By Carter B. Horsley
This epic movie about Operation Market Garden, the attempt by the Allies to catch the Germans by surprise in 1944 and capture several bridges in Holland to prepare for an invasion of the German industrial regions near the Rhine, is near perfect.
The bold plan was masterminded by General Montgomery and called for the largest parachute drop in history. Based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan, the author also of “The Longest Day,” the source for another movie, this film is perhaps the most star-studded movie, other than compilations, ever made.
As superb as the cast is, the film’s bravura is best in its action sequences, which are splendid, especially when seen in widescreen mode on DVD. The parachute jumps, in particular, are truly spectacular and almost otherwordly. Indeed, the cinematography is magnificent throughout much of the film, making spectacular use of the wide-screen format, and the sound effects of battles are startling.
As the title suggests, the Allies’ plan was doomed to failure and the operation proved to be a catastrophe. Director Richard Attenborough, who also directed the anti-war film, “Oh, What a Lovely War,” pulls no punches in dramatizing the plan’s many flaws, not the least of which was an unwillingness to counter Montgomery’s ill-conceived and rash plan despite intelligence reports that should have been heeded about German strength in the area.
Montgomery is shown briefly in the documentary, black-and-white prologue to the movie, but is not portrayed in the technicolor film. Dirk Bogarde brilliantly plays his chief officer for the operation, Lt. General Frederick Browning, as something of a martinet who clearly chooses to ignore the intelligence reports so as not to upset Montgomery’s plans – “the party’s on!” The stiff-upper-lipness of the British is much in evidence, but, as priggish as Browning, and others, are made to appear, so too is the heroism of many of the British and American troops.
Indeed, what sets this epic apart from many others of the genre is that it gives pretty equal weight to the officers and planning and the grunts in the line of fire. It attempts to cover all the different parts of this very complex operation and for much of the time it does so clearly. Inevitably, however, some scenes go on for quite sometime and one wonders what is happening in other sectors.
While Sean Connery has, perhaps, the highest visibility in the film, his character, Major General Urquhart, gets trapped and his frustrating role is not terribly interesting, although Connery never disappoints, of course. Laurence Olivier and Liv Ulmann are Dutch residents who assist the wounded and they are marvelous. A speechless sequence of Olivier being driven through the battlefield is fabulous for his minute facial expressions. Michael Caine as Lieutenant Colonel J. O. E. Vandeleur is superbly roguish but disciplined and full of humor. Robert Redford and James Caan are stoically heroic, as expected, but manage to convey a very good sense of fear and terror and determination and Caan’s jeep race through a forest is a formidable cinematic experience. Elliot Gould chomps on his big cigar a bit too much, but his fervor in overcoming obstacles is strong and just falls into the believeability range of what individual leadership can mean in a campaign. Ryan O’Neal gives a fine performance as Brigadier General Gavin that displays much more depth than we are accustomed to in his performances. Hardy Kruger as Major General Ludwig and Maximilian Schell as Lieutenant General Bittrich both give excellent and sophisticated performances as alert German officers.
It is Bogarde and Edward Fox, as Lieutenant General Horrocks, however, that steal the acting honors, the former with his measured and authoritative formality, and the latter with his exuberance.
The only two off-notes are Anthony Hopkins and Gene Hackman. Both are convincing but the former’s initial casualness, wondering if he should take along his dinner jacket, and the latter’s very pronounced Polish accent are somewhat jarring. Hopkins seems content with fate and Hackman outraged at it but both convey deep inner strengths that make their characters a bit more memorable than many others.