Movie Review – A Bridge Too Far (1977)

In June of 1944, Allied forces made their historic landing in Normandy, France, and the race was on to use ground forces to end the war in Europe.  As forces continued to push back against the Germans, it was thought that a major operation could have enough of an impact to end the war by Christmas.

Released in 1977, A Bridge Too Far tells the tale of Operation Market Garden, a major Allied attempt to use paratroopers to go behind the German lines in the Netherlands and capture key bridges, trapping the German Fifteenth Army and allowing Allies to cross the Rhine River with tanks, artillery and necessary supplies.

A Bridge Too Far was directed by legendary English actor and film maker Richard Attenborough.  The British-American war film features an impressive cast including James CaanMichael CaineSean ConneryGene HackmanAnthony HopkinsRobert Redford, and even a small role for Denholm Elliott (Dr. Marcus Brody from Raiders of the Lost Ark as well as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

A Bridge Too Far (1977) – movie poster

A Bridge Too Far begins in Holland as the German army is low on supplies.  Its morale is also low, and they’re waiting for the Allies to attack them at some point.  Unless the Germans can reorganize, receive more supplies, and find a way to stop the Allies and push them off the continent again, then it’s just a matter of time until the war in Europe is finished.

A Bridge Too Far (1977) — (c) United Artists

In EnglandLieutenant-General Browning (Dirk Bogarde) creates a plan to use airborne troops to land behind German lines in the Netherlands.  It’s a major operation involving some 35,000 Allied soldiers.  The plans call for the American 82nd & 101st Airborne soldiers to capture roads and bridges in Nijmegen, and the British 1st Airborne and Polish paratroopers to capture a major bridge in Arnhem.  If all goes well, the British XXX Armoured Corps will arrive at Arnhem (a distance of over sixty miles) two days after the drop.

Major General Roy Urquhart’s (Sean Connery) 1st Airborne soldiers will be using gliders for their assault, while the Americans will parachute into their drop zones.  A problem with gliders is that they require open fields to land, and the landing zones in mind are pretty far from the bridges.  Another problem is that the number of gliders and transport aircraft is limited, so not all of the Allied soldiers can be inserted at the same time.

A Bridge Too Far (1977) — (c) United Artists

It also doesn’t help matters that General Browning downplays recent reports of strong German forces and tanks in Arnhem.  Several recent airborne operations had been cancelled for various reasons, and General Browning is reluctant to have to cancel another operation.  If the Allies can pull off this operation and capture the bridge in Arnhem, holding it and preventing the Germans from escaping across the Rhine River, then the Allies can secure a major victory.  They’ll be able to isolate and smash the Germans while simultaneously sending armored troops through the Netherlands, across the Rhine River, and straight into Germany’s main industrial zone, severely limiting their production of weapons and ammunition.

But is General Browning being too optimistic about their chances of success?  Several of his officers think that it’s too ambitious of a plan that requires too many events to go correctly.  As we know, Murphy’s Law is a major factor in warfare, and even the best of plans can go up in flames, costing unnecessary lives and valuable supplies.

A Bridge Too Far (1977) — (c) United Artists

Nevertheless, Operation Market Garden is set in motion.  The generals have their orders, the soldiers are given their briefing, and everybody prepares to go into battle.  It’ll have to be a daylight drop behind German lines.  Fortunately for the paratroopers, their part of the operation goes just fine.  They’re able to fly into and make their landings with relative ease.  It’s the glider landings where most of the initial problems occur, costing valuable lives and the loss of vehicles as well.

The American paratroopers encounter German resistance, and the Germans destroy the Son bridge before the Allies can capture it.  This forces the Americans to construct a temporary bridge across the river.  Later, the 82nd Airborne has to make a daring river crossing while under enemy fire.  They’re able to secure a bridge, but it’s a major delay for the XXX Corps to wait until it and the town are secure.

A Bridge Too Far (1977) — (c) United Artists

Meanwhile, the British 1st Airborne soldiers capture part of Arnhem and their end of the bridge.  They fortify the area and hold off several German attacks.  Without reinforcements or extra supplies, the British can only hold on for so long until they’ll be forced to retreat.

What was supposed to be a straightforward and relatively simple battle plan slowly spirals out of control.  The Germans organize and fight hard, and the British losses continue to climb as they’re cut off and without reinforcements.

A Bridge Too Far (1977) — (c) United Artists

After nine days of fierce fighting and fighting off armored attacks, the 1st Airborne soldiers are forced to withdraw from the bridge.  Soldiers too badly injured to withdraw make a last stand and put up a defense to cover the 1st Airborne as they retreat.  Those same soldiers who weren’t killed were captured by the Germans.

Out of General Urquhart’s 10,000 soldiers, 1,984 were killed, and 6,584 were injured and/or captured.  It was a devastating loss to the 1st Airborne, and that unit did not return to combat in the war.  When Urquhart returns to headquarters in England, he confronts General Browning about the operation.  Now knowing about the failure, Browning admits that the plans were too optimistic.

A Bridge Too Far (1977) — (c) United Artists

A Bridge Too Far ends with a Dutch woman taking her children and a few supplies, and fleeing from her home.  The residence was used as a temporary hospital for the injured British soldiers.  Her front yard is now a graveyard.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Is 1977’s epic war film A Bridge Too Far any good?

Absolutely!

This is a fantastic war film that takes on Operation Market Garden, a major operation that resulted in a tremendous loss for Allied forces, particularly the British 1st Airborne.  The film does a great job showing the optimism (and arrogance?) of high command and what’s perceived to be a simple mission with a huge reward if it succeeds.

A Bridge Too Far (1977) – main theme

The visuals look great, the action scenes are intense, and there’s all sorts of chaos during the battle scenes.  It really feels like you’re in the heart of the action in the Netherlands.  On top of that you’ve got a rousing and cheerful music score that makes it feel like the Allies are going to kick ass and win.  The mood of the film changes and takes a severe downturn near the end as the British are forced to retreat, leaving behind some of their men and allowing the Germans to take control of the Arnhem bridge.

As we know from history, the Allies later bombed and destroyed the Arnhem bridge two weeks later on October 7, 1944, to prevent the Germans from using it.

The biggest downfall for A Bridge Too Far is that it looks dated by today’s standards.  It looks, sounds and feels like a film from the 1970s.  That isn’t a bad thing, but it can certainly turn off younger audiences today.  If this same film was made today, it would be much darker, bloodier and sinister as the overall theme would be sending tens of thousands of soldiers into an overwhelming situation that turned into a major defeat.

Don’t also expect the Germans to speak their lines in English but with a German accent.  The foreign languages are authentically spoken here, and you’ll be reading quite a lines of dialogue on the screen.  You have to pay attention and do you part, but you’ll be rewarded with a great cinematic experience in the end.

A Bridge Too Far (1977) – movie trailer

I really liked this film, and it would be easy to sit back and watch it on a regular basis, such as on Memorial Day.

A Bridge Too Far is simply a must-watch film for fans of war films and World War 2 as well.  Don’t be turned off that this is a 1970s movie.  Do yourself a favor and sit back and enjoy this nearly three-hour epic war film.

[patients released from an insane asylum are nearby]

Major General Urquhart – “I’ve got lunatics laughing at me from the woods.”

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Lt. General Browning – “They’ve got a bed for you upstairs, if you want it.”
Major General Urquhart – “I took 10,000 of our finest troops to Arnhem; I’ve come back with less than 2,000. I don’t feel much like sleeping.”

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