Feb 212012

Rating: ★★★★☆
Users: [ratings]

MGM, 1977, 175 minutes
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Elliot Gould, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Hardy Kruger, Lawrence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, Maximilian Schell and Liv Ullmann
Screenplay: William Goldman
Based on the book by Cornelius Ryan
Associate Producer: John Palmer
Co-Producer: Michael Stanley-Evans
Producer: Joseph E. Levine and Richard P. Levine
Director: Richard Attenborough

Historical Background

Following the Normandy landings and the liberation of France, the German army was retreating by September 1944, the fifth year of WWII. However, the Germans had fallen back so quickly that the Allied armies had out-stripped their supply lines. The Allied advance was led by rival generals, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and Lieutenant General George S. Patton, who were less concerned about winning the war than who would be the first to capture Berlin. Hoping to reach Berlin ahead of Patton, Montgomery conceived of a daring plan where three and a half airborne divisions would be dropped at three separate landing sites, Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem, to capture several river crossings in Holland, ending with the vital Lower Rhine Bridge at Arnhem. The paratroopers would hold a sixty-four-mile-long corridor between the Dutch border and Arnhem for British tanks, which would cross the captured bridges to outflank the Siegfried Line and penetrate the Ruhr Valley. Called Market Garden, the plan consisted of a combined airborne landing (Market) and ground offensive (Garden). The airborne landing would be carried out by the American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, the British 1st Airborne Division, and the Polish Independent Brigade. The British XXX Corps was assigned to accomplish Garden and break through the German defences to link up with the paratroopers at Arnhem, which was only expected to take three days. Warnings by the Dutch resistance that the Germans had stopped retreating, and were moving troops into the Arnhem region to prepare to counterattack were ignored by Montgomery.

The first day’s landings went smoothly but it soon became apparent that the Dutch resistance was correct and the Germans were in greater strength than expected. Several key bridges remained in German hands or had been blown up. Worse, the narrow road made it easy for the Germans to delay the British tanks, putting the Garden part of the operation behind schedule. Since the Germans had been alerted, the landings on the second day took greater casualties. Protecting a thin slice of territory that stretched for more than sixty miles was almost impossible, so no sector of the corridor would be completely safe during the operation. The paratroopers from the British First Airborne Division were dropped too far from their target, Arnhem Bridge, and only a single battalion managed to seize one end of the bridge. Moreover, two Panzer divisions had been transferred to Arnhem to recuperate, and the rest of the division was shredded in futile attempts to link up with the troops at the bridge, who struggled to hold on. The Eindhoven sector was relatively secure, but the vital bridge at Nijmegen remained in German hands until American paratroopers rowed boats across the river to capture the bridge on the fourth day.

It was too late. The Germans had already crossed the Arnhem Bridge and would soon capture the exhausted British survivors. At the same time, the rest of the Airborne Division had abandoned hope of linking up with the troops at the bridge, and had retreated to the ferry crossing at Oosterbeek to hold out until XXX Corps arrived and built a new bridge. However, the troops of XXX Corps continued to move cautiously and only reached the other side of the river near Oosterbeek late on the sixth day, but the British Airborne division had been ground down by relentless shelling. Since the corridor was still in flux, the division was evacuated during the night of the ninth day, so the operation ended in failure.

Plot Summary

Heavy fighting during the period following the Allies’ successful landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944 had driven the Germans out of Belgium and France by early September. However, an over-extended supply network had brought the Allies’ advance to a halt. Frustrated by the delay, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery conceived of a bold combined land-airborne operation that would seize a series of bridges in Holland, creating a corridor for British tanks to bypass the Siegfried Line, the Germans’ main defensive line, and enter the Ruhr Valley, the industrial heartland of Germany. Operation Market Garden would be the largest airborne operation up to that time, and would require three separate drops at different locations over three days.

The operation began on September 17 and was initially successful. Several bridges were captured and temporary bridges were built to cross rivers where the bridges had been destroyed, enabling the British tanks to move deeper into Holland. However, two major problems would cause the failure of the operation. German resistance in Holland proved to be much stronger than expected, so it was a bloody struggle to maintain control of the corridor. Worse, the final bridge at the end of the corridor was located in Arnhem, where two Panzer divisions had been sent to rest. When the British 1st Airborne Division landed at Arnhem, a battalion from the division managed to occupy one end of the bridge but was eventually forced to surrender on September 21. The rest of the division had suffered horrible losses trying to reach the bridge, and its evacuation on September 25 destroyed hopes of an early end to the war.

Historical Accuracy

The movie’s presentation of the operation as a disaster is correct, since the actual operation was a perfect storm of mistakes, negligence, arrogance and faulty planning. The main problems include: underestimating the German strength, especially the likely presence of Panzers at Arnhem and the failure to bring more anti-tank weapons; spreading the landings over three days; inexplicable stupidity in not dropping the British 1st Airborne closer to the Arnhem Bridge; the lack of urgency in seizing the bridge as quickly as possible; and XXX Corps’s failure to push and relieve the 1st Airborne.

The key mistake was that Lieutenant General Frederick Browning, commander of the airborne operation, had ignored warnings from the Dutch resistance and his own intelligence officer that the Germans were no longer retreating and had stationed Panzers in Arnhem. Major Fuller, an intelligence officer, shows the screen Browning (Dirk Bogarde) photos of the tanks but he refuses to cancel the operation because sixteen previous missions had already been called off and he feared the damage to morale if he cancelled yet another mission. Fuller is based on Major Brian Urquhart, the real intelligence officer who had tried to convince Browning to accept the presence of panzers in Arnhem, and the name was changed to Fuller presumably to avoid confusion with Major General Roy Urquhart (Sean Connery), commander of the British First Airborne Division. Just like the screen Fuller, Major Urquhart was put on sick leave after pushing Browning to cancel the mission. Admittedly, Browning was under tremendous pressure to use the airborne troops before the endless cancellations destroyed their morale, but there is no excuse for his failure to warn Major General Urquhart, who would have known to take more anti-tank weapons with him. Although it is not mentioned by the script, Browning compounded his mistake by deciding that the airborne landing would have a tactical HQ, which required 38 gliders that would have otherwise been used for the Arnhem landing. This decision was motivated by the fact that Browning had not seen action during WWII.

The title of the book and the movie comes from a phrase said by Browning during Montgomery’s initial briefing on Market Garden. After Montgomery had confidently stated that the British tanks could reach Arnhem in two days, Browning replied that the paratroopers could hold on for four days but added that they might be going a bridge too far. The screen Browning made the statement at the end of movie, after the operation had ended, to defend himself against Urquhart’s anger at the destruction of his division.

Although Browning is deservedly given responsibility for the disaster, Montgomery, the architect of the operation, is spared any criticism, even though he had refused to cooperate with the Dutch army when planning an operation in Holland, the home country of the Dutch army, or to solicit any information about the local terrain and transportation routes. Instead, the Dutch were expected to wait patiently while Montgomery liberated their country for them on his way to Berlin to win the war and thus prove to Patton that he was the better general. It takes a powerful ego to claim that a disaster like Operation Market Garden had been 90% successful, but Montgomery possessed the necessary ego.

Early in the movie, Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks (Edward Fox), commander of XXX Corps, and Lt. Col. Joe Vandaleur (Michael Caine), commander of the Irish Guards Armored Group, drive past a seemingly endless line of tanks and armoured vehicles that are waiting to cross the Dutch border. The scene illustrates the danger that the tanks could easily be delayed on such a narrow road, which had looked much wider on the map.

The script makes a few minor changes to simplify the story. Field Marshal Walter Model had already sent General Wilhelm Bittrich’s 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions to Arnhem to rest before Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt replaced him as commander of the Western Front, but the screen Rundstedt gives the order. An astonished Bittrich (Maximilian Schell) says “Fantastic. Just once to have such power in my hands” while watching the British paratroopers land at Arnhem. The phrase was actually said by General Karl Student, who had overseen the development of paratroopers in the Luftwaffe, and had led the paratroop landings in Holland and Belgium in May 1940, and the invasion of Crete a year later. Although Student does not appear in the movie, it was a good decision to keep the line. It may seem hard to believe but Model did conclude that the paratroopers were landing to capture him because nothing else was important, and he did think that the plans found in a downed glider were fake. Unlike the field marshal, Bittrich realized that the bridges at Arnhem and Nijmegen were more valuable than Model, and urged that they be blown up, but Model wanted to keep them for the counterattack, even though there were no reserves for a counterattack.

Unfortunately, there were not enough planes to transport the troops at one time, and there would only be one lift per day instead of two because the American pilots were not experienced enough to handle two flights per day. Scattered landings had caused heavy casualties during the landings in Sicily and Normandy, and the Americans were unwilling to take the risk. Therefore, the air planners decided to land all of the 101st on the first day, drop the 82nd in two lifts, and land the British in three lifts. The 101st received priority because XXX Corps could not move forward unless the 101st had achieved its objectives. Worried by reports of increased anti-aircraft fire near Arnhem, the transport pilots refused to drop the paratroopers near the Arnhem Bridge, so landing spots eight miles from the bridge were selected instead. Major General Roy Urquhart pushed for two lifts in one day and closer landings, since there was suitable land 2.5 miles from the bridge, but was overruled. The decision to have several landings meant that Urquhart would have to leave half of his men from the first lift to protect the next day’s landing area, and the paratroopers would lose the advantage of surprise and mobility.

The decision to land the First British Airborne Division eight miles from the target was a critical factor in the failure at Arnhem but as the commander on the ground Major General Urquhart must share part of the blame. Equipped with jeeps, Major Frederick Gough’s reconnaissance squadron was intended to scout ahead of the troops to find a safe route, but Urquhart decided to send Gough’s squadron on its own to try to reach the bridge. Unfortunately, the reconnaissance squadron was ambushed by a German battalion. Deprived of scouts, two of the three battalions of paratroopers were delayed by German troops for several crucial hours, enabling the Germans to gather reinforcements.

Instead of remaining in the rear to allocate reserves to penetrate weak points in the enemy’s lines, Urquhart went up to the front. Surrounded by German troops, he had to hide and was unable to rejoin his division for thirty-six hours, while his second-in-command was badly wounded and captured. When the rest of the division arrived the next day, it was sent piecemeal into heavily defended areas, and two separate battalions were chewed to pieces crossing the exact same killing ground within the space of a couple of hours. Since airborne units were trained to move as rapidly as possible as a group towards the objective, no troops had been left behind to protect the route for the following units. This method is effective when there is a single landing, but since there were three landings, each unit had to find its own route between divisional HQ near the landing area and the front, which reflects both the inadequate planning and the fact that the two senior officers had disappeared. Worse, the remaining senior officers actually had a shouting match over who should be in command. The clumsy handling of the division during Urquhart’s absence and the lack of cooperation among the two remaining senior officers was not shown in the movie.

Although Urquhart’s disappearance is shown, the script ignores most of the fighting at Arnhem, focusing on Lieutenant Colonel John Frost’s (Anthony Hopkins) battalion, which had managed to seize one end of the bridge. Several attempts were made to reinforce Frost but they failed. The depiction of Frost’s situation is suitably grim. When he refused to surrender, German tanks did flatten Arnhem, house by house.

The portrayal of the attempt by paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division to cross the Son River to take control of the Nijmegen Bridge is incredibly accurate, including the paratroopers using rifle butts as paddles, Model’s refusal to permit the bridge to be blown up, and the fact that the German general had placed detonation charges on the bridge despite Model’s orders. Unlike the screen Major Julian Cook (Robert Redford), the real major knew that his job was organizing his troops, not the single-handed capture of the bridge.

The anger expressed by Major Cook when he learns that the British tanks would spend the night at Nijmegen is a pale imitation of the fury felt by the American paratroopers, who had taken heavy casualties capturing the bridge and sympathized with their fellow paratroopers at Arnhem. Actually, the criticism was voiced by Colonel Reuben Tucker, the regimental commander, not Major Cook, but Redford was the movie’s biggest star and he needed a star scene. The script could have explained better that the tanks had to wait because the road between Nijmegen and Arnhem was an elevated road between two dikes that followed a straight line, so the tanks would be sitting ducks for any German artillery, therefore infantry support was needed to clear out any German batteries. Most important, the road behind them was far from secure, and American paratroopers and British infantry were already fighting desperately to repel the never-ending German attacks.

While the presentation of the Polish Independent Brigade during Market Garden was correct, the script did not explain that the brigade was originally intended to drop into Poland when the Polish Home Army rose up against the German occupiers. However, the British wanted to use them in France, and British pressure eventually convinced Brigadier General Stanislaw Sosabowski to put his troops under British command, so he agreed to perform one operation and then drop on Poland. The Warsaw Uprising had begun on August 1, 1944, and the leaders had publicly asked the Polish Brigade to join them, but the Polish paratroopers would fight and die at Arnhem instead of Poland, while the Germans systematically levelled most of Warsaw, killing roughly a fifth of the city’s population until the survivors surrendered on October 2, a week after Market Garden had ended in failure.

At one point, the Dutch resistance is shown stacking the dead bodies of Germans, British and even Dutch civilians to form human roadblocks to stop the panzers. It is a gruesome scene but also true.

Since the film had fourteen leads, screenwriter William Goldman understandably used them as often as possible, rather than introduce new characters, and further complicate an already complex story. Frost had been one of a group of wounded who were evacuated into German captivity on the fourth day, and he had already handed over command to Major Gough, commander of the Recon Squadron, but Gough was cut from the script. Furthermore, Brigadier General James Gavin (Ryan O’Neal), commander of the 82nd Airborne, and Vandeleur were not involved in the decision to evacuate the survivors of the British Airborne Division from Arnhem. Rejecting Horrock’s plan for a full-scale crossing of the Rhine, General Miles Dempsey, commander of the British Second Army, had decided to pull them out. Operation Market Garden had already failed by that time, since German attacks would close the corridor behind them for forty hours.

The evacuation of 1st British Airborne is faithful to the facts. Urquhart led 10,000 men into Arnhem and left with 2,000.

In the film, Browning receives most of the blame for the failure of the operation but the reality was quite different and very distasteful. Realizing that someone had to take the blame for the disaster, Horrocks, Dempsey, Montgomery and Browning had united to choose Sosabowski, the foreigner, as the fall guy. Sosabowski had not been involved in the planning of the operation, his warning that the Germans would not leave Arnhem unguarded had been proven correct, and he had fiercely criticized the decision to spread the airlifts over three days, commenting that an airborne operation is not a purchase by instalments, but he was the only senior officer disciplined after the operation. Furthermore, his brigade been dropped on the wrong side of the river four days after the battle had started, by which time, the remnants of the British Airborne division were struggling to survive. Sosabowski’s sharp-tongued remark about the failure of XXX Corps to bring boats when it had to cross many rivers had not won him any friends. Browning accused Sosabowski of being ‘difficult to work with’ and ‘argumentative.’ Even though Sosabowski had been right, he was relieved of command in December 1944.

The movie does not mention that the Dutch officers were furious and frustrated that Montgomery’s staff had refused to listen to their suggestions and had chosen landing zones that were too far from the target. The Dutch staff college had even practiced exercises where Arnhem was attacked from the direction of Nijmegen, so they knew that the British had adopted the wrong strategy since the dike road was too exposed for tanks. Even when it became clear that their suggestions were valuable, Montgomery and the commanders of the Allied Airborne Army were too embarrassed to ask for help from foreigners. This was not simply a matter of pride for the Dutch officers, they feared that the Germans would take reprisals against the Dutch people in revenge if the attacks failed. Their fears were proven justified after the British paratroopers had been evacuated since Arnhem and Oosterbeek were forcibly emptied of Dutch civilians and then systematically looted of anything of value.


Cornelius Ryan had written the book A Bridge Too Far while dying from cancer, and producer Joseph Levine had promised Ryan in the hospital that he would make the movie. Financing the film with his own money, Levine took a risk since director Richard Attenborough’s first two films had been flops. Levine needed stars to convince distributors to buy the theatrical rights in advance, and he had planned to use the money from the sale of the rights to pay the actors. However, since he was an independent without the backing of a studio and it was such a huge production, the stars’ agents feared that the movie would never happen, so Levine was forced to use his own money to pay all of the actors’ salaries in advance. Aware of the quality of the film, Levine held off selling the rights to distributors from around the world until a few scenes were ready to be shown, and then waited patiently for the highest offer in each region. The strategy paid off and the film was already $4 million in profit before it opened.

Using a thousand paratroopers from the British, Dutch and Polish armies as extras during the jump scenes, Attenborough filled the sky with parachutes. Although the producers only had sixteen working Dakota airplanes, skillful cinematography shows that an armada transported the troops. In fact, the movie has an impressive number of mock-ups for the pre-digital age. They only had five working Sherman tanks, the rest were fibreglass molds mounted on Volkswagen Beetle chassis. The Bailey bridge put across the Son during the movie was a real Bailey bridge that Attenborough filmed as it was built by British troops.

The real Frost, Gavin, Horrocks, Urquhart and Vandaleur served as military consultants for the production, which may explain why Urquhart was treated well. The director also benefited from access to a surprising amount of archival footage, including film from the actual fighting at Arnhem.

Attracted by the depressing nature of the story, screenwriter William Goldman had wanted to show that war was horrible. He succeeded. Given the complexity of the story, the script does an admirable job of creating a clear, easy-to-follow narrative. While a great deal was cut out, Goldman had little choice since the movie’s length of three hours was already considered long. Fixated on accuracy, Goldman struggled to re-arrange the confusion of an operation on several different fronts into a coherent story, all too aware that many of the participants were still alive and would see themselves on screen. The pressure proved to be so heavy that he swore he would never do another film based on living people.

Despite the film’s commercial success, many American critics simply did not believe the story because they were accustomed to the war movies with happy endings traditionally produced by Hollywood studios.

Although it was an all-star cast, most of the stars had their own scenes, so they rarely worked with each other. Aside from Redford, who had three weeks of filming, they were only needed for two weeks. Despite the potential for an epic clash of egos, the stars were relaxed, since they all knew that the film did not depend on them, but they were still given a special scene to keep them happy.

Horrocks’ speech at the beginning of the movie explaining that the paratroopers are the homesteaders surrounded by bad guys (the Germans), waiting to be rescued by the cavalry (XXX Corps) is Goldman’s thumbnail summary of the operation. It played like a traditional western, except that the cavalry did not arrive.

Operation Market Garden experienced so many mistakes, errors and cock-ups that three hours is only enough time to address the major problems, but A Bridge Too Far is an excellent movie that shows how it should be done. Everyone involved should be proud.

  • A wonderful, intelligent review.  Thank you for that.  As a professional historian, I appreciate greatly when reviewers like you take the time and make the effort to comment on the accuracy of the film.  Roger Ebert, an over-rated film critic if there ever was one, trashed the whole thing for being too violent, full of stereotypes etc. and missed all the important points about the film which are the things you mention such as the reluctance of (especially American) critics to have any interest in films that are critical of the Allied War effort.   But the fact is that the Allies made plenty of mistakes.  This was one of the worst because Ike, who had resisted thusfar  Montgomery’s relentless pestering about making a `lightning thrust’ in to  Germany, relented and it turned out as bad as most things Montgomery was singly responsible for did.  As for the `stereotypes’, they are actually realistic portrayals of national characterisitcs.   The British were mostly arrogant and often ignorant but typically bad soldiers, plenty of  Americans were baby-faced citizen soldiers who really didn’t want to be there and the Germans were filthy buggers to a man.
         I’m happy for all those who made this great film that it proved worthy of their efforts.  It’s an historically accurate and fine commemorative film to all those who won that ugly war. Thanks for pointing all this out in your review.

    • historyonfilm

      Thank you for the compliment, I am quite proud of that review, it was a lot of work. Actually, I am a fan of Roger Ebert, although I do not always agree with him. I learned a great deal about movies from him and Gene Siskel. Unfortunately, most American film critics simply could not accept that the Allies had made mistakes, a viewpoint caused by the endless series of overly patriotic films churned out by Hollywood in the 40s and 50s.

  • Henry

    In the 70’s as a American Teenager I saw the Movie in the Theater. In the German Counter-Attack at Nijmegen, an American Officer and Unit are wiped out. Never have I seen that footage save that one time.