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Richard Attenborough


Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Maximilian Schell, Gene Hackman, Liv Ullmann, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, Hardy Kruger, Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Elliott Gould, Wolfgang Preiss, Edward Fox, Ryan O’Neal, Arthur Hill, Denholm Elliott, Jeremy Kemp, Ben Cross and Nicholas Campbell.


Director Richard Attenborough’s ambitious WWII drama is the last of the real epics. There would never again be a big-budget Hollywood re-creation of an actual campaign with as many international stars and colossal battle scenes. As a critic, I don’t know whether to be disappointed or thankful.

This is a really fine film. Despite its lengthy running time, it’s historically accurate and loaded with amazing performances. If you’re a history buff, the length shouldn’t bother you; but if you enjoy typical Hollywood heroics, don’t even bother picking this one up.

In the fall of 1944, Montgomery devises a plan to bring an end to the Second World War swiftly. The plan requires Allied paratroopers to drop 300 miles behind the German lines in Holland, where they will secure three important brides. Then, armored units will punch through, linking up the three brides and providing a stable route into the heart of German’s center of manufacturing. As the Allied forces launch their attack, Attenborough fills the screen with amazing wide shots of tanks, planes and parachutes. The execution of the plan is a beautiful affair, and at first it’s hard to believe that this operation would turn into one of history’s biggest disasters. As soon as the first parachutist lands, things begin to go wrong.

Performances are stellar all-around. On the British side, Anthony Hopkins is a standout as Colonel Frost, whose paratroopers capture the end of one bridge but get more than they bargained for. He and his men hold out despite overwhelming assaults by the SS and Panzer units. Dirk Bogarde (“The Password is Courage”) makes Lt. Gen Browning despicable jerk, as he sneers at anyone who criticizes Montgomery’s plan; he says with self-assurance “We shall seize the bridges… with thunderclap surprise and hold them until they can be secured,” as if nobody stands in the way. Sean Connery (“The Longest Day”) and Michael Caine (“Zulu”) turn in fine performances as well. Gene Hackman (“First to Fight”) is a Polish Colonel who is skeptical of the plan, and easily the best performer among the large ensemble. Attenborough also pays tribute to the Americans, although Ryan O’Neal, Elliott Gould and James Caan (“Submarine X-1”) are all limited to cameo roles. Robert Redford (“War Hunt”) is a standout as Major Cook, whose men have to make an assault on a German garrison in small rubber boats under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. The Germans are portrayed as humans, not demonic Nazis: Maximilian Schell (“Cross of Iron”) is a dedicated officer who is merciful to prisoners; Hardy Kruger (“The Battle of Neretva”) is dedicated to holding his bridge; and Wolfgang Preiss (“Anzio”) gets to do a bit of Hitler-bashing near the film’s opening.

Attenborough places his characters in the midst of huge, chaotic battle sequences. The camera captures hundreds of planes, tanks, vehicles and extras, but also goes into the trenches with the grunts. Both the spectacle and personal struggle are emphasized. The best of these sequences, hands-down, is the aforementioned river crossing. An American battalion must cross the Rhine in flimsy rubber rafts, while German fire rains down; once they get across the river, they have to punch through the German lines and then move onto a bridge rigged for demolition. This sequence is intense and magnificently shot, with a great concluding scene.

There are two major thorns in the side of this film, though, which hampers it’s effectiveness from the first scenes until the conclusion. It’s frustratingly slow-paced, and seems to take days to slog through a three-hour running time. The plot is about planning a mission, sitting around and waiting to execute it, then executing it and having to wait some more for information, reinforcements, supplies… the movie about waiting for things to happen, not about things happening. Far too much time is sent setting the stage and laying out all of the set pieces beforehand. Roughly the first third of the film is spent clarifying who the main characters are and what they will do. Since the actual campaign was so massive, the film has to be massive to cover all of the details… too massive, in fact. The other flaw is that there are so many characters, and so much going on, that you can't really appreciate the sacrifices made because before there’s a chance for an impact to be made, the actors are shuffled offstage to make room for the next big cameo appearance. The three aforementioned massacre sequences, Caan’s one big scene in the hospital and Hopkins’ character are the only ones who make any major impact.

Still, one can’t help but enjoy a movie like this, at least to an extent. It’s got some of the biggest and best choreographed battle scenes ever shot and contains some of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1970s. It may look and sound like a history lesson, but it’s an interesting and exciting lesson to learn.


4 Bullets