Epic, all-star retelling of one of the most notorious failed missions of World War II: the Allied attempt to capture several key bridges in Holland that led to the capture and death of thousands of British, Polish and American soldiers.
For this wildly ambitious WWII epic, Richard Attenborough assembled one of the starriest male casts in cinema’s long years, and set them to work try trying to wrestle a satisfying narrative out of the sprawling Allied misadventure that was Operation Market-Garden. An unusual and courageous choice for a war movie as it centres on marked failure.
There is an ironic equivalence between the British director’s long, worthy and detailed film falling just short of its objective and the original mission’s overreaching endeavours to gain a bridgehead into Nazi Germany. Neither succeeded, but both were a stirring effort all the same.
Attenborough’s dilemma, despite sterling assistance from his screenwriter William Goldman, is the bitty nature of the narrative. Rather than concentrate on one particular facet of the history, he endeavours to capture snatches and starts from a host of different generals, colonels and private dotted up and down the Rhine, all being co-ordinated by Dirk Bogarde’s stuffy Lieutenant General. It’s less a matter of a cast than a candy store of sparkling cameos.
The stand-out, or at least the most memorable, sequence involves the taking of Arnheim by Anthony Hopkins Johnny Frost. The interminable stalemate of frontline combat is powerfully rendered: the strafed streets, the lack of supplies, the drift to inevitable surrender. It’s one of the few occasions the ruthless exposure of troops is fully evinced.
While the film gets bogged down trying to extract the appropriate exactitude of the era — you can imagine how weighed down the set was by nodding historical advisors — the stiff-upper-lipped gallantry amongst the host of million dollar generals still carries a great sense of its own magnitude. Just chalk ‘em up — Redford! Caan! Connery! Caine! Olivier! Hackman! — and watch the calamities tumble about them. The cross-hatched leadership with their endless table-talk and prevarication, plants the seeds of its own failure. In the end it they were aiming too high, pushing one bridge too far. War and moviemaking share a lot in common.
Now a staple of Bank Holiday Mondays (which is in itself a perverse sort of compliment), this sprawling epic rewards patience with an emotional pay-off and non-triumphant ending that reminds us all too starkly of the sacrifices made during war.