Reel history | A Bridge Too Far, for allied forces and for viewers

Richard Attenborough's 1977 retelling of the failed Operation Market Garden campaign is undoubtedly impressive in its attention to detail and accuracy, but it is a very long slog

Director: Richard Attenborough
Entertainment grade: D
History grade: A–

Operation Market Garden was a daring attempt by allied forces to push into northern Germany in 1944. Led by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, it planned to drop paratroopers in the German-occupied Netherlands, seize bridges behind enemy lines, and make way for a full invasion. In the event, the Germans managed to delay the allied advance by blowing up one bridge at Son, and defending another at Arnhem during a prolonged battle. The operation failed.


Sean Connery in A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Great Scot, he's got the right accent! … Sean Connery as Maj Gen Roy Urquhart. Photograph: Kobal Photograph: Kobal

Most of the film's characters are either real people or closely based on real people. Plus – in a refreshing change from the weirdness of watching Nazis speak colloquial English in the likes of Valkyrie – Germans speak German, Dutch speak Dutch, and Brits say things like, "I'm awfully sorry, but I'm afraid we're going to have to occupy your house." It's even possible to overlook Sean Connery talking like Sean Connery, seeing as his character, Maj Gen Roy Urquhart, was a Scotsman; albeit a Scotsman who had attended St Paul's School and Sandhurst. The chief linguistic offender is Gene Hackman, who plays Polish general Stanislaw Sosabowski with an accent foundering somewhere between vampire and pirate. Meanwhile, Ryan O'Neal distinguishes himself from the refined performances given by the rest of the A-list ensemble by delivering every one of Brig Gen James Gavin's lines as if he were reading it from an idiot board to an audience sitting on the other side of a canyon.


Scene from A Bridge Too Far (1977)
On the march … Photograph: Kobal Photograph: Kobal

Committed second world war buffs may spot microscopic inaccuracies, 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, hundreds of paratroopers floating through the sky like jellyfish through the sea. If you never tire of watching things blow up while big old bits of machinery rumble around, this is the movie for you. For the rest of us, though, it's kind of boring. The cast, while impressive, is so large that few characters manage more than a cameo appearance. The fighting scenes, while impressive, drag on for so long the mind wanders. The attention to every aspect of the operation, while impressive, hampers narrative pace and direction. By the beginning of the third hour, it seems Attenborough is trying to make his audience feel like they, too, have trudged for days through muddy Dutch fields without food or sleep. Which is an achievement of sorts. Though, when you keep hoping Gene Hackman would turn up with a parrot and an eyepatch and sink his fangs into the Nazi field marshal's neck, you've probably had enough.


Dirk Bogarde in A Bridge Too Far (1977)
The Boy did it … Dirk Bogarde as Lt Gen "Boy" Browning. Photograph: Kobal Photograph: Kobal

Conspicuous by his absence from the film is "Monty" Montgomery himself. As a result, there's a sense that responsibility for the operation's failure rests mostly with Lt Gen "Boy" Browning (Dirk Bogarde). In the closing scenes of the film, Browning is permitted a subtle dig at the still-unseen Monty ("He thinks the operation was 90% successful") and says that he always felt the allies "tried to go a bridge too far." In reality, Browning made that comment directly to Monty before the operation began.


The production had several veterans of Market Garden on hand, including John Addison, composer of the splendid score, who served with the British XXX Corps. Dirk Bogarde was there for real, too, though his memoirs imply that he spent most of September 1944 "liberating" champagne from local wine cellars and avoiding the advances of an amorous, eccentric major-general known as "Uncle". According to Bogarde, Uncle was "gobbling up half the Highland Infantry" and thought wearing helmets into battle was "common" and "not the behaviour of a gentleman". In this light, William Goldman's tally-ho-old-boy screenplay begins to sound quite convincing.


A Bridge Too Far is a fantastic historical and cinematic achievement but, if you're not a die-hard war obsessive, prepare to snooze.


Alex von Tunzelmann

The GuardianTramp

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