It is always a treat to come to a book or a movie with low expectations, and to walk away pleasantly surprised.
Such was my experience with the film A Bridge Too Far (1977), which I recently watched on Turner Classic Movies. The movie is based on a nonfiction book of the same name: Cornelius Ryan's account of the failed Allied attempt to smash through the German lines at Arnhem (in the Netherlands) in 1944.
Why was I so skeptical? To begin with, the 1970s were a barren decade in filmmaking, comparatively speaking. This was the decade, after all, that produced gloomy, overrated borefests like Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter.
Also, A Bridge Too Far runs about three hours, an hour too long for almost any movie.
This is going to be a long slog! I told myself, as the opening credits played.
But actually, it wasn't: A Bridge Too Far is a fast-moving war film with plenty of harrowing battle scenes and strong acting. The ensemble cast (Sean Connery, Robert Redford, Ryan O'Neal, Gene Hackman, etc.) is a virtual who's-who of thirty- and forty-something leading men of the Jimmy Carter era.
Most of the big-name actors portray Allied staff officers. The casting mostly worked—though Gene Hackman did stretch my credibility a bit in the role of Polish Major General Stanisław Sosabowski.
The display (and deployment) of military hardware in this film is impressive. Tanks, planes, big guns: this movie has it all! Everyone involved in the project (including the German actors who spoke subtitled German throughout) was dedicated to achieving historical authenticity.
I did some research, and the contemporary reviews and reactions were mixed: A Bridge Too Far received justifiably high marks for authenticity when it was released. Critics, however, dinged it for being too drawn-out. As the title of my review suggests, this criticism was not completely unwarranted. I watched this movie in my living room—not in a spring-loaded, folding cinema seat.
Moviegoers in the U.S. were also lukewarm; A Bridge Too Far performed poorly at the American box office (though it performed better in Europe). There simply wasn't much of a market for a 3-hour movie about a mostly forgotten WWII battle in 1977. (There would probably be even less of a market for it now, given the decline in historical literacy in the intervening decades.)
This is an informative and interesting movie; but it isn't an emotionally stirring one. The film is but a step removed from docudrama. Herein lies the problem of so many movies based on nonfiction books: storytelling is subordinated to the sweep and detail of history.
A Bridge Too Far lacks a main protagonist. It therefore lacks the dramatic narrative structure of a war movie like Saving Private Ryan. And don't expect me to say much about character arc; there isn't any, for the most part.
The non-famous characters are the same prototypes you have seen in any number of war movies: the grizzled veteran sergeant (well-played by James Caan), the naive, wide-eyed young enlisted man from Smalltown, USA, and plenty of British officers who engage in glib gallows humor in the heat of battle, occasionally pausing for that cup of tea.
A great movie? No, not quite. A Bridge Too Far is simply a very solid war epic. If you accept the proposition that a person really can't get enough of World War II, then you'll barely notice that A Bridge Too Far is an hour too long.
That said, this would have been a much better movie at two hours.