Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Parachuting In Daylight
A BRIDGE TOO FAR has been brought up by legendary screenwriter William Goldman in interviews and his own books on screenwriting, particularly “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” as an example of a film that had its own particular problems. These are issues that he seems proud to have worked out as he wrote the script but nevertheless the film did not become the grand acheivement that it feels like its makers intended. Released in June 1977, it’s possible that it may have come a few years too late, past the roadshow era where the idea of three hour, multi-star WWII movies seemed to make sense. There’s also the issue that the film is kind of a downer (not really a spoiler—it’s in the title) and while it isn’t quite the European Theater equivalent of TORA! TORA! TORA! it’s still not exactly the most uplifting of all war epics. It is, however, cinematically notable for all devotees of the Caine-Hackman Theory which, as anyone who’s seen PCU will know, postulates that no matter what time it is, 24 hours a day, you can always find a movie starring either Michael Caine or Gene Hackman on TV—as I write this, both THE DARK KNIGHT and MISS CONGENIALITY can be found on a few channels. A BRIDGE TOO FAR, of course, is the final argument as it features both actors in the cast, though sadly never together.
Based on the book by Cornelius Ryan and directed by Richard Attenborough, A BRIDGE TOO FAR tells the story of the Battle of Arnhem, an attempt by the Allies, believing that the war is nearing its end, in September 1944 to break through German lines in the occupied Netherlands and take several bridges. The ultimate goal of the plan would lead to taking the bridge at the Lower Rhine River and push further into Germany. But in spite of the bravery of the Allies, unforeseen problems arise, the German forces prove stronger than expected and it leads to the plan that has been worked out finally going “a bridge too far.” The massive all-star cast includes, in no particular order, Sean Connery, Robert Redford, Anthony Hopkins, James Caan, Elliot Gould, Laurence Olivier, Liv Ullmann, Ryan O’Neal, Hardy Kruger, Maximilian Schell and, of course, Michael Caine and Gene Hackman.
While watching A BRIDGE TOO FAR I found myself thinking about why some of these war epics are tough for me to get into. Yes, it wouldn’t hurt if I read up more on World War II so I could actually learn a few things but from my vantage point the films are often too static and remote, trying to get me to learn history while providing the illusion of entertainment. These films are often so staid and earnest that they seem determined for me to know how good they are for me. Maybe that’s why I love THE GREAT ESCAPE so much—it’s a clearly defined story well-told with unpredictable plot turns, engaging characters and a balance between that boys-adventure thing and displaying the genuine gravity of the war. I feel like I could watch that film any time. Recently I took at look at THE LONGEST DAY, a much starker look at the war which seemed correctly balanced with telling the story of a turning point in the war which resulted in victory, even if with great consequence. It’s got truly stunning camerawork, something like fifty recognizable stars and in the end it felt like it rewarded my patience even if I don’t particularly need to see it again. A BRIDGE TOO FAR has some truly impressive sequences, enjoyable actors in showy roles and is technically extremely well done yet there’s a certain amount of politeness that keeps it from really kicking on all cylinders. Stupid decisions were made, the Allies involved are brave and noble nevertheless but in the end….what? I’m not quite sure. It is a downer but, unlike the end of THE GREAT ESCAPE (with Attenborough in the cast, not that I needed to mention that) it just leaves us kind of empty. It’s of course good to be reminded of how courageous the Americans, Brits and others were but what else is there for us to get out of it? I’m not really sure. The scale of the production is impressive, with some of the real money shots coming out of the massive parachuting sequences set in daylight, but even though there’s a lot of plot in this three-hour film way too much screentime is spent on explosions, gunfire and other warfare which by a certain point just seems to drag. Maybe this worked better in the theater as spectacle but even though I could believe that there’s more story to be told (a few of the big stars seem to just drop out after a certain point) it still feels like it could have been cut down to a more reasonable length.
The reason something like THE GREAT ESCAPE came to mind was that the sections that worked best were the more intimae, self-contained points where I could really connect with things. One of the most successful plot strands involves James Caan as an Army sergeant determined to keep a promise he makes to his Captain and the extent he goes to accomplish this. It could almost be cut into a short film all by itself and would still be gripping. Caan nails this section big time and the close-up he’s given at the end of his section feels like an acknowledgement by his director to this one of the most rewarding moments of any kind that the film displays. Aside from that there are moments throughout of the big names interacting with each other that I enjoyed (why do I like Elliott Gould and Michael Caine exchanging joking dialogue with each other? Who knows?) but some of the stars (Connery and Hopkins in particular have a lot of screentime) spend a fair amount of time just exchanging grim military orders with each other. Maybe trying to find things beyond the spectacle to be interested in, Attenborough does seem to occasionally pause to observe the nature of how the British soldiers interact (he dotes on them more than the Americans, anyway) which isn’t that surprising and the film occasionally pauses to take in some odd bits here and there, like the inmates from a lunatic asylum that seem to be almost mocking the soldiers at one point (didn’t Fuller do this in THE BIG RED ONE?). It’s hard not to be impressed by how damn big and technically complex the thing is but the honest truth is that it’s three hours long and it feels like a long three hours.
At the very least, the big stars who appear throughout all make vivid impressions, even when they are doing little more than discussing field maneuvers—that would be Connery, who is particularly good (unless I’m missing somebody, he’s the only person here who’s also in THE LONGEST DAY). Many of them are used in interesting and engaging ways—Redford, given a real star role, doesn’t turn up until the final hour—something that hasn’t been the case in every multi-star film I’ve ever seen and I’m not just referring to disaster movies. Even if they did all just turn up for their few weeks of work here and there, it feels like at least Attenborough paid enough attention to them so they weren’t just ciphers spouting off exposition. There really isn’t a single bad performance among all these big names—O’Neal, playing a General was apparently a controversial casting choice due to his age which would be valid except he was the same age as the real guy. Hackman, playing a member of the Polish Armed Forces, is slightly problematic due to his accent (I kept thinking of Lex Luthor putting on a funny voice) but his scenes are well-played otherwise and his clear-headedness in regards to his reluctance about the operation comes across clearly. Various other familiar faces turn up throughout, including John Ratzenberger, living in England at this point, and Denholm Elliott, who has a particularly nice scene where he tries to explain the concept of fog to Gene Hackman.
I could also make the comment that to fully understand the nature of all the military operations that are presented, I would have to know a lot more about World War II than I do. So that’s my fault. But the real problem with A BRIDGE TOO FAR, at least seen at this point in time, is not only the lack of real flair to be found beyond its scope but that it’s difficult to say what is to be gotten out of it. Veteran producer Joseph E. Levine was responsible for putting this all together and William Goldman in “Adventures in the Screen Trade” wrote of one day when in the middle of numerous technical difficulties he asked Levine what was the point of all the headaches the project was causing, why was it worth it, when Levine turned towards him almost with anger. “I’m seventy years old,” he said. “I’m seventy years old and I want to do this thing.” The intentions behind making it, no doubt coming out of the producer’s own passion for what World War II represented, were certainly honorable and the final product is itself honorable, to a point. But the passion in that single statement, the reason why this story needed to be told, doesn’t necessarily come across in the final film. The parachute drops are pretty cool, though.