A Bridge Too Far: In Life & Film

By Amanda M. Daniell

The hit movie A Bridge Too Far made its debut in 1977. Directed by Richard Attenborough, the movie was a depiction of the Battle of Arnhem during WWII, or more commonly referred to as Operation Market-Garden. The genius behind Operation Market-Garden was British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The plan called for a joint task force of British, American and Polish soldiers.

After the successful allied assault of Normandy in France the Allies had the Germans on the run. Pushing them all the way back to German occupied Holland, it appeared as if the Allies were on their way to a swift victory. However, the Allies were chasing the Germans so rapidly that they began to outrun their supplies and were forced to halt at the Belgium-Holland border. Not wanting to give the Germans time to regroup, Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower approved Montgomery's operation to capture six bridges that stretched through Holland. The operation consisted of two parts. Airborne divisions would be dropped nearby where the bridges stood and their objective was to hold them until the ground forces arrived. The airborne part of the mission was deemed "Market", while the ground force operation was deemed "Garden". Montgomery, being ambitious, thought that by capturing these six bridges the Allies could then simply follow the Rhine River straight into the heart of Germany and end the war. The mission included approximately 5,000 transport aircrafts and 2,613 gliders. This mission marked the first time in history that soldiers were dropped during daylight, as it was thought safer to drop under the cover of darkness rather than provide falling targets for the enemy. The operation, despite all the efforts, would prove a failure. The British airborne unit at Arnhem was unable to hold the bridge long enough for the ground troops to arrive.

The movie A Bridge Too Far was filmed almost thirty years after the actual event, and many of the men who participated in the real Operation Market-Garden were still alive and able to provide support in the making of this film. This is in part perhaps why the movie is incredibly accurate. For the remainder of this paper I will attempt to compare and contrast the accuracies of the movie A Bridge Too Far with actual events. Because there are so many intricacies and aspects that can be examined, I have decided to pay special attention to the British participation.

The first question one might ask before going to see this movie, is why is it named A Bridge Too Far? Assuming that I know nothing about WWII history the conclusion I can draw is that it is about bridges. As I explained previously Operation Market-Garden called for the taking of six bridges in Holland. Before the operation commenced, Field Marshal Montgomery was asked by Lieutenant General Frederick Browning, who was heading up the operation, "How long will it take the armor to reach us?", as he pointed on the map to the bridge at Arnhem. Montgomery quickly answered, "Two days". Browning then replied, "We can hold it for four but sir, I think we might be going a bridge too far." These ominous words by Browning would prove to be true as the Allies had indeed gone too far and paid dearly for it.

The movie's running time is two hours and fifty-five minutes. In almost three hours the movie does a significantly good job of conveying the events of Operation Market-Garden. However, because the movie tries to include every aspect of the mission, viewers often find themselves confused, as there are numerous characters and exploits to keep in order. The movie's original rating was R, for language. However, after protests it received a PG rating. The first rating may well have suited it best as the language is rather offensive for a PG rating.

Director, Richard Attenborough, originally did not want to take on the task of directing A Bridge Too Far, but agreed after producer Joseph E. Levine agreed to finance Attenborough's Ghandi in exchange for him taking on the project of directing A Bridge Too Far. Attenborough also makes a cameo appearance somewhere in the movie. The movie, although it contains an all-star cast of fourteen Oscar winners, did not receive any awards in America for this particular film. However, actor Edward Fox won best supporting actor in the British Academy Awards. Also to receive awards were Les Williams, for best soundtrack and Geoffrey Unsworth, for best cinematography. With names such as Sean Connery, Robert Redford and Anthony Hopkins the movie was sure to make headlines. The role of Major Julian Cook, played by Robert Redford, was originally offered to Steve McQueen, but he declined because he only wanted to appear in starring roles and not all-star assembled projects. Attenborough was criticized for casting 36-year-old Ryan O'Neil as Brigadier General Gavin, as many thought no one that young was ever a general. However, the real General Gavin was 37 at the time of the battle. As stated before, several of the real characters were actually present for filming and offered assistance to their counterpart portraying them and included: Brian Horrocks, James Gavin, J.O.E Vandeleur, John Frost and R.E. Urquhart. In fact J.O.E. Vandeleur was unhappy when Anthony Hopkins, who portrayed him in the movie, was shown running from building to building during several scenes. J.O.E. told Hopkins that a British officer would never run, but show disdain towards the enemy by walking. Hopkins, although he tried, said that when the firing started instinct took over and he ran. The one character in the film that drummed up the most controversy was Dirk Bogarde's portrayal of Lieutenant General Browning. Bogarde, who served under Browning during the war and participated in the Battle of Arnhem, was reportedly reluctant to portray him as he did, which is most likely an indicator that the portrayal is in fact inaccurate. Browning's family was also very unhappy at the way he is portrayed and claimed that he would have sued Attenborough, had he been alive. It is convenient that the most controversial figure in the movie is someone who was deceased. The movie gives the impression that Lt. General Browning as an arrogant man who had little regard for the outcome of the mission. There are several scenes in which he quickly and arrogantly dismisses crucial intelligent reports that contributed to the failure of the operation. Although they did disregard several intelligence reports, Browning's brash attitude is perhaps inaccurate. Browning, upon being named commander of Market-Garden, withdrew his previous resignation that he put in due to a disagreement with the new chief of the First Allied Airborne Army, Lieutenant General Brereton. Browning had never had operational control of an airborne corps before.

Scholars and historians explain that there are two major factors that contributed to the failure of Market-Garden. The first was the intelligence reports that went ignored. The reports came from the Dutch underground that is represented in the movie quite accurately. One intelligence report came from photographs taken from a fly-over of an area along the road to Arnhem, commonly referred to as Hell's Highway. The photographs indicated that there were a significant number of Panzer divisions in the area. However, it was the consensus of Allied command that the German soldiers present in Holland were not battle-hardened troops and most likely weren't up to much fighting. The Allies greatly underestimated the Germans and their strength and were already knee deep into the mission before this realizing this problem. The second significant factor that contributed to the failure of Market-Garden was the wet Dutch terrain to which he pays special attention to. There was a multitude of artillery and equipment that needed to be transferred into Holland for the success of the mission. Gliders were the supreme choice for the transportation of these supplies; however, due to the soggy Holland terrain there were few appropriate targets for landing. This posed a problem chiefly because it was crucial that the troops and their supplies be dropped close to Hell's Highway. The longer it took them to get to the road, the longer it would take them to arrive at the aid of the airborne troops holding the bridges. As fate would have it they were forced to land the gliders significantly far from the road which accounted for a good deal of time. Major General Urquhart, played by Sean Connery, points out this dilemma in the movie when he shows both concern and reluctance when discovering they will have to drop almost ten miles from their intended position. The movie also points out that for the mission to be successful everything must be perfect, each bridge must be taken on time and in succession. For a mission such as Market-Garden to succeed it is improbable not to allow for error and surprises. There were a multitude of actions that played out in the favor of the Germans that slowed the Allies down significantly such as the underestimated German forces, the single road in which to travel, and the re-building of the bridge at Son.

The film does a great job of showing all six bridges and the actions that took place upon them However, with six bridges to keep track of and with a multitude of characters one needs a map during the viewing experience. The first bridge, at the town of Son, was the only bridge to be blown up and, as the movie indicates, German Major General Ludwig, played by Hardy Kruger, had a very itchy trigger finger and tried to blow the bridge at Nijmegen, which was the last stop before Arnhem. This is in fact true, as Ludwig was unsuccessful due to an error with the explosives. Although the movie does not offer an explanation for the faulty explosives, life does have an explanation. It was believed that a local Dutch resistance fighter, Jan Van Hoff, cut the wires of the explosives, something that the movie leaves out. The character, Major General Ludwig is in fact a composite of German division commanders Gen. Harmel and Lt. Col. Harzer. With British Field Marshal Montgomery as the brains of the operation and Lieutenant Browning as chief commander of the operation, it is no wonder that the British First Airborne Division is assigned the prize bridge at Arnhem. This is something the movie makes note of as the First Airborne was the pride of Britain. Operation Market-Garden proved the demise and defeat of the First Airborne, as they were forced to surrender after the allied ground forces were unable to reach them because of the overwhelming German resistance. While the movie accurately portrays this downfall, the movie was not filmed in Arnhem due to budget restraints. It was instead shot in Deventer. The British First are shown surrendering to the Germans at Arnhem, but the movie does not convey to the viewer any attempts of escape. In fact, approximately 2,000 soldiers are reported to have slipped across the Rhine to safety on the night of 25 September. Unfortunately, over 7,000 dead or missing were left in the river and on its muddy banks.

Finally, there are few inaccuracies that have been called to attention in regard to the film A Bridge Too Far. However, the movie was ultimately a Hollywood production. Operation Market-Garden was a very large operation, and to give proper respect to every aspect was difficult, but the movie gives it a good try in the three hours that the film runs. If the film had been any longer, it might have proven unsuccessful.