By Tim Pelan
British war cinema is preoccupied, it seems, with stiff-upper-lipped defeat—from innumerable plucky POW features to the sinking of Noel Coward’s destroyer from In Which We Serve, and most spectacularly, the stumbling block of the WWII Arnhem campaign in A Bridge Too Far. The latter epic was producer Joseph E. Levine’s baby, coming out of comfortable retirement and betting the farm on a death-bed promise to author Cornelius Ryan (who was being treated for cancer), on whose door stopper military history best seller the film would be based. Levine had produced, financed and distributed a staggering 491 films in his long career, from stinkers like Hercules to the critically adored The Graduate. He was an independent maverick and comfortably retired when he bought the rights to Ryan’s book. Levine would be in his seventies when he staged his comeback with this, the most ambitious of all his films. Briefly, the film chronicles the ambitious plan by British General Montgomery to end the war by Christmas 1944. Thirty-five thousand Allied paratroopers would be dropped behind German lines in Holland to secure strategic bridges. At the same time, an armored corps of British vehicles was to break through German lines and race across the final and most vital bridge in the town of Arnhem, leading the allies directly into Germany. Only the plan failed, due to a plethora of screw-ups, from faulty radio sets to missed air supply drops, too-narrow roads for the tanks, and more. Levine chose Richard Attenborough to direct. Had he turned it down, he had an agreement from Levine to finance his long-cherished Gandhi biopic. Hollywood legend William Goldman began work on the screenplay in late 1975. The difficulty for him was, how to condense such a sprawling story into a manageable three-hour epic? Levine was adamant, having largely financed the project himself, that “We will open June fifteenth of ’77.” So he went ahead and hired his cast and crew without a finished script, trusting in Goldman to deliver the goods in time.
Originally it was feared filming would have to be done in Yugoslavia, necessitating the building of bridges, as modern Arnhem was now too built up. A lucky substitute was settled upon with the Dutch town of Deventer, 35 km from Arnhem, with the Wilhelmina bridge doubling convincingly for Arnhem’s. A district of the town also looked straight out of the 1940’s, for the street fighting scenes. The local economy got a vital shot in the arm from the production, from locals employed as extras, to empty factories turning out fake Horsa gliders, which during the war delivered many of the airborne troops, towed behind DC3 aircraft (an unfortunate error, but one seemingly necessitated for photography reasons, was the painting of the 11 available aircraft in desert camouflage—Attenborough wanted them to stand out from the dark landscape below in his aerial shots.). To give the impression of an endless convoy of Sherman tanks, five additional fakes were welded to Land Rover chassis. A multitude of wartime vehicles were secured although, much to Al Murrays’ dad’s disgust (the comedian has written amusingly about his war film fixation passed down from his father), a modern German Leopard tank was disguised as a wartime Panther:
“Watch A Bridge Too Far with me or my Dad—or, worse still, me and my dad—at your peril. (Murray and his dad are pedants for detail, some of which by necessity had to be circumvented, like parachutists jumping with reserve chutes and sans full kit.) But maybe you’re just like me and the moment when you actually scream at the screen is when the Leopard I (!!!) tank comes indestructibly careering across the Arnhem Bridge, crushing the debris from an earlier battle, and blasting the hapless paras’ positions. It’s meant to be a Tiger tank, I suppose, or maybe a Panther, but it’s neither. It resembles both in that it’s a big grey metal thing with tracks and a turret, but it’s the wrong tank, with the wrong paint, the wrong gun, the wrong everything. By God, it’s the wrong tank—it’s from 1965 for Pete’s sake.”
The para jumps that grieve Murray so were filmed in September 1976. 350 men from the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment recreated the drop with modern parachutes. Attenborough filmed the action from a helicopter, and also with cameras mounted on the vintage planes, even from a jumper’s own perspective. 500 extras (“Attenborough’s Private Army”) played troops who had already deployed on the ground. Four jumps in all were made, with only five minor injuries. But it’s not the number of extras that are impressive of course, but the number of stars—Sean Connery, Dirk Bogarde, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, James Caan, Ryan O’Neal, Laurence Olivier, James Fox, Elliott Gould, Liv Ullmann… I’d better stop here, there’s an article to write!
Goldman’s first draft was done by November 1975. Levine the master salesman assembled a package for chains and distributors that would be so appealing they’d pay him record sums in advance, which he’d use to jointly finance the film as he went along. In early 1976 he and Attenborough hit L.A. to scoop up major American players—many of the Brits had already been cast, except for Michael Caine, who bumped into the film’s creative triumvirate in an L.A. restaurant. “Every other bloody actor in town’s in your movie, why not me?” He got the part of tank commander Joe Vandeleur. After discussion with his real-life counterpart on location, Goldman’s scripted and urgent “charge,” was changed to the more modest and low-key “Get moving, get moving.”
After nine days, including down to the wire negotiations over Steve McQueen (his terms included Levine purchasing his Palm Springs home he was trying to offset!), the cast was set (Robert Redford got the part McQueen huckstered for, that of Major Julian Cook, who in the film leads a suicidal boat assault on Nijmegen bridge in broad daylight). Much credit must also go to casting director Miriam Brickman, as the likenesses of many stars to their real-life counterparts is quite striking. See here for comparisons.
Dirk Bogarde came in for some stick from certain quarters for his portrayal of General Sir Frederick “Boy” Browning, who was under considerable pressure from Monty to deliver Operation Market-Garden. Dubious about taking Arnhem, Browning stated that they’d be going “a bridge too far.” He said this before the operation, but there is no scene with Montgomery in the film, instead Bogarde gets the line after the snafu, coming across like an aloof clever-dick “told you so” type. Bogarde was actually a captain during the war and served in Browning’s staff, so one imagines he had some insight into how to play him. His aide, who presents photographic evidence of heavy enemy armor in the area, hitherto unknown to the allies, is granted leave for over-exhaustion. That officer was, in reality, Major Brian Urquhart, whose name in the film was changed to Fuller, to avoid confusion with Connery’s Paratroop General. Brian Urquhart went on to make a name for himself with UN peacekeeping operations, coming up with the idea of neutral blue helmets.
Goldman credits Fox’s speech as Lt General Horrocks to his various “department heads” as the key to the structure of both the film and to understanding the strategy of the operation:
“I’d like to think of this as one of those American western films. The paratroops, lacking substantial equipment, always short of food–these are the besieged homesteaders, the Germans, well naturally, they’re the bad guys, and XXX Corps, we my friends, are the cavalry, on the way to the rescue.”
The trouble is, the cavalry didn’t come to the rescue. Anthony Hopkins’ Lt Colonel Frost and his British paras are stranded in Arnhem, low on ammo and supplies, while the heavy armor plods along through dogged resistance to reach them. Hopkins was gently told off by Frost for running across a rubble-strewn street during gunfire. Frost told him one mustn’t show the enemy you’re afraid, and to set an example of calm insouciance to the men by striding through the mayhem. The hunting horn he uses to rally his forces on the ground after their drop was real. He lost it after the action in Arnhem. It was later recovered and awarded to the local Airborne Museum in 1997. Elliot Gould’s cigar-chomping American Airborne Colonel is a cartoonish composite, one of the few creative compromises with regard to character. James Caan’s sergeant who delivers his seemingly dead Captain to a surgeon to be saved is largely based on fact. Caan cannily saw a good stand-out moment when he saw one and chose the role out of a number of choices.
Robert Redford’s Major Julian Cook, a real Airborne commander this time, leads a bold crossing by canvas boats over the river Waal to secure the Nijmegen bridge before the Germans can blow it up. In actuality, Cook didn’t lead the assault, he oversaw it, and never even fired his weapon during the assault. The scene where he blows his stack at the British armor waiting to “drink tea” was transposed from another character, a Captain Buriss (the Brits were, in fact, waiting for infantry support, as the only approach to the bridge was an elevated, exposed road). When Connery learned of Redford’s whopping salary he went on temporary strike until his own pay was adjusted. He rightly felt that he had the larger part.
Goldman relates an amusing story in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade concerning the mind-boggling logistics that Attenborough had to keep track of when filming this nail-biting sequence. It was Sunday 3 October 1976, the so-called “million dollar hour” between 8.00 am and 9.00 am. Redford was contracted until the following Wednesday. Traffic was shut down for that hour on Sunday and potentially further Sundays for the filmmakers. If the weather did not hold, the shoot would drag on, and he would be paid $125,000.00 dollars per day past his contract until the scene could be finished the following Sunday. As Goldman recalls:
“Eight o’clock is coming nearer and nearer and things seem as if they’re starting to break. Everything’s got to work because there’s no time to go back and do things over but the weather seems as if it’s going to be clear enough to shoot and now Redford’s in position and the stuntmen portraying German soldiers are climbing high in the girders of Nijmegen Bridge, roping themselves in, not for safety but because that’s what the Germans did there in their final defence, and then the signal comes that all the stuntmen are secured and you can begin to see the confidence flowing into [Richard] Attenborough, because there can’t be anything wrong on this shot, he’s thought so much about it, covered it from every angle the mind of man can come up with, and as crew members come running up to him with last-minute questions he’s snapping back the answers crisp and fast, ‘Is the machine gun nest all right like that?’ and ‘Yes, fine’ from Attenborough without a pause, and this questioner runs off while another comes up, going, ‘Will you see the sentry box emplacement in this shot?’ and the immediate ‘We will, thank you,’ takes care of that and ‘Have the Sherman tanks been positioned properly?’ and Attenborough quick takes a look, and says, ‘The Sherman tanks are splendid as you have them,’ and now an assistant director comes up behind with, ‘The corpses, Sir Richard,’ and even though that’s not a complete question, Attenborough knows precisely what to say and he says it, ‘The corpses must keep their eyes shut at all times, all corpses will be visible in this shot,’ and that cry echoes along the bridge as the assistant takes a megaphone and shouts to the extras playing dead Germans, ‘Corpses, listen now, you corpses, all corpses will keep eyes shut at all times while the cameras are rolling, you got that?—not one bloody blink from one bloody corpse and that’s final!’ and shooting time is almost on us now, and the rain is going to hold off, and now another assistant runs up, asking, ‘What about the smoke pots?’ and Attenborough, on top of his game, replies, ‘You may start the smoke pots now, thank you very much,’ and right then, this trusted aide comes roaring up, excitedly saying, ‘What about the jeeps in the orchard, sir?’
I was standing by Attenborough and for a moment his eyes glazed over and he had to be thinking that suddenly the world had gone mad or was the world sane and the mistake his—had he forgotten—forgotten something vital? He was standing on a freezing bridge—what orchard? What jeeps? Was there some part of the shot that he’d neglected, something involving an orchard and jeeps, and here he was, with smoke pots going and, high in girders, guys hanging and a star ready to shoot and 275 people waiting but this question must be answered because what if it ruins the shot and if the shot’s lost a million dollars are lost and then he smiles very sweetly to his aide and said, ‘We will not require jeeps in the orchard at all, thank you so much for reminding me.’ This, it turns out, referring to the last half of a later scene to be shot afterward, the first half having been shot the day before, all this in another location, and what this trusted aide had done was pick this particular moment to inquire if Attenborough’s camera angle for this future sequence would require the placement of jeeps in the distant background in order to match what had been done before.
The weather held, the shooting on the bridge went quickly, the last major disaster had been averted. As we left the bridge, there was a genuine feeling of exultation.
Attenborough was cheery as usual, no more whistling needed that day. Later, perhaps, but not then. There are always ‘laters’ lurking in the lives of film directors, jeeps in the orchard that need tending to.”
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
Screenwriter must-read: William Goldman’s script for A Bridge Too Far [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far. Photographed by Bob Penn © Joseph E. Levine Productions, United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
We’re running out of money and patience with being underfunded. If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in