There have been many war films that have celebrated victory, or rather the sense of victory that ends with a Stars and Stripes hoisted on a battlefield; yes, most Hollywood war films, despite their claims to take an "anti-war stance", they end up glorifying the triumphs and even, in rather poor taste, tack in fictional reprisals in stories of defeat, as in Michael Bay's bogus Pearl Harbour. And so relentless is the morbid spectacle of the disemboweled corpses and grotesque injuries, even in such a ballyhooed film as Saving Private Ryan, that the scenes meant to upset or unsettle us have become almost as crudely titillating as violent pornography. War, even at its most hellish, becomes almost something perversely, sinfully exciting.
It is rare to find a film, then, that carefully examines a failure, an ambitious military campaign that went awry, the best and even noblest intentions defeated by some fatal human flaw or stroke of misfortune. Of all the major incidents of the Second World War, one of the major disasters for the Allied side was Operation Market Garden, Montgomery's well-intentioned and ambitious strategy to secure Holland, stifle the retreat of the German troops defeated at Normandy, and then sneak into the industrial heartland of the enemy country through the Ruhr. It was a travesty, doomed to failure by a surprisingly aggressive German defence, as well as a combination of human error and bad weather.
It is here that the very intriguing differences between British and American war films are revealed. The latter trumpet and exaggerate their victories while the former even when depicting a proud victory as in Battle Of Britain and The Dam Busters are always considerate and modest to understate their moments of glory. The Americans thump their chests to assert their exaggerated glory. The British war films acknowledge, subtly and intelligently the immensity of danger, the near certainty of defeat, the terrible cost of even a modest triumph.
A Bridge Too Far is one such film, painstakingly directed by Richard Attenborough, who also demonstrated his skill for intelligent epic films with the magnificent Gandhi and Cry Freedom. Adapted from Cornelius Ryan's chronicle of the episode, Attenborough's expansive film is also, in a sense, one of the last of those epic war films with a multitude of reputable faces. And yet, while fifteen years ago, The Longest Day was more content to crowd its running time with well known stars such as John Wayne and Henry Fonda, the difference between that Hollywood spectacle Attenborough's more poignant and remarkable film is in how the director chose a cast of real actors instead of merely well known names.
Dirk Bogarde plays General Frederick Browning, the man entrusted with the campaign by Montgomery, with suave, shrewd elegance; his eyes carry both courageous idealism and a lingering sense of self-doubt and as things start failing disastrously, we seen in those eyes a haunting prophecy of defeat. On the other hand, Edward Fox plays General Brian Horrocks, the cheery general leading the British cavalry charge to bolster the American and British paratroops holding the bridges crucial for the breakthrough. In his stirring, glorious monologue on the eve of the campaign, he likens it to one of those "American Western films", calling the Germans as "the bad guys" and his XXX Corps as "the cavalrymen on the way to the rescue." It is a scene of genuinely rousing derring-do, much more thrilling than anything in Hollywood.
But these hopes are all betrayed on the murky and misty battlefield of Holland, as communications are broken, the cavalry, led by Michael Caine's Colonel Vandeleur, is ambushed and delayed and, most unfortunately, the British paratroops in Arnhem are trapped in a never-ending duel of despair and destruction with the inexorable Germans, running short of both men and ammunition. Attenborough directs these sequences and the rest of this film with visceral intensity and harrowing detail, keeping the tension simmering as a doomed scramble is made to reach these hapless men and relieve them to some avail. The battles and skirmishes are still astonishing in their violence and immediacy but the director and photographer Geoffrey Unsworth are also able to render many mesmeric and moving scenes of both exhilarating and elegiac beauty, from that realistic footage of men parachuting through misty skies to a quietly horrifying scene of a soldier piping mournfully in a deserted battlefield.
There are only a few American stars in A Bridge Too Far, mostly posturing for some heroic antics, like Robert Redford's Julian Cook who likens himself to George Washington and James Caan as a cocky sergeant. But on the whole, they are overshadowed by men who exemplify the stiff upper lip even in the face of certain defeat. Sean Connery's Roy Urquhart lends the failed campaign with a spirit of determination and the film's best performance comes from Anthony Hopkins as Colonel Frost. He is gentlemanly, witty, determined, desperate and yet always soft-spoken and able to express a feeling of helpless defeat in those twinkling eyes. Long after the end credits have rolled, it is the ill-fated bravado of these fine British men, out to capture a bridge too far, that still lingers in our minds as a sad but fond memory.