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Film Success for a Failed Operation
on 6 March 2012
This is a review of the two-disc special edition. I first give a brief overview of the film (it is assumed that the potential purchaser knows at least the gist of its story), followed by my reason for purchasing the discs, and finally some added information about the extras.
Operation Market Garden was an audacious attempt by the allies in 1944 to shorten the road to Berlin and bring the war to a quick end. As this film shows, the operation almost succeeded but was ground down by its sheer size and complexity. The film was not popular in the US, apparently because many critics there refused to believe some of the true stories depicted in the film. And yet the film was based on the meticulous researches of Cornelius Ryan. Admittedly, there are one or two Monty Python moments, but the truths of these are considered in some of the documentary extras on the second disc (see below). In addition, America was at this time going through its own post-Vietnam appraisal when the concept of `heroic failure' might not have been de rigueur.
The film is almost three hours long and could have done with an intermission in the cinema; but at least with the DVD we can space out our viewing. The film bears repeated viewing just to take in the sheer scale of it all, that is the scale both of the original operation AND its filming. There are great set-pieces, such as the huge initial airborne drop. And of course there is a great list of star actors. But repeated viewing can also clear up some confusions. For example, initially I thought Anthony Hopkins's character was south of Arnhem Bridge whilst Sean Connery's was north, but then Hopkins tells us he's at the northern end and it is the Germans at the southern. When I watched the film with my partner, he commented that there should have been more use made of maps to show where everyone was at each stage.
The DVD was purchased because I am collecting Dirk Bogarde movies. (I also have a second cousin who took part in the operation.) Bogarde was a neighbour and good friend of Richard Attenborough's in Provence, but Bogarde fell out big-time with Attenborough when the film was released. Bogarde played Browning, the most senior officer depicted in the film. Since neither Eisenhower not Montgomery appears, Browning becomes the fall guy for the mission's failure. As John Coldstream notes in his biography of Bogarde, "The crude ethos of the Hollywood School of War has usually dictated, first, that there must be a fall guy for a failure and, if joint operations are involved, he should be British; second, that characterisation must be black and white, with no shades of grey."
Daphne du Maurier, Browning's widow, took the matter up in the correspondence columns of The Times, and ex-generals, friends and comrades criticised not only the script but Bogarde's performance. Bogarde then accused Attenborough of setting him up, though later their relationship was patched up. It was all dubbed `The Second Battle of Arnhem'.
The disc includes commentary by the screenwriter, a camera operator, someone from the art direction department, a second assistant director, and a special effects man. From these we learn much technical information about how some scenes were set up and shot. The film could not possibly be remade today in the same way because it would be an environmental crime. There is also commentary on the music composed by John Addison (who was himself a participant in Operation Market Garden).
The extras on the second disc comprise 1. a forty-five-minute History Channel documentary called `Heroes from the Sky' that includes archive film and interviews with participants in the operation as well as members of the film crew; 2. a moving fifteen-minute documentary called `A Distant Battle' in which actual participants recount their experiences; and 3. a twenty-minute interview with Attenborough in 2002 in which he refers to the controversy over Browning but also emphasises the anti-war message of the film.