Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Bridge Too Far

It's easy to see how Richard Attenborough's 'A Bridge Too Far', based on Cornelius Ryan's exhaustive account of Arnhem debacle Operation Market-Garden, was intended as a corrective to the big-budget, all-star-cast jingoist war epics so popular in the 60s and 70s.

For all intents and purposes, it takes its cue from the likes of 'The Longest Day' - epic running time (just shy of three hours); huge, intricately-orchestrated set-pieces; famous faces all over the shop (Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, James Caan, Sir Laurence Olivier ... the list would be longer than the article itself if I listed everyone); an almost inappropriately stirring score by John Addison. In fact, it differs in only one crucial way.

It's about a fuck-up.

An Allied fuck-up.

This aspect of 'A Bridge Too Far' was never going to be its most popular attribute. And yet, when it was released, the almost inevitable storm of controversy that greeted it centred almost solely around Dirk Bogarde.

Here's Christian Browning, son of General Sir Frederick Browning (the real-life character Bogarde played) on his performance: "... poncing around with white gloves. Those gloves! Dirk played Anacleto in 'The Singer Not the Song' more or less the way he played Dad." (Quoted in John Coldstream's biography.) Here's co-star Edward Fox (quoted in same): "He was impersonating Freddie Browning completely wrongly. It was as if he set out to play him as a poofy waiter."

(The very idea of Edward Fox, whose okay-chaps-what-ho performance isn't far short of parody, criticising a Bogarde characterisation as 'poofy' is hilariously ludicrous.)

So why all the Dirk bashing?

The answer goes back to one of the two reasons Bogarde accepted the role (three if you count the fact that Attenborough, by dint of a holiday home in Provence, was more or less Bogarde's neighbour): (i) a $100,000 salary, and (ii) Bogarde was first billed and his character has 'the Line'.

Discarding the former (okay, $100K is decent chunk now and was a fuckload back in 1977, but it was still peanuts compared to what the American cast members earned), Bogarde's ego was certainly stroked by the latter. Because so many big stars were cast, billing was alphabetical: therefore, before Caan, Caine and Connery, let alone the likes of Elliott Gould or Ryan O'Neal, Dirk Bogarde stands as top-billed actor.

Then there's the Line. Again, a note of explanation: Browning was under considerable pressure from High Command (specifically Montgomery) to deliver an against-the-odds success with Operation Market-Garden. Concerned over the logistics, dubious about taking Arnhem, Browning famously averred that they'd be going "a bridge too far". It's worth bearing in mind that he said this before the operation.

William Goldman's script - in all other respects a clear-sighted adaptation of Ryan's book - indulges in a jarring anachronism. Because Goldman opted to omit the critical meeting between Montgomery and Browning, Browning is essentially cast as the villain of the piece: monomanicially pushing the mission through despite everyone else's misgivings, fixated in true death-or-glory stylee that Market-Garden is infallible. Worse, in order to retain the line that gives both book and film their title, he has Browning foppishly muse, after the operation goes disastrously wrong, "Well, as you know, I've always thought that we tried to go a bridge too far". Which basically makes Browning sound like a pompous dick, blithely stating the obvious after the fact.

The script, however, is the writer's business; in this case an American scribe's take on a British snafu. That a British director happily filmed it is a matter for discussion elsewhere.

As regards Bogarde's involvement .... call me biased (I'm a fan, after all), but wasn't he merely doing what all actors do - reading the lines and taking direction?

And his performance? He plays Browning as aloof, slightly disconnected (attributes I'd imagine are necessary for a high-ranking officer in wartime, who makes decisions, and by extension gambles with lives, coolly and dispassionately). In a film where so many of the other stars just be themselves (Connery is Connery, Caine is Caine) or ham it up (Hackman as a Polish officer) or phone in wooden performances (O'Neal) or play on their established persona (Maximilian Schell and Hardy Kruger reprise their rent-a-Kraut roles from any number of previous outings), Bogarde's performance is definitely not the worst. Far from it. In fact, perhaps only Anthony Hopkins emerges from the whole production as giving a rounded, subtle, memorable performance.

'A Bridge Too Far' has some stunningly brilliant scenes and a fair smattering of shruggingly ordinary ones. Attenborough's direction is often geared to spectacle when human drama needs to be at the fore (I'd love Peckinpah to have made this film, to have given it the sense of waste, loss, brutality, desperation and hard-won, shell-shocked humanity that permeates every frame of 'Cross of Iron'). Peckinpah had been a Marine. Dirk Bogarde, too, had a military background. He served in World War II. His evocative poem 'Steel Cathedrals' is still frequently anthologised in collections of war poetry.

I wonder how many other actors in 'A Bridge Too Far' had also worn the uniform for real, not just as a costume.

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