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Last of the great war movies: A Bridge Too Far

Recently I re-watched A Bridge Too Far, the sprawling, all-star film adaptation of Cornelius Ryan's epic account of Operation Market-Garden.

The movie has aged surprisingly well, in part because in the age of CGI, one really appreciates old-school battles involving vast numbers of extras.

Not to mention the equipment.  The Dutch government went all-in on supporting the film, providing paratroopers, aircraft, locations - it was clearly a story they wanted the world to know.

The cast is also impressive.  It is a veritable who's who of 1970s movie stars, and all of them are great. 

There are a few sour notes, and "Dickie" Attenborough took some liberties with the stories - most famously when he had Anthony Hopins (who played Lt. Col. John Frost) run from cover to cover while keeping his head down.  The actual Lt. Col John Frost was present on set, and he loudly interrupted filming to explain that he never ducked, and never ran for cover.  Bad for the men, you see.

Attenborough left the scene in, and tweaked some other ones, but overall it gives a detailed and suitably impressive picture of a botched campaign.

I'm sure a few folks might take issue with my assertion that no great war movies followed, but I can't think of a single one.  Pearl Harbor was a mess and Saving Private Ryan is an unwatchable pastiche of lies and Hollywood tropes.  I tried to watch Fury once, but found it completely flat.

That's why I think A Bridge Too Far is the hinge point, because after the 1970s, the WW II generation faded from entertainment and also became a less consequential audience.  Prior to that point, a war movie had to be plausible, because there were 14 million veterans to call "bullshit" if it wasn't.  As that number began to dwindle, people increasingly mistook tropes for facts, and woe to anyone who knew better.

The older generation also appreciated that the horror of war wasn't in the gore and blood sprays, but instead in the actual loss of lives.  The fact that a private got blown to pieces was less important than his death.  The older movies dwell on those losses, whereas modern films quickly move to the next special effect sequence where even more computerized soldiers can get vaporized in particularly grisly ways.

The end result is a giant snuff film, divorced from perspective or feeling.  They have no core, and therefore no resonance.

By the way, I think the other Ryan adaptation, The Longest Day, is even better, but that film came when there was still room for other movies to emerge.  After A Bridge Too Far, that was it.



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