If I have one rule for war movies, it's that watching them shouldn't feel longer than actually living through the war itself. Maybe that's my problem with 'A Bridge Too Far,' a rather ponderous, self-indulgent, and didactic war flick that, despite its star-studded cast and high production values, feels about three years long, not three hours.
Adapted from Cornelius Ryan's best-selling 1974 novel of the same name, 'A Bridge Too Far' depicts the ill-fated offensive called "Operation Market Garden." In a game of one-upsmanship, British Field Marshal Montgomery attempted to top the success of America's General Patton, and spearheaded a strategy he hoped would end WWII. Utilizing over 35,00 Allied paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines in Holland, the operation was to barrel through the city of Arnhem and, bridge by bridge, finally capture Ruhr and bring the war to an end by Christmas of 1944.
The success was not to be, however, due to faulty intelligence and numerous blunders, including ignored reports of German activities in Holland. The result was a miscalculation that resulted in the British troops moving too quickly, and ill-prepared with supplies and artillery. In just nine days, "Operation Market Garden" completely collapsed, resulting in the loss of nearly 18,000 Allied troops.
Such a story seems ripe for a bold, tragic, and moving war film, but as directed by Richard Attenborough, 'A Bridge Too Far' is about as exciting as reading over a set of blueprints. Indeed, I found the first hour of the movie almost unbearable, as assorted famous actors spouted endless talk of troop maneuvers and planned offensives, with barely a whit of human drama. Certainly, the likes of Sean Connery, Robert Redford, James Caan, Edward Fox, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Dirk Bogarde, and countless other famous faces (if nothing else, 'A Bridge Too Far' is like a role call of every half-recognizable actor who worked during the '70s) keeps the film barely watchable. With so much technical set-up, 'A Bridge Too Far' is hopelessly, dramatically inert.
What saves the film are a number of impressive setpieces that stand out like oases in the desert. Interweaved throughout the seemingly endless strategy discussions are effective glimpses of the front lines, and the toll that Operation Market Garden would take on both troops and civilians. Memorable is a sequence involving paratroopers being met by a group of crazed escapees from an mental institution, as well as some poignant moments with an older Dutch woman whose home will serve as a makeshift hospital. There is also the somewhat-famous moment when a group of wounded men band together to sing the famous hymn "Abide With Me." Unfortunately, there is little connective tissue between these segments -- let alone a clear central protagonist to center our perspective -- so the film is not only thematically fragmented but emotionally distant. It's more like a travelogue of patched together moments than it is a cohesive, effective narrative.
'A Bridge Too Far' does, however, succeed in one of the main aims that Attenborough long held for the film. As he claimed at the time of the film's original theatrical release, 'A Bridge Too Far' was meant to expose the futility and sheer destructiveness of war without stripping the soldiers of their bravery and humanity. The tapestry-like quality of the movie, and the sheer overwhelming number of characters, does lend a sense of immense spectacle and gravity to the carnage that many other, more myopic war movies lack. But watching 'A Bridge Too Far' is still an experience that, despite some stellar individual sequences, is muddled and overlong.
Having never seen 'A Bridge Too Far' until this Blu-ray, I went in with no expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find a rather fine-looking catalog remaster.
Presented in 1080p/MPEG-2 video, the film is framed accurately at 2.35:1. The source is in good shape, with a few blemishes and the occasional speckle, but otherwise wear and tear is at a minimum. The color palette is not a particularly strong one, but hues are at least solid and clean, and fleshtones generally accurate (only some use of print tinting and filters can give some scenes a bluish cast). The transfer is not particularly sharp, however, due to the soft-focus photography and frequent location fog/rain effects. I didn't find the lack of incredible depth that problematic, however, as the image is quite film-like and generally detailed. Sadly, I would have certainly preferred an AVC MPEG-4 encode, as this MPEG-2 suffers from a few instances of posterization and slight noise.
MGM offers an English DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit), which is decent in terms of fidelity but quite lacking in envelopment. (Optional English Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround, French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and Spanish 1.0 Mono dubs are also offered.)
Unfortunately, the volume balance issues on the DTS-MA mix are irritating. Dialogue is too quiet, with effects and particularly the score overbearing. I frequently had to amp up the volume during quiet scenes to compensate, then was blown out of my seat when the action kicked in. Otherwise, the source is clean, with dynamic range that is more robust than expected for a film from the late '70s. Low bass is also not bad considering the age of the elements. Surround use remains meager, however, with barely anything but slight score and effects bleed ever emanating from the rears. 'A Bridge Too Far' doesn't sound terrible, but it has some notable problems that keep it from being a particularly good show.
'A Bridge Too Far' is Richard Attenborough's ambitious and star-studded WWII epic, which is well-staged and often epic, if a bit stodgy. It's still a fine war film for buffs of the genre, and this Blu-ray presents the film admirably. The transfer is quite sharp for a film of this vintage, though the audio suffers from some mismatched volume levels. The lack of extras makes this overpriced at 40 bucks, so it's probably a rental for all but diehard fans.