Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: A Bridge Too Far

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

In the final shot of A Bridge Too Far, a Dutch widow, accompanied by a doctor, her children, and a cart loaded with a few precious possessions, moves slowly across the entire width of the Scope screen, leaving behind her home in Arnhem, ravaged by the worst pocket of the ill-fated Allied sortie into Holland in fall of 1944. One of the woman’s children has fallen behind the group and is playing at soldier, a stick held at shoulder arms. It’s a shot that contrasts sharply with the final shot of Attenborough’s first directorial effort, Oh! What a Lovely War: from a family tending a single grave, the camera cranes back and up, slowly but relentlessly, revealing row upon row upon row of identical white crosses, stretching incredibly away as far as the eye can see. That shot had power without subtlety; the finish of Attenborough’s newest film is subtler but powerless. Both end-shots are representative of the token manner in which Attenborough has come to handle the problem of war.

The invasion of Holland—a grimly farcical military disaster—must have seemed a ready-made topic for Attenborough’s vision, with its non-functioning radios a perfect metaphor for failed communication and its terrible results; and its mass confusion a perfectly true-to-life index of the madness of war. But the film never reflects that confusion stylistically. If anything, A Bridge Too Far is starkly clear. Its constant use of photographs and maps, even while emphasizing the distance between the grand plan and the horrible reality, actually serves to keep us comfortably oriented to the historic and geographic situation. In this way, the film takes on more the clarity of a map than the frantic confusion of a real battle. Ironically, it seems that Attenborough has assumed the vantage of one of the distant military leaders he satirized so savagely in Oh! What a Lovely War, and attempted halfheartedly to understand in the tiresome, name-dropping historical epic Young Winston. When three Allied generals in A Bridge Too Far finally decide to withdraw their forces and scrap the invasion, and they are momentarily—but intensely—occupied by debating as to where things went wrong, as if talking about the turning point in some game or sporting event, one has the strong feeling of being just about halfway between the heavyhanded moral parable of Oh! What a Lovely War and the hamhanded history of Young Winston.

Where things go wrong in A Bridge Too Far is in Attenborough’s failure to establish and portray the gut reality as starkly as he does the high-minded leaders with their grand plans. The film was conceived and executed as an all-star vehicle, and the vast majority of its running time is given to famous faces (usually looking foolish, as superior talents always do when lumped together with nothing to do). The little guys—upon whom the bulk of the suffering descends—are rarely more than background to set off the famous faces. Increasingly, the film relies on key-character vignettes—in the manner of The Victors and The Longest Day—a cheap kind of shorthand for the real drama and horror of war. Attenborough is still very much the underdeveloped talent of Oh! What a Lovely War when he can’t resist dwelling on touches (blows, one should call them) like a bunch of lunatics in the woods laughing at the passing soldiers (“Do you think they know something we don’t?”), or a British commando risking—and losing—his life to rescue from enemy territory a container of supplies that turns out to be full of British army berets.

The reliance of the film upon portraying the actions and feelings of only a few characters—all stars, nearly all playing officers, usually field grade—is attended by an emphasis on middle to close shots that stress personal stories to the near-exclusion of the’ larger picture. Attenborough doesn’t avoid establishing shots, to be sure, and the situation is always clear; but the experience never seems like a real invasion, never seems to involve as many people as the dialogue tells us are involved. A British commander, near the end of the film, says, “I went into Arnhem with 10,000 men—I’m coming out with scarcely two”; but visually one never gets the overwhelming sense of sheer numbers that characterized that awful final shot of Oh! What a Lovely War. There’s a lot of yell-and-fall-down stuff; and though the film has its share of graphic gore, there is never the feeling that this is what it must be like to be under fire, to be trapped in a hopeless effort, to be horribly injured. The most intimate and affecting moments of the film are virtually all second-unit work: the takeoff, the parachute drop, the river crossing; subjective viewpoints and sounds of paratroops leaping into space, grunting when the opening chutes jerk them upward, the clanks, thumps, and gasps of men landing in the drop zone. This is promising and affecting stuff; but, compressed to the merest fraction of the film’s time, there just isn’t enough of it to give anything like balance to the vision of A Bridge Too Far. The effect of war on human beings—ostensibly the film’s concern—loses out from sheer lack of exposure. Clearly, Attenborough’s interest is drawn elsewhere, and his over-attentive camera studies the world of generals and planners tirelessly, until no drop of irony remains. One of the officers in the film carries an umbrella with him into combat; and when his commander finally asks why, he replies, “I knew no Jerry would ever carry one. I had to prove I was English.” I suspect there is more of Attenborough in this character than he is willing to admit.

© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow

Direction: Richard Attenborough. Screenplay: William Goldman, after the book by Cornelius Ryan. Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth. Production design: Terence Marsh. Editing: Antony Gibbs. Second-unit direction: Sidney Hayers. Music: John Addison. Production: Joseph E. Levine.
The players: Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Elliott Gould, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Hardy Kruger, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, Maximilian Schell, Liv Ullmann, Denholm Elliott, Arthur Hill, Jeremy Kemp, Donald Pickering.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.