A Bridge Too Far
William Goldman, who adapted the screenplay from the book by Cornelius Ryan, wrote a whole book about the making of this huge movie. It’s a good read, full of excellent anecdotes about the huge problems entailed in the filming. In particular the critical hour, which was all the time they had to shoot all the scenes on a bridge in Holland. It was as intricate an operation, in its way, as Operation Market Garden itself. If one thing went wrong, they would lose a lot of shots and have no chance at all of getting it. The Dutch people use their bridges, as Goldman pointed out, and they were lucky to get it for that one morning hour.
I think this is one of the best war movies ever made, for many reasons. The biggest one is that it is not the chronicle of a big victory. Offhand, I can’t think of another war movie like that. Market Garden was a huge fuck-up, the brain child of the British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, the “Hero of El Alamein.” He defeated Erwin Rommel in the African desert. I understand that the British people desperately needed a hero at that time, but in Montgomery they got a pretty poor substitute. It has always seemed to me that Rommel out-generaled ol’ Monty at every turn, and if Hitler had re-supplied him as he needed, he could have mopped the floor with Monty. The man’s main attributes were a monstrous ego and a total lack of diplomacy.
That’s all debatable, I guess, but it’s hard to see Market Garden as anything other than a disaster. A lot of the soldiers who looked at the plan saw that there were two things basically wrong with it. One was that the many elements of the plan had to mesh exactly, with no wiggle room for unexpected circumstances. Another was that the Allied ground advance was along a narrow two-lane road that could pretty easily be choked off. Thus, when 30,000 lightly-armed paratroopers were dropped into an area eight miles from the bridge in Arnhem that they had to hold until the tanks arrived, an area that was supposed to be garrisoned only by Hitler youth and old men, but actually contained two crack SS panzer divisions, they were hung out to dry. After eight or nine days, the battered remnant had to surrender. But Monty had good spin doctors even back then. They sold it as a 90% successful operation. Try telling that to the British 1st Airborne Division, or the American 101st and 82nd. They’ll spit in your eye. The 1st dropped 8,000 men. 2,000 came out alive.
The shoot was as complicated as a military operation. Huge numbers of extras were used. At that time there were still vast numbers of tanks and other ground vehicles that could be used in a film like this. There were eleven operational C-47 Dakotas. Through camera trickery they were made to look like hundreds. There was an actual gigantic parachute drop, over 1,000 men. They made several mock-ups of those flying (if you’re lucky) death traps known as Horsa gliders, though none actually were airworthy. And of course the movie was star-studded, with most of the biggest male movie stars in America and Britain taking part. If you like war movies, this is a must-see.