The Cinema Behind Star Wars: A Bridge Too Far
Posted on January 04 2016
Released in 1977, just a month after the original Star Wars film, Sir Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far was one of the most ambitious independently produced feature films ever made. Written by William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) it focused on the historic accounts of World War II’s “Operation: Market-Garden.”
It starts with a narrated newsreel-style opening to give context, which seems to be the World War II equivalent of the Star Wars opening crawl. We’re told that this is a desperate attack made by the Allied Forces against the Nazis in the final days of the war, hoping to end the war before Christmas 1944.
The way this objective is talked about in A Bridge Too Far, one last mission before they can end the war, is very much how the Jedi and Senate feel that killing Dooku would end the Clone War, but when that doesn’t work, Grievous is their next target. In A Bridge Too Far, the goal was to hold every bridge leading into Germany from the front all the way to Arnhem in the Netherlands. This would give infantry and tanks a direct path all the way to Germany where they could enter the country and begin the final assault.
Holding the bridges before the final attack can begin as an inverse of the situation on Endor. A strike force is sent in behind enemy lines, just like the Rebel strike team on Endor, led by General Han Solo. The fleet waiting in space just outside the Death Star’s shield can’t proceed with their attack to strike at the heart of the enemy until the objectives of the soldiers below are met. In A Bridge Too Far, unless the troops who parachuted behind enemy lines can hold the bridges, there’s no way for the reinforcements to enter Germany.
The film is a classic example of a multi-protagonist story where it follows different characters who are all working on some small piece of achieving one over-arching super-goal. There are so many moving parts to the operation, of course there’s no single main character because one single character can’t be in all of the action at the same time. In A Bridge Too Far, they hired every great star of the era to accomplish this complicated, intercutting story: Sir Laurence Olivier, Maximilian Schell, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, James Caan, Ryan O’Neal, Elliot Gould, Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and many others. Each of them played vital parts of the overall story, even though their screen time might have been less than in a film where they were starring in it on their own.
George Lucas took this technique and refined it in Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace. The final confrontation in The Phantom Menace cuts between a variety of protagonists all with their own small goals adding up to the super-goal: Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fighting Darth Maul, Queen Amidala and Captain Panaka taking over the Theed Royal Palace, General Jar Jar and Captain Tarpals leading the Gungan Army away from Theed, and Anakin Skywalker knocking out the Droid Control Ship. All of these situations were intercut and gave us a thrilling sense of so many things happening all at once, all to achieve the ultimate goal: ridding Naboo of the Trade Federation.
This structure is repeated again in Return of the Jedi, when Han is leading the battle to destroy the Imperial bunker on the forest moon of Endor, Chewbacca and the droids are helping the Ewoks fend off the Imperial Troops to give him space to do it, Lando is in the sky leading the attack on the Death Star, and Luke is on board the Death Star confronting the Dark Lords of the Sith.
This method of storytelling is difficult to pull off and no one tried to do it larger than filmmakers like Richard Attenborough and George Lucas.
But that’s not the only thing that connects Star Wars to A Bridge Too Far. It shares four actors…
Garrick Hagon who played Biggs, John Morton who played Dak, John Ratzenberger who played Major Derlin, and Jack McKenzie who played Cal Alder all appear in scenes in A Bridge Too Far. They were all part of a group of American actors working in England, doing their best to get every part they could. When you watch A Bridge Too Far, it’s a lot of fun to play “spot the Star Wars actors.”
A Bridge Too Far was also produced with the same independent spirit as the Star Wars films. It was financed entirely by producer Joseph E. Levine, much the same way George Lucas financed the sequels in the classic trilogy and the entire prequel trilogy. It was a gamble that both men took with their fortunes and in both cases it paid off handsomely.
To my mind, A Bridge Too Far is one of the great World War II films. It had every ingredient to make a truly spectacular film and played like a great western. The bad guys were truly bad, the odds were stacked higher and higher against the good guys as the film went on, and it’s just exciting to watch. It has so many charming actors in it and tells the story of one of the largest military blunders in the history of World War II, making it an incredibly thrilling, entertaining, and educational film to watch. It’s rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for the standard violence of war movies, which means you have nothing to fear if you convince your child to sit through it with you. You’ll just have to explain a lot of the context of the war, which can be fun on its own for a certain kind of parent. Like me.
Availability: A Bridge Too Far is readily available on DVD and Blu-ray, it’s streaming free on Amazon Prime, or you can get it from other online streaming services to purchase or rent for a small fee.