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.

A Bridge Too Far provides examples of the following tropes:

  • America Wins the War: 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 Military
  • 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.
  • Badass: 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."
  • The Big Board
  • Bilingual Bonus: Subverted. Liv Ullman's speech about the plight of the wounded soldiers is completely unintelligible. It required subtitles in Dutch cinema and DVD releases.
  • The Cavalry
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Finagle's Law: From the moment the operation is launched, everything starts going wrong for the Allies.
  • 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.
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: "Gentlemen, this is a story you will tell your grandchildren. And mighty bored they'll all be."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • It's Raining Men
  • Large Ham
    • Colonel Stout as played by a cigar-chewing Elliot Gould.
    • Definitely Edward Fox as General Horrocks. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: Thankfully 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.