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Bridge Too Far, A Print E-mail
Wednesday, 03 September 2008
ImageSummer 1944.  The allied invasion of Europe, begun at Normandy, has Germany in retreat, but keeping allied troops supplied has snarled forward progress.  British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, Patton’s competitor on the European front, proposes a bold plan that’s accepted by Eisenhower: Operation Market Garden.  On a specified date, the allies plan to drop tens of thousands of paratroopers behind German lines in occupied Netherlands, all with instructions to take over control of three local bridges.  Doing so will keep the army rolling all the way into Germany.  It’s hoped that if the mission succeeds, the war will be over by Christmas.  Unfortunately, Lt. General Browning (Dirk Bogarde) does not give adequate thought to the dozens of ways the mission can go wrong and the precarious positions the different squadrons will be in if the support tanks and troops lead by Lt. Colonel Vandeleur (Michael Caine) do not arrive on schedule.

The mission begins well, with the massive parachute drop of thousands of paratroopers (an enormous set piece full of verisimilitude; a stunning, impressive recreation), but a squadron of German Panzers, sent to the town of Arnhem to recuperate, leaves Lt. Colonel Frost’s (Anthony Hopkins) thin group of soldiers facing an over- equipped enemy…and the allied support forces won’t arrive for days.  At the same time, intense hostilities and an exploded bridge slow down Vandeleur’s approach and inadequate radio equipment leaves Major General Urquhart (Sean Connery) unable to communicate their perilous, trapped position.  Even more disastrously, the Nazis have taken over the allied drop zones, leaving the ground forces with no way to get food and supplies, and their inability to warn headquarters, results in new paratroopers being dropped directly into hostile enemy fire.  Richard Attenborough’s third directorial outing, “A Bridge Too Far” is a memorable and extremely well-made war picture that illustrates the dictum, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”  While packed with stars, as was “Battle of Britain,” “A Bridge Too Far” rises head and shoulders above that film, thanks to William Goldman’s clearly delineated script, which gives all of the main characters multiple scenes that dramatize the battle and show how it affects them, personally.  Most importantly, it makes the characters’ reactions to the events into the primary dramatic focus.  It gives the audience an investment in the events, as we share the soldiers’ frustrations as things fall apart, despite the noble efforts of so many.

There are a few elements that distract—casting Gene Hackman as a Polish officer doesn’t work.  His screen persona is so thoroughly American that saddling him with an awkward Polish accent is a problem.  It’s like giving a tuba to a violin impresario.  Elliott Gould also jars in his few scenes as a brash, surly American soldier with a Sgt. Rock-esque cigar jammed in his mouth, and prone to profanity-laced dialogue.  It’s not that he does anything wrong, per se, it’s just another issue of overpowering iconography—Gould’s character is essentially straight, but just having him in the role distracts one terribly with recollections of “M.A.SH.”  Laurence Olivier does a fine, sensitive job as Dutch physician, Jan Spaander, a civilian who helps Liv Ullman tend to the injured allied troops who are bunking at her house.  James Caan has a small role, but his sequence is quite gripping and cinematic;  the audience is made to understand and identify with his predicament, which makes it especially involving.

While the events in the story are clearly laid out from the beginning, and one understands what is going on and what has to happen for the mission to succeed, but when things go awry one does briefly lose track of where everyone is.  When the film returns from its “intermission” it could badly use one of those “Morris the explainer” scenes with Lt. General Browning (Dirk Bogarde) pointing to locations  on a map, indicating where the characters are, and explaining what needs to be achieved, in order to firm up the audience’s sense of the story.  On the disc there is no intermission card, music, or entr’acte, just a small cut to black and a brief pause.  Whether the film broke for an intermission during the original theatrical release was probably at the discretion of the individual theaters, as at least one person I asked said it played without a break.  At nearly three hours, the film could use the break to save the audience from becoming worn out, and to enable them to remain fully engaged during the last few sequences.  The end sequence slowly reduces the energy of the film away from the loudness of the combat sequences and gradually softens the soundtrack, in an elegiac diminution that fades out on a very quiet, tender note.  While the final fadeout is effective, it feels as if Michael Caine, Robert Redford, and Edward Fox could benefit from a more substantial conclusion to their storylines.

The Blu-ray disc presents “A Bridge Too Far” in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1.  The final shot is slightly windowboxed to prevent overscanning of the credits, a step seemingly unnecessary, at least on my television.  The film was shot by Geoffrey Unsworth, who in this period had a penchant for diffused, bleached-out whites and overall filtered, soft, and grainy photography.  “Superman,” which he shot after this, (coincidentally also with Hackman) has the same look.  As a result, the imagery may appear a tad softer than one would expect from a BD release, but this is not a transfer flaw.  The photography looks exactly as it should— grain is as it’s supposed to be and the BD gives the images a greater stability, crisper detail, and preserves its texture.  Colors are accurate, though predominantly green, and occasionally vivid, which makes details and colored areas of costumes appear quite distinctive.  The source element is mostly clean though there are instances where specks of negative dirt (white spots) are visible.  One sequence featuring a zoomed-in out-of-focus shot of an approaching tank clearly caused the encoders some problems, as the edges of it are extremely distorted, edgy, and artificially sharpened, as if they were trying to make a blurry shot appear sharp, when it should have been left alone.

“A Bridge Too Far” was originally released in a 4-track mix for 35mm prints and 70mm prints were encoded with 6-track magnetic stereo.  The two were not too dissimilar, as both have 4 discrete screen channels (L, C, R, and mono surrounds).  The 70mm prints had the cachet of two subwoofer channels for fuller bass, and the extra clarity of magnetic stripe audio.  The Blu-ray release includes a full resolution DTS-HD MA track in 5.1, which I evaluated via the DTS core.  It’s a terrific, highly satisfying track; dialogue is clean and crisp (enough to discern that a dialogue exchange between Caine and Fox while in a Jeep was placed differently in the sequence during editing, and doesn’t quite match their mouth movements) and the mix feels almost modern, in the breadth of the soundscape and the involving presence of the effects and music.  Explosions, dialogue, and music all display vivid stereo separation which increases the intensity of the experience.  The LFE channel is strong— not quite as bold as bass heavy modern mixes, but it’s weighty and effectively utilized.  The disc jacket lists the inclusion of a Dolby Surround 4.0 track (to replicate the 4-track mix presented on the original 35mm prints), but in actuality, it’s 5.0.  The surround channels sound identical, which would mean that essentially, it’s a 4.0 track anyway, only with the identical rear channels separated in the encoding.  The 5.0 track sounds almost identical to the DTS-HD MA one, only the DTS-HA MA ones has the LFE channel, which makes it the obvious default choice.  The disc jacket says there are no extras, but the disc does include the original theatrical trailer and trailers for other MGM war films that have been released on BD.

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