A Bridge Too Far

Released 1977 by United Artists, budget of $26 million, gross of $50 million, Technicolor 35mm negative, 2.35:1 screen ratio, stereo sound, 176 mins., Laserdisc released 1991, DVD released 1998





Holland map from CIA

This film depicts Market Garden in September 1944 as heroic splendor, as the 1962 film The Longest Day depicted D-Day through the text of Cornelius Ryan. The history of the battle at Arnhem was more tragedy than glory. The mistakes began with General Montgomery who refused to use his army to gain control of the Schelde estuary and the Channel ports, instead launched a dagger strike across the Rhine with paratroopers from the British 1st and American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisons. Montgomery stopped XXX Corps Sept. 6 at Antwerp on the south bank of the estuary, failed to support the Canadian First Army advancing on the Scheldt, and allowed 80,000 troops of the German 15th Army to escape across the estuary. Montgomery dismissed ULTRA reports of the 9th and 10th Panzer Divisions regrouping near Arnhem and ignored the concentration of experienced German leaders at the HQs of Gen. Model, 2nd to Rundstedt, and paratrooper commander Kurt Student, and SS Gen Wilhelm Bittrich. He did not seek the help of the Dutch resistance, keeping his plan secret and hoping for the advantage of a surprise attack. According to John Keegan, "Market, the seizure of the bridges at Endhoven and Nijmegen by the American Airborne divisions proved a brilliant success. Garden, the descent of the British 1st Airborne Division on the more distant Rhine bridges at Arnhem, did not. Because of the experience of the German 7th Parachute Division in Crete, where it had been massacred while dropping directly into its objective, the Allied airborne forces had established the doctrine that airborne descents whould be made at a distance fro the chosen target, on which the parachutists should concentrate only after having assembled and collected their equipment. The 1st Airborne Division got safely to earth, but when it advanced on the Arnhem bridges it found their vicinity held by the remnants of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, which were refitting in the district after their ordeal in Normandy. Between them the two divisions mustered only a company of tanks, some armoured cars and half-tracks; but even the remnants of a panzer division deployed more firepower that the 1st Airborne, whose artillery support was provided by 75-mm pack howitzers which one of its own gunners described as 'quite unlethal'. The British parachutists, after seeing one of Arnhem's two bridges fall into the Rhine as they approached it, succeeded in seizing and holding the other. They held it steadfastly until 20 September, hourly expecting the arrival of British tanks to their relief, but the Guards Armoured Division which was advancing to join them found itself confined to a single road between inundated field and could not move forward at its planned speed. German reinforcements had now gathered around the Arnhem perimeter, constricting it ever more closely, and on 24 September the British received orders to withdraw. Some managed to do so by improvised ferry, many swam the Rhine back to the southern bank. Just over 2000 men succeeded in escaping, 1000 were killed in the course of the battle, and 6000 became prisoners. The 1st Airborne Division had effectively ceased to exist."

The film dramatically recreates the start of the airborne assault by simulating the Waco gliders being pulled by C-47s into the air (no gliders were air-worthy), and the start of the armored column toward Arnhem (with only 4 real Sherman tanks, the rest fakes). According to Michael Coy, "Attenborough keeps tight control of a big, complex story, and interlards the large-scale stuff with 'human scale' passages, like James Caan's rescue of his buddy (incidentally, the tracking shot which follows his jeep through the forest is quite remarkable). The fighting at Nijmegen is brilliantly-filmed. Note how the street on the British side grows increasingly littered with war debris as the battle rages. Robert Redford's assault across the river is a symphony in olive drab, leading to a wonderful moment of exhilaration. Whether the viewer finds the singing of "Abide With Me" moving or grossly sentimental will depend on personal taste, but the subdued ending is very satisfying. 'Market Garden' may have helped shorten the war and may have achieved most of its immediate objectives, but it has to be seen as a tragic mistake. The film is slick, professional and very pleasing on the eye. One can't help wondering, however, if this kind of 'tank opera' was worth the effort, given that "The Longest Day" had done it all so splendidly a generation earlier."


revised 11/20/05 by Steven Schoenherr at the University of San Diego | Filmnotes