The single phrase I find myself uttering most often, in my work as a film historian and researcher, is “Boy, they didn’t know how good they had it.” Because, you see, a fair amount of this work involves gathering and reading contemporaneous reviews, from newspapers and glossy magazines and trades and old episodes of Siskel & Ebert, and marveling at how many great movies critics of the time took for granted as nothing special – or even, how many modestly good movies they didn’t appreciate for what they were.
Take, for example, Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (now streaming, but only through the end of the month, on Netflix). Vincent Canby called it “massive, shapeless, often unexpectedly moving, confusing, sad, vivid and very, very long.” Roger Ebert deemed it “an exercise in wretched excess.” Gene Siskel complained, “It is more often tedious than glamorous.” As is often the case, it’s not that they’re wrong – A Bridge Too Far is too much, too long, too repetitive. But it’s also a large-scale WWII epic, filled with famous faces and impressive battle sequences and practical effects. What I wouldn’t give for a few less comic book adaptations, and a few more movies like this.
Over archival newsreel footage, a female voice (one of the film’s few) sets up the time and place: late in the war, 1944 to be precise, as rival generals Patton and Montgomery were attempting to “beat the other to Berlin.” And thus was born Operation Market Garden, an ambitious attempt to simultaneously overtake multiple bridges in Holland, and punch through the German line; it was, per the narration, “meant to end the fighting by Christmas and bring the boys home.”
“Having suffered through years of military training,” Siskel wrote, “I’d like to think I understand basic military tactics. But even during a second viewing of A Bridge Too Far, I’ll be damned if I knew exactly who was doing what, when.” Siskel’s not incorrect here; he’s offbase in overstating the importance of that knowledge. Producer Joseph E. Levine, who is discussed, in the film’s reviews and marketing, as much as any of his pricy actors, was one of the last of the great cinematic hucksters, and while coordinating the casting of some of the biggest stars of the 1970s was certainly a good marketing hook, it was also narratively helpful – he rightly understood that they typical audience member would need faces they knew in order to navigate through the film’s vast web of characters and events. And if they weren’t able to, well, at least they’d have a whole bunch of movie stars to gawk at.
And they did: as alphabetized in the credits and posters, A Bridge Too Far stars Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Elliott Gould, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Hardy Krüger, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, Maximilian Schell, and Liv Ullmann. It doesn’t matter that so few of them share scenes (though a handful do), or that they sometimes seem to be acting in different movies. The sheer wattage of the star power is stunning. (The ubiquity of Hackman and Caine in the subsequent decade’s films was so often noted that it became a running gag in the 1993 comedy PCU, in which a student is working on a theory that a film by one or the other is always on television; late in the movie, he discovers an airing of A Bridge Too Far and announces, “This is my thesis, man! This is my closing argument!”)
And it’s fascinating to watch what each of them does to stand out in that cast. Connery leans in to what he does well, adopting his go-to gruff, man-of-action pose and serving as the first line of reaction when things start to go south. Hackman, never really known for his dialect work, tries out a none-too-convincing Polish accent, but he gets off some good lines. Gould decides to ham it up, and does it with such verve that you allow it; few things in the film are as delightful as the mere sight of the M*A*S*H star chomping his cigar, leading a brigade, and barking “schmuck” at people. Caan wisely underplays – he knows you’re not gonna out-“act” any of these guys – and ends up with one of the most memorable scenes in the picture. And an absurdly young Anthony Hopkins is wonderful as an officer who discovers that his inclinations towards politeness may not serve him well in a battle situation (“Look here, I’m awfully sorry, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to occupy your house”). Redford doesn’t show up until the 125-minute mark, and by then, you’ve likely forgotten he’s in the movie – but there he is, looking tan and golden-haired and, well, just like Robert Redford.
It’s not that “a cast of thousands” is enough to sustain a movie – but it’s at least enough to sustain your interest, and it’s not surprising that, in a time of countless Irwin Allen (and Allen-inspired) all-star disaster movies, the film’s original critics were not exactly buoyed by the mere prospect of watching movie stars be movie stars for three hours. But that’s not all that’s going on here; Richard Attenborough directs, taking his first stab at big-canvass filmmaking, and in dramatizing “the largest airborne operation ever mounted,” we get an unmistakable sense of a directory having a great time playing with the many new toys that are at his disposal.
And that, most of all, is why A Bridge Too Far seems like such a throwback. This kind of large-scale epic filmmaking is, sadly, mostly a thing of the past; they don’t make big war movies that often anymore, because the target audience for them is older than studios care about anymore, and they don’t make movies on this kind of scale anymore, because it can all be done in a computer. But it can’t be done this well in a computer. They just don’t make ‘em like they used to anymore, the saying goes, and it’s a cliché, but sometimes clichés are accurate.
“A Bridge Too Far” is now streaming on Netflix.