bridge Too Far" is one of the great WWII epics, and an incredible marriage of narrative structure, inspired direction, gritty performances and technical mastery from the support crew, particularly the musical score by John Addison (who himself served as a soldier in Market Garden).

Market Garden would remain a forgotten bit of history for 30 years until Cornelius Ryan wrote his book about the adventure, in which the Allies dropped 35,000 paratroopers behind enemy lines to capture a series of bridges. The plan was to have XXX Corp, the British armor column, punch up the road to connect the bridges, thus creating a hole directly into Germany.

Except, the Allies ignored evidence of a great deal of German resistance along the route, including an entire Panzer tank division near Arnhem, the last and most important of the bridges, since it spanned the Rhine River and the border into Germany itself. The British paratroopers, who were only supposed to have to hold the bridge for two days, gave up after nine, leaving behind 80% of their men as casualties or prisoners of war.

That's a lot of story to cram into a feature film, even a three-hour one, but Goldman's screenplay is an exercise in elegant structure. The story begins and ends with generals, both Allied and German, as they plan bold stratagems and then later try to pick up the pieces of where things went wrong. The middle section focuses on the lower ranks of soldiers, the dogfaces who actually have to carry out the fight their superiors dreamed up.

You've heard of "all-star casts," but this one is simply jaw-dropping. For the Brits: Anthony Hopkins, Dirk Bogarde, Michael Caine, Edward Fox, Sean Connery. For the Germans: Hardy Kr├╝ger, Maximilian Schell, Wolfgang Preiss. For the Americans: Robert Redford, Elliot Gould, Gene Hackman, James Cann, Ryan O'Neal. Not to mention Liv Ullman and Laurience Olivier  as Dutch civilians. And Denholm Elliott and John Ratzenberger turning up in bit roles.

Redford, arguably the biggest movie star in the world at the time, doesn't even show up until after the two-hour mark. 

I found it interesting how the script is laid out into essentially four sections. The first is the planning of Operation Market Garden, in which British heads are swelled and the first seeds of doubt creep in. Frank Grimes has a terrific role as a nervous major who unsuccessfully points out the presence of tanks, and is sent on medical leave as a result. The second section is the actual drop, a beautiful and daunting ballet of parachutes -- more than 1,000 men jumped out of planes for the sequence -- and the Allies' initial success in taking their objectives. The third is what I call the "American vignettes," and the last act is when everything goes to hell.

The vignettes are a quick succession of three stories centered around American characters. Elliott Gould is up first in a semi-comedic bit about his regiment failing to take the first bridge before the Germans blow it up, necessitating the building of a claptrap "Bailey bridge" to get the tanks across -- but not before delaying them 36 hours. Gould is terrific and charismatic, chomping on a cigar and shouting jokes in between the orders. Addison's music goes into a jazzy, bouncy mode.

Then we get James Caan as a nearly monosyllabic sergeant who protects his young captain -- he doesn't put on his coat at first, so we think he's just a punk private or something -- even guaranteeing the officer that he won't die. He appears to fail in his mission, as the captain is left for dead after being shot in the head. But the sergeant carries the body in a jeep through enemy lines to a mobile Army hospital and, at gunpoint, forces the surgeon (a spot-on Arthur Hill) to examine the wounded lad, revealing that he's still alive. 

(This may sound like Hollywood bullshit, but other than the part about being chased in a jeep by German soldiers, it really happened.)

The last and most harrowing of the vignettes is Redford as the major tasked with crossing the Waal River and taking the bridge at Nijmegen. Due to logistical snafus, they had to make a daytime crossing in flimsy portable boats, the wind blew away their smoke cover, and the unit was cut to pieces. Watching Redford with his helmeted head tucked down, pulling his rifle butt through the water like an oar, all the while chanting "Hail Mary, full of grace..." remains one of my seminal cinematic moments. (Again, this really happened.)

Sean Connery also gets a mini-vignette of his own as Major General Roy Urquhart, commander of the British airborne division dropped near Arnhem, who gets cut off from his own command and has to hide out in a little Dutch enclave, dodging from house to house, during which time he is presumed dead.

Lieutenant-General Frederick Browning, played by Dirk Bogarde, more or less acts as the heavy, playing the gung-ho Brit general who will not cancel the operation for any reason. Those who "rock the boat" are encouraged to clam up or suffer the consequences. 

At the end of the film Browning is depicted as duplicitously claiming to always have been skeptical about the operation -- "As you know I've always thought we tried to go a bridge too far" -- rather than an unreserved booster. In reality, Browning raised his doubts prior to the operation, and he and his family -- Bogarde actually served alongside Browning during the war -- were outraged at his villainous portrayal.

It being only three decades and a bit after the events depicted, many of the actors had an opportunity to talk with and even befriend the men they were playing. Edward Fox knew Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks, commander of XXX Corp, prior to filming and later cited it as his favorite movie role. Michael Caine changed some of his dialogue after asking his counterpart how he would have issued orders, and the real Lt. Col. Johnny Frost had to explain to Anthony Hopkins that he would never have run too quickly between cover, because he had to show his men how contemptuous he was of enemy fire.

The production of "Bridge" is a Homeric story unto itself, and one others have already told better than I could -- notably by Goldman himself, who wrote a making-of book, "Story of a Bridge Too Far," and also included an entire chapter about it in his seminal showbiz tome, "Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade." 

(Extremely short version: Joseph E. Levine, a lifelong maverick producer, personally financed the film's $22 million budget -- about $86 million in today's dollars -- himself, then convinced some of the biggest global movie stars to participate by all accepting the same weekly pay rate. He recruited Richard Attenborough (him again) to direct, undertaking an incredible logistical and artistic challenge. Then as some of the amazing footage of the airdrops and battle scenes started to come back in, Levine showed the rushes to distributors who bid on the international distribution rights to the film. As a result, "Bridge" was already in the black before the first ticket was sold.)

The ultimate result was surprising, and not. Everywhere but the U.S. the film was a smash hit. Here, American and audiences and critics used to rousing pro-Allies depictions of the war collectively shrugged their shoulders at a massive production about a colossal military screw-up. Thus, "A Bridge Too Far" is barely known on these shores.

Their loss; "A Bridge Too Far" was perhaps the last of the great World War II epics.

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