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Film / A Bridge Too Far


Doesn't matter what it was. When one man says to another, "I know what let's do today, let's play the war game."... everybody dies.
Maj. General Stanislaw Sosabowski (On the reasons for failure)

A Bridge Too Far is a 1977 World War II war film based on Cornelius Ryan's best-selling book. It tells the story of Operation Market Garden, an audacious, but flawed — and ultimately unsuccessful — plan to to use British, American and Polish paratroops and British armoured divisions to capture four bridges in the Netherlands in order to cut a path into Nazi Germany with the hope of ending the war before Christmas. It has an All-Star Cast, was written by William Goldman, and was directed by Richard Attenborough.

In addition to the all-star cast, it also might qualify as the biggest all realism movie, as the producers went to great lengths (and money) to gather old vehicles and equipment, including 11 Douglas C-47 Skytrain (Dakota) WWII aircraft, along with getting NATO troops with the old fashioned parachutes jumping out of them for the film. It was also the first war film in which actors were put through boot camp prior to filming. The film cost $22 million in 1977. Compare that with Star Wars which also came out in 1977 and cost $10 million.

See also Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Longest Day, and Battle of Britain.

A Bridge Too Far provides examples of the following tropes:

  • America Won World War II: The opening narration tells us, "In 1944, the Second World War was in its fifth year and still going Hitler's way. German troops controlled most of Europe. D-Day changed all that." Never mind that by that time, Germany was quite definitely losing the war on the Eastern Front — where the real blows were delivered. In the film itself, this trope is zig-zagged. British and Polish troops have plenty of screen time, and the movie portrays one of the failed operations.
  • Artistic License History: See the opening narration shown above.
  • Artistic License Military: Averted in most parts, but Played for Drama where it is present.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: This goes for most of the senior officers in the field, fighting alongside their men. Robert Redford's character leads a dangerous river crossing and personally inflicts a large amount of the asskicking.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: General Horrocks begins his Rousing Speech with "Gentlemen, this is a story you will tell your grandchildren. And mightily bored they'll all be."
  • The Big Board
  • Bilingual Bonus: Subverted. Liv Ullmann's speech about the plight of the wounded soldiers is completely unintelligible. It required subtitles in Dutch cinema and DVD releases.
  • Blatant Lies:
    General Horrocks: The Irish Guards under the command of Colonel Vandeleur will take the lead.
    Colonel Vandeleur: (sotto voice) Christ, not us again.
    General Horrocks: What do you think of that, Joe?
    Colonel Vandeleur: Delighted, sir. Absolutely delighted. (Everyone laughs)
  • Brits with Battleships: Both the 1st Airborne Division and XXX corps are featured heavily.
  • The Cavalry: XXX Corps is intended to be this for the paratroops.
  • The Cavalry Arrives Late: Except that in this case this is a bad thing, and of course the heroes do not win.
  • Contemplate Our Navels:
    • At the end of the movie when General Browning reflects on why the operation failed so dismally. "I always felt we tried to take it a bridge too far." Note that Browning did actually say this, but in a different context.
    • Also when the generals decide to pull First Airborne out of Arnhem.
      Brig. Gen. James Gavin: It was Nijmegen.
      Lt. Col. J.O.E. Vandeleur: It was the single road getting to Nijmegen.
      Lt. Gen. Horrocks: No, it was after Nijmegen.
      Lt. Gen. Frederick "Boy" Browning: And the fog, in England. [leaves with Horrocks]
      Maj. Gen. Stanislaw Sosabowski: [to Gavin and J.O.E.] Doesn't matter what it was. When one man says to another, "I know what let's do today, let's play the war game."... everybody dies.
  • Culture Clash: The Dissonant Serenity of the British officers is sometimes grating to the American and Polish officers.
    Major Cook: We busted our asses to get you across that bridge. And now you're just going to sit here and...drink tea?
  • Dangerously Genre Savvy: Field Marshal Model. While it might seem idiotic that he does not accept the captured plans of Operation Market Garden, the last two major Allied invasions (Sicily and Normandy) had massive, elaborate deception campaigns which kept German forces out of key areas until it was too late. The Sicily invasion actually included a corpse washing ashore with a convincing copy of the supposed invasion plans. In addition, he knows that paratroops are very weak if they are not continuously supplied, so even without the plans, they have a good chance of stopping them.
  • Death by Adaptation
    • The British paratrooper who is killed retrieving a supply canister actually survived that incident in Real Life.
    • Similarly, Major Carlyle is shown dying from his wounds near the end of the film. His real life counterpart, Maj. Allison Digby Tatham-Warter, survived both the battle and the war.
  • Divided We Fall: After listening to what sounds like a suicide plan, Gen. Sosabowski comes to the briefing officer and checks his insignia.
    Sosabowski: Just making sure whose side you're on.
    • He also says he's contemplating filing a formal objection against the plan, so that it would be known he was aware how foolish it was if his forces are wiped out, but decides that absolving himself of a share of blame wouldn't matter if he's already dead.
  • Downer Ending: Duh. Despite capturing and holding most of the bridges, the Operation fails thanks to the failure to capture the all-important Arnhem bridge. In addition, the Allies suffer heavy casualties, all for nothing.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: Justified, as most of the units on both sides that participated in the battles were top-of-the-line troops (Paratroopers for the Allies and SS Panzergrenadiers for the Germans, respectively).
  • Finagle's Law: From the moment the operation is launched, everything starts going wrong for the Allies.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Naturally. See Downer Ending above.
  • Foreshadowing: General Gavin says his Dutch advisor forgot to tell him that when the Germans took Nijmegen bridge in 1940, they were slaughtered.
  • Frontline General: The Americans Maxwell Taylor and James Gavin jump into battle with their respective divisions. The British Roy Urquhart mostly stays at his headquarters, but does venture to the front, while Frederick Browning spends almost the entire battle at his own headquarters.
  • Good News, Bad News: After being missing and presumed dead for several days, General Urquhart turns up alive and asks for a briefing. He's told they're cut off from the troops in Arnhem and are facing two SS panzer divisions. Urquhart asks for the good news and is told there isn't any. Their reinforcements are delayed due to bad weather, the dropping zones have been overrun by the Germans so their supplies are all going to the enemy, and they can't get the radios to work so they can't inform anyone back in England of this fact. Urquhart is visibly stunned.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: General Browning's portrayal is often considered as such.
  • Hope Spot:
    • The explosives planted on the Nijmegen bridge fail to explode, seemingly leaving the road clear to Arnhem. Also the soldier who manages to retrieve a parachute container only to be killed by a sniper. The container is then revealed to be full of red berets instead of food or ammunition.
    • A villainous example: the lone SS lieutenant who runs to try and save the burning Captain Grabner only to get shot by a British sniper halfway to Grabner's halftrack.
  • Home by Christmas: This is what the soldiers were told should Market-Garden succeed. You can guess it didn't work out.
  • Idiot Ball
    • The Dutch Resistance sends the allies good intel on a German Panzer division near Arnhem. The British dismiss the intel. Later, Aerial Photos confirm there are in fact tanks there. The British response? The tanks must be inoperable. Otherwise, the Operation would be in serious Jeopardy. Cue Face Palm. (The film leaves out the fact that in real life, the Dutch resistance had been infiltrated by the Germans. The Allies could not tell what info was reliable.)
    • The radios the paratroopers are supplied with (a crucial part of the equipment for such an operation) are set to the wrong frequencies, and no-one bothers to check if they are operable prior to jumping. This is equivalent to issuing soldiers with ammunition that doesn't match their weapons.
  • Irony: One of the British paratroopers says that the resupply pilots are under orders to ignore signals on the ground, as, for all they know, they could be Germans. And their supplies are going right to the Germans.
  • It's Raining Men: The Movie. A Bridge Too Far dramatized what the real Operation Market Garden revealed, namely, that paratroops armed with nothing but hand-held weaponry could not be expected to hold out very long against tanks.
  • Large Ham
    • Colonel Stout as played by a cigar-chewing Elliot Gould.
    • Definitely Edward Fox as General Horrocks, though justified. Many archived newsreels of Sir Brian are available. Fox nails him so well that it is uncanny.
  • Laughing Mad: Happens literally when the paratroopers land near Arnhem only to encounter the inmates of a lunatic asylum freed by a bombing raid.
  • Majorly Awesome: Exemplified in Major Cook (Redford)'s reaction to being told he and his men are going to have to row across a river covered by enemy machine-guns in order to make an infantry assault on a heavily defended position — and they're no longer going to be able to do it in the dark - "Better by daylight."
  • Nazis with Gnarly Weapons: With the Waffen-SS being the most prominently featured.
  • Only Sane Man: General Stanislaw Sosabowski is depicted as such, since he's the only one who seems to realize how fatally flawed the plan is before it starts to go wrong and is completely unconvinced by General Browning's wishful-thinking reassurances.
    Browning: Only the weather can stop us now.
    Sosabowski: Weather! Christus! General Browning, what of the Germans? Don't you think that if we know Arnhem is so critical to their safety that they might know it too?
    Browning: Now, look here. The few troops in the area are second class. They're not frontline caliber, not at all, do you understand? I think you ought to have a little more faith in Montgomery's intelligence reports, you know. He's done pretty well for us in last three or four years.
    Sosabowski: I will tell you the extent of my faith. I am thinking of asking for a letter from you stating that I was forced to act under your orders in case my men are massacred.
    Browning: I see... I do see. Do you wish such a letter?
    Sosabowski: No... No, of course not. In the case of massacre, what difference will it make?
  • Poor Communication Kills: The Movie, arguably. Thanks to a combination of mis-drops, faulty radios, and (lack of) coordination between commands, the entire operation is in jeopardy from the very start.
  • Precision F-Strike: In the original version, James Caan and Elliot Gould each got one. Some (but not all) current DVDs only feature Caan's.
  • The Radio Dies First: The radios that worked well in desert conditions can't get through in low-lying Holland.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: A low-key example in Major Cook (played by Robert Redford), who prays his way across a river while being machine-gunned.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Major Fuller, the young intel officer who insists that Resistance reports are not to be ignored, gets deemed mentally unfit and removed from duty for his trouble.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Urquhart's paratroopers are quite astonished when the General turns up alive, having been holded up in a Dutch house for several days. Unfortunately things have gotten even worse since he was away.
  • Shaggy Dog Story: The allied paratroopers are dropped into Holland only to discover that their radios are faulty and inoperable, and they spend literally the entire movie trying to fix them. The lack of radios is a major setback for the invasion force, as situation after situation comes up where they need to have a working radio but don't. At the end of the movie, they finally, finally get a radio fixed. However, by this point the situation has so deteriorated that the commanders, after asking each other for reinforcements, have literally nothing to say to each other except:
    Colonel Frost: Well... we'll just wait for 30 Corps then.
    General Urquhart: That would probably be best.
    Colonel Frost: Very reassuring talk we've had, sir.
  • Shoot the Messenger: The intelligence officer who tries to warn about the German tanks is told he's been working too hard and is put on sick leave.
  • Spot of Tea: A wonderful example:
    Corporal Hancock: (holding a mug of tea) Sir.
    General Urquhart: Hancock. I've got lunatics laughing at me from the woods. My original plan has been scuppered now that the jeeps haven't arrived. My communications are completely broken down. Do you really believe any of that can be helped by a cup of tea?
    Corporal Hancock: Couldn't hurt, sir.
  • Survival Mantra
    • Major Cook keeps repeating "Hail Mary, full of grace" as he paddles across the river under fire from German machine gun and mortar fire (Truth in Television for the character Redford was playing, who was too tense to remember the rest of the prayer).
    • A terrified army chaplain can also be seen saying "Thy will be done...they will be done..." in the same scene.
  • Suspiciously Small Army: Averted because they did spend a lot of money and even had Real Life airborne soldiers drop out of planes for it.
  • Tanks, but No Tanks: The German Panther tanks in the film were actually vintage Leopard 1 tanks made up to look like Panthers.
  • Tempting Fate:
    • "Only the weather can stop us now!" And it does.
    • Urquhart tells an officer "I'll be back shortly," and the officer replies, "I'm sure the radios will be fixed by then, sir." Urquhart then spends several days hiding in an attic from German soldiers, only to return to find everything has gone to hell in his absence. And they still can't get the radios working.
    • The plan is meant to end the war by Christmas. As The Narrator points out, it's not the first time someones said that.
    • Averted when the British Airborne are pulling out of Arnhem, which involves sneaking out without the Germans realising. One man says to Urquhart , "I believe we're actually going to make it, sir." They do.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: On the wounded.
  • Title Drop:
    General Browning: I've just been on to Monty. He's very proud, and pleased.
    General Urquhart: Pleased?
    General Browning: Of course. He thinks Market Garden has been 90% successful.
    General Urquhart: But what do you think?
    General Browning: ...well as you know I always thought we tried to go a bridge too far.
  • Translation Convention: Averted. The Germans speak German and the Dutch speak Dutch.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Played straight. Right after the Allied generals are given the rough outline of the plan, the first sign that it will fail occurs when Field Marshal von Rundstedt orders an SS-Panzer Corps to Arnhem for rest.
  • Weapons Understudies: The German vehicles are usually played by NATO equipment with some plywood mods added on to make it less obvious, (the German "Panther" tanks are played by modified Dutch Army Leopard 1's) and the close air support planes seen when XXX Corps attacks are T-6 Texan trainers kitted out to look like Typhoons. Also a good deal of the half tracks used in the film were real, but had since been almost completely scrapped since the war and were basically shells. It becomes noticeable when many of they only appear behind convenient low walls to disguise the fact that they have no tracks and are being pulled on sleds. There are also several scenes where some of the enemy armor is lacking its steering mechanisms, treadguards, mounted weapons and the other stuff you lose after sitting in a junkyard for thirty years. Some of the vehicles were loaned by private collectors or museums, but this can only account for a very small number of those needed. Of the two German halftracks seen one is a genuine wartime vehicle, the Sd.Kfz.8 troop carrier seen used by Grabner's men in the first bridge assault: Grabner's Sd.Kfz.251 (which looks more like an Sd.Kfz.250) is a replica Frankensteined together from different vehicles. It survived getting set on fire and was reused in Highlander.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Field Marshals von Rundstedt and Model believe they are preparing for a hard-driving advance led by Patton, not a cautious-advance led by Montgomery.
  • Yanks with Tanks: Appears in the form of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.