A Bridge Too Far is a 1977 epic war film based on the 1974 book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan, adapted by William Goldman. It was produced by Joseph E. Levine and Richard P. Levine and directed by Richard Attenborough.
The film tells the story of the failure of Operation Market Garden during World War II, the Allied attempt to break through German lines and seize several bridges in the occupied Netherlands, including one at Arnhem, with the main objective of outflanking German defences.
The name for the film comes from an unconfirmed comment attributed to British Lieutenant-General? Frederick Browning, deputy commander of the First Allied Airborne Army, who told Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the operation’s architect, before the operation: “I think we may be going a bridge too far.”
The ensemble cast includes Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Elliot Gould, Anthony Hopkins, Gene Hackman, Hardy Krüger, Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford and Maximilian Schell. The music was scored by John Addison, who took part in Market Garden.
The film begins with a montage of archival film footage narrated by a Dutch woman, Kate ter Horst, describing the state of affairs in September 1944. The Allied advance is being slowed by overextended supply lines. A Dutch family, part of the Dutch resistance underground, observes the German withdrawal toward Germany. The Germans in the Netherlands have few resources in men or equipment and morale is very poor.
U.S. General George S. Patton and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery have competing plans for ending the war quickly, and being the first to get to Berlin. Under political pressure, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower chose Montgomery’s Operation Market Garden.
Operation Market Garden envisions 35,000 men being flown 300 miles from air bases in England and being dropped as much as 64 miles behind enemy lines in the Netherlands. The largest airborne assault ever attempted, with Lieutenant-General? Frederick Browning saying, “We’re going to lay a carpet, as it were, of airborne troops” over which armoured divisions of XXX Corps can pass and confidently suggests that “We shall seize the bridges – it’s all a question of bridges – with thunderclap surprise, and hold them until they can be secured”.
Two divisions of U.S. paratroopers are responsible for securing the road and bridges as far as Nijmegen. A British division, under Major-General Urquhart is to land near Arnhem, and take and hold the far side of the bridge at Arnhem, backed by Polish paratroopers under General Sosabowski. XXX Corps are to push up the road to Arnhem, as quickly as possible, over the bridges captured by the paratroopers, and reach Arnhem two days after the drop.
After the Market Garden command briefing, General Sosabowski voices his deep doubts that the plan can work. American commander General Gavin worries about parachuting in daylight.
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A Bridge Too Far – Trailer
British commanders brief that they are badly short of transport aircraft and the area near Arnhem is ill-suited for a landing. They will have to land in an open area eight miles (13 km) from the bridge. Some at the briefing are surprised they are going to attempt a landing so far from the bridge, but they have to make the best of it. General Urquhart tells that the key for the eight mile distance from the drop zone to the bridge, is the use of gliders to bring in Jeeps. Browning lays out that if any one group fails, the entire operation fails. The British officers do not question the orders, but Sosabowski walks up to check the RAF briefing officer’s uniform insignia and says “Just making sure whose side you’re on.”
The general consensus among the British top brass that resistance will consist entirely of “Hitler Youth or old men”., but young British intelligence officer, Major Fuller, brings reconnaissance photos to General Browning showing German tanks at Arnhem. Browning dismisses the photos, and also ignores reports from the Dutch underground. Browning does not want to be the one to tell Montgomery of any doubts because many previous airborne operations have been cancelled. Major Fuller’s concerns are brushed off and he is removed from duty.
British officers note that the portable radios are not likely to work for the long distance from the drop zone to the Arnhem bridge amid the water and trees of the Netherlands. They choose not to rock the boat and do not convey their concerns up the chain of command.
At the XXX Corps briefing, the overall plan is outlined, laying out the bridges that will be taken by the paratroopers, held and then secured by ground forces. Speed is the vital factor, as Arnhem must be reached within 2–3 days. It is the crucial bridge, the last means of escape for the German forces in the Netherlands and an excellent route to Germany for Allied forces. The road to Arnhem is only a single highway linking the various key bridges – trucks and tanks have to squeeze to the shoulder to pass. The road is also elevated causing anything moving on the road to stand out.
The airborne drops catch the Germans totally by surprise, and there is little resistance. Most of the men come down safely and assemble quickly, but the Son bridge is blown up by the Germans. Model, thinking that the Allies are trying to capture him, panics and retreats from Arnhem. However, soon after landing, troubles beset Urquhart’s division. Many of the Jeeps either don’t arrive by gliders at all or are shot up in an ambush. Their radio sets are also useless, meaning no contact can be made with either paratroopers moving into Arnhem or XXX Corps. Meanwhile, German forces reinforce Nijmegen and Arnhem.
XXX Corps’ progress is slowed by German resistance, the narrowness of the highway and the need to construct a Bailey bridge to replace the destroyed bridge at Son. The XXX Corps is able to move onto the Graves bridge without much resistance, but is halted at Nijmegen. There, soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division perform a dangerous daylight river crossing in flimsy canvas-and-wood assault boats. Ultimately though, the river crossing is successful, and the Nijmegen bridge is captured. The Germans close in on the isolated British paratroopers occupying part of Arnhem at the bridge. Urquhart is separated from his men, and the supply drop zones are overrun by the Germans. German attacks on the paratroopers at the bridge are repelled. British armour continues to fight its way up the corridor, but is delayed by strong German resistance.
After securing Nijmegen Bridge, XXX Corps waits several hours for its infantry forces to finish securing the town. Finally Sosabowski’s troops enter the battle. They attempt to reinforce the British in Arnhem, but fail. With the Germans fully alert, they gun down several Poles during their drop. They are only able to get a few men across to reinforce the British. After days of house-to-house fighting in Arnhem, with paratroops versus crack SS infantry and panzers, many of the paratroopers are either captured or forced to withdraw (In one scene an elderly lady is gunned down by a German machine gun after attempting to hail a taxi). Operation Market Garden has failed. Urquhart manages to escape capture with less than two thousand of his troops, the remainder are forced to stay behind and give themselves up. Urquhart confronts Browning about his personal feeling about the operation, which was determined to have been 90% successful by a satisfied Montgomery. When asked if he thinks the operations went well, Browning replies “Well, as you know, I always felt we tried to go a bridge too far” (contradicting his earlier statements in the film).