Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Review: "A Bridge Too Far" (1977)

Let me throw some names at you: James Cann, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Elliot Gould, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O'Neil and Robert Redford. Movies with a cast this huge and prominent simply do not get made anymore. Salaries are too high to hire so many name actors for an ensemble piece. Soderbergh's "Ocean's 11" was an exception since its cast was willing to take pay cuts, but those circumstances are few and far between. Perhaps this is for the best, as there can be such a thing as a film so laden with stars that it becomes too awkward and ungainly to work.

"A Bridge Too Far" is based on an actual campaign waged by Allied forces in 1944. With German troops on the retreat after the success of D-Day, there was a great desire by commanders to finish them off, and consequently the war, very quickly. Operation Market-Garden involved a massive airdrop of troops and supplies in order to seize and hold five bridges until the second wave of tanks and ground troops could arrive to secure them. Innumerable problems hindered their efforts and when all was said and done, the allies suffered about 17,000 casualties, which was twice the number of D-Day.

The title comes from a quote by Lt. General Browning after the operation had failed, and so does it also apply to the film. The operation failed for a number of reasons, one of the main being that they spread their forces too thin and tried to capture one bridge too many. With the film, we are constantly going back and forth between at least six different groups at one time and, save for the recognizable actors, it soon becomes confusing. Even people who have studied WWII can easily become lost in the midst of this film. Although the movie clocks in at just under three hours, the overload of scenes and subplots make it feel twice as long.

Yet there are moments here that are unforgettable, such as the image of one soldier scouting a bridge ahead of his comrades while holding a cane umbrella. Then there is the horror of paratroopers jumping over a field infested with Nazis and being shot in midair, unable to do anything to protect themselves. The most memorable moment for me is the scene of a group of soldiers held up inside a mansion adjacent to a long, wide lawn. On either side of the lawn are thick woods where the Nazis lay in wait to pick off anyone who ventures out. When a much needed air drop deposits their plain metal supply canisters in the middle of the lawn, someone has to make the call to go out and get them. The results are tragic.

There are too many great actors here (In fact, this is the rare DVD cover that features no faces of the stars, but instead a battle scene), so I'll only pick out a few for mention. Gene Hackman has a memorable, albeit brief, appearance as the commander of the Polish contingent. Anthony Hopkins is perfectly believable as a the "gentleman" soldier who is out of his depth with this next mission. And Elliot Gould, who has become familiar to current audiences in the aforementioned "Ocean's 11" remake, takes a gruff but comic role as a cigar chomping Marine for whom absolutely nothing is going right in this war.

As with a lot of films I review, I'm being a little kinder than I should be with this film's rating. It's best to watch it in small chunks over a period of days instead of one sitting. The film is of greatest value to WWII buffs who relish any chance to root for the heroes in exciting battle scenes. For them, sit back and enjoy, but don't expect anything too coherent.

Six out of Ten

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