Sunday, December 6, 2009

Greatest war movie no 5: A Bridge Too Far

Let me first point out that this list of war movies I'm compiling is not the definitive greatest war movies of all time. Its my list of my favorite war movies. The reason I am making this point is because Richard Attenborough's 1977 classic A Bridge Too Far crashed at the box office. This despite an unbelievable all star cast of Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, Anthony Hopkins, James Caan, Ryan O'Neil, Elliot Gould, Dirk Bogard, Laurence Olivier, Edward fox and Denholm Elliot. The reason it crashed was probably because Attenborough methodically recreated the famous 1944 battle for Holland, code named Operation Market Garden, with historical accuracy that was almost documentary like, the only problem was that this proved to be boring to a wider audience. Not me though, as far as I'm concerned this movie has it all but what really pushes into the list for me is the topic itself. I have always been fascinated by this battle. I have read countless books on it and in 2004 while in the Netherlands I took a trip to Arnhem to view the battle site. I think a little historical back ground is probably required at this stage.

Operation Market Garden
It was September 1944, three months after D-Day. The Allies had won in Normandy and Paris had been liberated. The Germans had been pushed back into Eastern France and Northern Belgium. The question facing the allies now was, whats the next step ? Where do we land the next major blow against German forces in Western Europe. The Americans wanted General Eisenhower to divert all resources to General Patton's Third Army so that he could continue his race across France and punch straight through into Germany. The British had a different idea. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had a plan to drop 35,000 para troopers behind enemy lines in Holland to seize several Dutch towns after which the allies would break through the German line in Belgium and race north to relieve them. Montgomery claimed his plan could end the war in 100 days which would see the western allies march into Berlin before the Red Army. Eisenhower did not have the capability to provide logistical support for both plans so he had to choose, Patton or Montgomery. Perhaps to appease the British (and Montgomery who had always resented not getting Eisenhower's job of Supreme Allied Commander) Eisenhower gave Montgomery the go ahead. This has caused a great deal of resentment over the years between British and American leaders because as we shall see, the failure of Market Garden prolonged the war significantly and ultimately resulted in much of central and Eastern Europe falling under Soviet domination.

The movie begins with British General Browning, played by Dirk Bogard explaining the plan to the Generals of the Air born divisions. 10,000 men of the US 101st air born division are to drop into Eindhoven and secure its bridges. 12,500 of the famous 82nd air born division are to take Nijmejen further North and the British 1st Air born division, along with a Polish brigade are to take Arnhem. The film brilliantly depicts the battle for each town. The Americans successfully take Einhoven and Nijmegen. There are some memorable scenes with James Caan and Elliot Gould as they race to capture bridges. Most memorably perhaps is a scene with Robert Redford where he leads troops across a river at Nijmegen in a desperate attempts to secure a vital bridge. They all get slaughtered. The real focus of the film is at Arnhem where British troops have seized the town. Sean Connery is superb as the gritty Major General Roy Urquhart who sets up command of the operation at the Hartenstein Hotel (the original hotel which is now a museum was used in the filming) in Oosterbeek, a suburb of Arnhem. Anthony Hopkins plays Colonel Johnny Frost who desperately leads the defence of the main bridge in Arnhem, now appropriately named after him.

Below is one of my favourite scenes. Watch as American soldiers led by Elliott Gould race to capture Son bridge outside Einhoven. Quite funny.

The tension gradually builds in the movie as it becomes clear that the British XXX Core tank division that initially breaks through the German line in Belgium are struggling to make the dash north to relieve the paratroopers. They do manage to relieve the Americans in Einhoven and Nijmegen but the road to Arnhem proves to be a bridge too far. The British fighting in Arnhem were told it would take 2 days for XXX Core to reach them. But one week later they are still fighting for their lives as they are pushed into an increasingly smaller pocket by the Germans, who just happened to have had an SS panzer division near by when the British landed. As desperate attempts to re supply the stranded paras with new men and equipment fail, including one harrowing scene where reinforcements are dropped from the air only to be met with German troops who slaughter them before they hit the ground, it becomes clear the mission is failing. On day nine the remaining Brits, on realising they will not be relieved make an attempt to break through to the British lines. About 2000 succeed in doing so. The rest of the 12,500 are captured or killed.

Many people do not like this film. It is very long and in truth it is made for the history buffs like me. Having said that the performances of Connery, Caine and particularly Edward Fox as the eccentric General Horrocks, commanded of XXX Core, result in some very memorable scenes that any movie lover would enjoy. In addition A Bridge Too Far is unique as it is a World War Two movie about defeat. Most WW2 movies are about victory over evil and ultimately portray war as a necessary thing. Attenborough has described this movie as an anti war film. I like this idea. Most anti war movies are set during World War One or the Vietnam War. Rarely are they set during World War Two. I have noticed how World War Two is often portrayed in popular culture as a glorious time. I even find myself thinking occasionally how exciting it would have been to have lived through it. Sometimes we need reminding that the second World War was probably the worst thing to ever happen the human race. This film rightly shows the suffering of the Dutch people. In fact a result of the failure of Market Garden was a Dutch Famine (inflicted on the people by the Germans in retaliation for their support of the allied paratroopers) in which thousands of civilians starved to death. This is one of the reasons A bridge too far has made it onto my list. Below are a sample of the photos I took when I visited Arnhem and Oosterbeek.

The Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek outside Arnhem. Major General Roy Urquhart took over this hotel and it became headquarters for the Arnhem operation for nine days. Attenborough used the same building for the 1977 film.

The graves of thousands of British and Polish troops killed at Arnhem

Yours truly posing with an American Sherman Tank


GW said...

Great post.

Ted Leddy said...

Thanks GW

Paul said...

Good post. There is some debate as to whether licence was taken in a few instances and a few scenes may differ from reality. But it is a great film. Operation Market Garden, a perfect example of the dangers of Hubris for senior military commanders, such hubris led to the overly optimistic plan. On a separate note xxx Corps, was a large formation consisting of several divisions not one. But even without the Waffen SS they would have had immense difficulty getting down a single road in a hurry.

Ted Leddy said...

Thanks Paul

I had a feeling you would like this one.

There is no doubting that ego definitely played a part in the failure of Market Garden.

The single road from Nijmegan to Arnhem was I believe a massive problem. If a tank broke down then everything stalled.

Thanks also for the correction. I am am not a military man and I sometimes get things wrong, particularly when it comes to the structure of the armed forces. Always feel free to correct me.

Paul said...

Oh yes also I can’t remember which book on Arnhem I read this in. Apparently John Frost of CO of 2 PARA was liberated from his POW camp in May '45 by members of Patton's third Army. Apparently Patton's tankies told Frost 'Arnhem yep we would have gotten through'. Frost apparently said he was minded to believe them although I have no way of confirming this anecdote.

Ted Leddy said...


Good story about Johnny Frost. He is not only a legend among the Paras but the people of Arnhem worship him too. I saw lots of evidence of this in Arnhem and Oosterbeek.

According to Attenborough though he was a little bit difficult when he was on the set of "A Bridge Too Far" where he worked as a consultant. Apparently he didn't like Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of him.