It seems as if an entire regiment of movie notables appears in this $26 million WWII epic based on Cornelius Ryan’s bestseller about the disastrous ‘Operation Market Garden’ Allied attempt to seize several bridges in the occupied Netherlands in order to outﬂank German defences and end the war in Europe by Christmas of 1944.
Concocted by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, it was a combined airborne and ground assault calling for 35,000 paratroopers to be ﬂown from bases in England and dropped behind enemy lines in the Netherlands.
Their mission was to secure bridges along a north-south road and hold them for 48 hours so that an armoured column advancing north from the Allied frontline in Belgium would be able to reach Arnhem, 60 miles deep into German-held territory.
The British 1st Airborne Division, commanded by Major General Roy Urquhart (Sean Connery), supported by a Polish airborne brigade under General Stanisław Sosabowski (Gene Hackman) is chosen to land in drop zones east and west of Arnhem and to secure both sides of the bridge there.
Further south, the American 82nd Airborne Division under Brigadier General James Gavin (Ryan O’Neill) is to land near Nijmegen and secure its bridge and approaches.
The US 101st Airborne Division under Major General Maxwell Taylor (Paul Maxwell) is tasked with securing the road and bridges around Eindhoven while the XXX Armoured Corps under Lt. General Brian Horrocks (Edward Fox) is to advance north, cross the bridges captured by the American paratroopers, and reach Arnhem two days after the drop.
All are assured that German resistance in the area will be negligible – despite the fact that reconnaissance photographs and reports from the Dutch resistance indicate Panzer tanks are located near Arnhem. Lt. General Frederick Browning (Dirk Bogarde) ignores these reports because he is not willing to contravene Montgomery.
British ofﬁcers also quash reports that the portable radios used by the paratroopers will probably not work across the long distances from the drop zones to the Arnhem Bridge.
The airborne drops on 17 September 1944 go well, but the Son Bridge near Eindhoven is blown up by the Germans just before the 101st Airborne can get to it. Stiff German resistance, the narrowness of the sometimes raised road (dubbed “Hell’s Highway”), and the need to construct a Bailey bridge all combine to slow the advance of the XXX Corps.
At Nijmegen, units of the 82nd Airborne cross the Waal River in canvas-and-wood assault boats under withering ﬁre. Eventually, the bridge is captured.
At Arnhem, the situation begins to deteriorate. As predicted, the radios are useless and many of the jeeps needed to quickly reach the Arnhem Bridge never arrive by glider or are destroyed during landings.
The Germans overrun the British supply drop zones and launch an armoured attack over the bridge being held at one end by British units under the command of Lt. Col. John Frost (Anthony Hopkins).
The British manage to hold their positions but incur mounting casualties as General Sosabowski’s men have been delayed by ground fog in England and join the battle too late to reinforce the British.
After days of ﬁerce house-to-house ﬁghting, Urquhart’s lightly armed troops are forced to surrender or retreat with staggering losses.
When Urquhart returns to British HQ, he confronts Browning about the ﬁasco that was Market Garden and Browning sheepishly replies, “Well, as you know, I always felt we tried to go a bridge too far”.
In the ﬁnal scene, a Dutch woman (Liv Ullmann) abandons her badly damaged home, which had been used as a hospital by the British. Passing through the front yard – which has been converted into a makeshift graveyard – she and her children walk along the high riverbank with her father, an elderly doctor (Laurence Olivier), pushing some salvaged household items in a wheelbarrow.
Committed WWII buffs may spot microscopic inaccuracies in the film, such as a few anti-tank guns being painted the wrong colour, but overall the recreation of the battles was acclaimed by real veterans. The action scenes are a triumph, visceral and memorable: swarms of planes, massive explosions and hundreds of paratroopers floating through the sky.
Most of the film’s characters are either real people or closely based on real people. Plus – in a refreshing change from the usual movie weirdness of watching Nazis speak colloquial English – the Germans speak German, the Dutch speak Dutch, and the British say things like, “I’m awfully sorry, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to occupy your house.”
Gene Hackman – who plays Polish General Stanisław Sosabowski – is the exception, with an accent foundering somewhere between vampire and pirate
Unfortunately, hardly any of the big American or British stars are on screen long enough to establish audience involvement, and at an almost three-hour length, A Bridge Too Far is a movie too long. By the end, you’ll feel like you too have trudged for days through muddy Dutch fields without food or sleep.
Lt. Gen. Frederick Browning
Sgt. Eddie Dohun
Lt. Col. Joe Vandeleur
Maj. Gen. Robert Urquhart
Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks
Col. Bobby Stout
Maj. Gen. Stanislaw Sosabowski
Lt. Col. John Frost
Maj. Julian Cook
Brig. Gen. James Gavin
Lt. Gen. Wilhelm Bittrich
Maj. Harry Carlyle