The 1970s films of Michael Caine: A Bridge Too Far

The title card of A Bridge Too Far.
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We continue our look at the 1970s films of one Sir Michael Caine with 1977’s A Bridge Too Far, also starring James Caan and Sean Connery.

The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.

Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…

Spoilers for A Bridge Too Far lay ahead

The poster for A Bridge Too Far.

Directed by: Richard Attenborough (Young Winston, Magic, Gandhi, Chaplin)

Tagline: Out of the sky comes the screen’s most incredible spectacle of men and war!

Other Featured Geezers: Sean Connery as Maj. Gen. Urquhart, Ryan O’Neal as Brig. Gen. Gavin, Laurence Olivier as Doctor Spaander, Dirk Bogarde as Lt. Gen. Browning, Gene Hackman as Maj. Gen. Sosabowksi, Edward Fox as Lt. Gen. Horrocks, Anthony Hopkins as Lt. Col. Frost, James Caan as Sgt. Dohun, Liv Ullmann as Kate Ter Horst, Maximilian Schell as Lt. Gen. Bittrich, Elliott Gould as Col. Stout and Robert Redford as Major Cook (and there’s tons more recognisable actors too).

Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Pulp
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Sleuth
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Black Windmill
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Marseille Contract
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Wilby Conspiracy
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Romantic Englishwoman
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Peeper
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Harry And Walter Go To New York
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Eagle Has Landed
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Silver Bears

What’s it all about, Alfie?: Based on a non-fiction book of the same name by historian Cornelius Ryan, A Bridge Too Far is the dramatization of WWII’s real-life “Operation Market Garden”; which wasn’t an Alan Titchmarsh-fronted ITV daytime show, but an ambitious Allied plan that ultimately ended in failure.

In the summer of 1944, the Allies attempted to secure the Rhine River crossings and advance into Northern Germany by seizing key bridges in the occupied Netherlands. However due to all manner of unexpected setbacks, things did not go to plan.

This film cuts between all the disparate groups involved, including not only the Allied soldiers but the Germans and Dutch civilians too, spanning the time from when the plan was hatched to its untimely end.

Caine-ness: It’s Caine in a tank! With a green cravat! You have to make the most of his fleeting appearances though as this film is so jam packed with stars, and extended sequences of stuff blowing up, and things being shot at, that he’s disappointingly not on screen for much of the three-hour runtime.

Michael Caine in a tank in A Bridge Too Far.

The opening credits are listed in alphabetical order, so Dirk Bogarde gets first billing and Caine gets a respectable third. Caine plays Lieutenant Colonel J.O.E Vandeleur, who was a real person. His full name was John Ormsby Evelyn Vandeleur and, understandably, he combined his initials and went by Joe instead (ensuring nobody could ever make fun of him for being called Evelyn).

Seeing his name spelled out like an acronym in the credits did momentarily puzzle me, as when I’ve encountered names like this before they’ve usually been robots, so there was a brief moment where I thought I had completely missed a vital sub-plot.

Caine first appears onscreen half an hour in where he is part of Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks’ (Edward Fox) mission briefing. He’s singled out by Horrocks who mentions his “extraordinary fighting ability” and the fact that he dresses like a peasant so, if he’s captured by the Germans, they will immediately send him on his way as they’ll assume he’s nobody important. Vandeleur laughs amiably at this slander, showing that he and Horrocks are good pals (also it’s untrue, because as mentioned he has a nice cravat).

This light banter continues between the two throughout; before embarking on the mission Horrocks says “Think you’ll be able to manage it?” to which Vandeleur replies “I’ve got nothing else planned this afternoon. It’s nice to see that at least some people managed to have a bit of fun during the war.

Caine plays this role a bit posher than normal, there’s less of the Cockney twang, but otherwise this is a pretty standard role for him. He’s smoothly charming and laid back, commanding the screen, but there’s not a whole lot to this character and it’s not a performance that stands out in Caine’s filmography. He also sadly doesn’t get to do any of his signature pointy shouty acting either (just a little bit of shouty, no pointy, because war is noisy and you have to speak up to be heard over the explosions).

Michael Caine shouting in A Bridge Too Far.

Caine-nections*: Since the cast features nearly every contemporary living Englishman (and a smattering of Americans) it’s not surprising that Caine has worked with a fair few of these before including;

-Sean Connery (The Man Who Would Be King, and they both appeared in separate stories in the ITV anthology series Male Of The Species)

-Laurence Olivier (Battle Of Britain, Sleuth, and he also did the intros for Male Of The Species)

Edward Fox (Battle Of Britain)

-Michael Byrne (The Eagle Has Landed)

-Alun Armstrong (Get Carter)

-Denholm Elliott (Alfie, Too Late The Hero)

-James Caan and Elliott Gould (Harry And Walter Go To New York)

The film’s music conductor John Addison was also the music arranger for Sleuth.

This is Caine’s 7th war film (Zulu, Play Dirty, Battle Of Britain, Too Late The Hero, The Last Valley, The Eagle Has Landed)

This is the fourth character based on a real person that Caine has played after Gonville Bromhead in Zulu, Alan Breck in Kidnapped, and a very heavily fictionalised version of Adam Worth in Harry And Walter Go To New York.

*I’m only counting from Caine’s first starring role in Zulu onwards.

Best Non-Caine Actor: A Bridge Too Far follows in the footsteps of another all-star adaptation of a non-fiction Cornelius Ryan book, 1962’s The Longest Day, whose stars included John Wayne, Richard Burton, Sean Connery (again!) and Paul Anka (!?!). In both of these, the story is bigger than one particular star. There are so many actors in A Bridge Too Far (ranging from massive A-listers to familiar character actors), with screentime split liberally between them, that no individual gets much of a chance to shine above the others.

The ensemble cast of A Bridge Too Far.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a fan, but the section with Sean Connery and his men hiding from the Germans in a little Dutch town was the highlight of the film for me. He even gets a very cool, and coldblooded, James Bond moment when, after he’s taken an injured colleague to safety in a Dutch couple’s living room and is discussing with them what to do next, in the background we see a German soldier walk by the window, look in and do a double take, and Connery casually, without saying anything, whips his gun out and shoots him dead and then just carries on as if nothing happened.

James Caan and Elliott Gould manage to redeem themselves after their irritating performances in my least favourite of Caine’s 70s movies (Harry And Walter Go To New York). Gould is fun and high energy, constantly chomping a cigar whenever you see him, and Caan gets some of the best sequences including high speed jeep driving through woodland, that ends with him pulling a gun on a doctor in order to save the life of a comrade, in one of the film’s more emotional moments.

Apparently, Caan agreed to do the film specifically because of this one scene. This is a much more fitting character for him, an outwardly brazen tough guy with a heart of gold, compared to the goofy vaudevillian he played last time he crossed paths with Caine.

The Dutch and Germans are subtitled and mostly played by native speakers. This was a good decision as proven by the usually-reliable Gene Hackman giving one of the film’s shakier performances as a Polish Major who, on paper, is an interesting character – but this is somewhat spoiled by his distracting accent. His accent is, to put it kindly, completely mental. It’s basically just his American accent, but then he occasionally does arbitrary weird pronunciations of words such as forced as “force-ed” like he’s performing Shakespeare. He appears to have decided to, instead of researching how Polish people actually sound, just guess and hope for the best. He’s Gene Hackman, so I can’t imagine anyone was willing to correct him.

Denholm Elliot has cropped up a few times alongside Caine previously to give stellar supporting appearances (the most notable of which is his chilling scene in Alfie as a backstreet abortionist) and here he gets to have a mildly amusing awkward conversation about fog with Gene Hackman.

It’s over two hours before we see arguably the film’s biggest star, Robert Redford, who gets perhaps the cheesiest and most stereotypically heroic scene to make up for his late entrance, where he basically singlehandedly saves the day by dodging hails of bullets and explosions and gallivanting across a bridge.

Other honourable acting mentions; Anthony Hopkins is charming as a softly spoken soldier who has to commandeer a family home, Dirk Bogarde is stuffily officious as Browning, Laurence Olivier is a warm and affable presence as a Dutch doctor and Liv Ullmann appears briefly as the film’s only female character of note.

Lastly, for fans of Cliff from Cheers, John Ratzenberger pops up towards the end of the film too. And, for those that don’t like Cliff from Cheers, you get to see him shot in the face.

Most English Supporting Character: This bloke who stops, mid-film, for a cup of tea and a custard cream.

A man eating a custard cream biscuit in A Bridge Too Far.

Best Supporting Moustache: In addition to star power, another thing that this film has in abundance is glorious moustaches. It’s hard to single out a best one, so here are a few of my favourites for your perusal.

The cast of A Bridge Too Far sporting various moustaches.

My Bleedin’ Thoughts: On Amazon the keywords displayed for this film are; “Military and War” “Action” “Ambitious” and, erm, “Biting. I’m not entirely sure what biting is doing there, whoever set these was perhaps hungry at the time, but the rest are accurate.

There’s no denying that this is an ambitious film. It must have been a headache for Richard Attenborough and his crew to not only manage the egos of the many star performers but also to wrangle the thousands of extras, planes and other assorted vehicles. Attenborough worked an average of 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for 24 months and apparently, upon finishing then movie, he went to bed and slept solidly for three days. I don’t blame him.

We often take spectacle in film for granted nowadays because of the advances in special effects, but here it’s all done for real. The air is chocked full of real planes dumping real paratroopers who fill the real sky, like a flock of seagulls that have just indulged in a dodgy batch of chips and are unleashing their burden.

The fact that anyone could even be bothered to co-ordinate this amount of action for just a film is impressive in its own right. We also get some quite creative camera work with a couple of shots from the paratrooper’s point of view and the excitement and scale of the whole thing is excellently conveyed. This must have been mindblowing to see at the cinema when it was first released.

There are also tons of explosions, tanks blowing up and then other tanks pushing these tanks that are now on fire, men rowing little boats across rivers whilst being shot at, and wall to wall gunfire for the last third of the film. However, there is actually a bit too much of all this and after a while it does get boring. There are only so many times you can see an explosion before it loses its initial thrill and I was getting increasingly irritated by the unending gunfire towards the end of the indulgent three-hour runtime. As seen below, even Caine eventually had enough and was forced to stop and take a nap mid-battle.

Michael Caine sat with his eyes closed in A Bridge Too Far.

The script is by the acclaimed, Academy Award winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, All The President’s Men, The Princess Bride) and there is certainly flair to the dialogue, with witty and memorable exchanges throughout, but as a whole I think the script is too ambitious in its scope and the lack of a specific focus makes it harder to properly emotionally invest and follow the thread of the story.

Although the film demonstrates, time and again, the bravery of the men involved it also frequently reminds us how futile war is such as the scene where a soldier dies trying to reach supplies that have been dropped in enemy territory, and it’s then revealed it was just a container full of spare berets. The ending too is incredibly downbeat and sombre, the plan fails and the men retreat after losing countless lives. So basically, it’s three hours of explosions and gunfire and then everyone is sad at the end, so it’s not the most fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Trivia: Alun Armstrong appears on a plane holding a chicken and he’s playing a real man (and the chicken is playing a real chicken); Lieutenant Joseph Glover and Myrtle the chicken. Glover liberated Myrtle from an English farm as part of a bet to establish whether chickens could fly and she took part in a few non-combat drops. She died on 19th September after taking part in Operation Market Garden and was buried with parachute wings. R.I.P Myrtle.

Alun Armstrong and a chicken in A Bridge Too Far.

The director, Richard Attenborough, has an uncredited cameo as “Lunatic Wearing Glasses”. Also, on IMDb Adolf Hitler is included in the cast list as “Self (archive footage) (uncredited)”.

Roger Moore was offered the role of Brian Horrocks but the real-life Horrocks had approval over the casting and turned Moore down, and so the role ultimately went to Edward Fox.

The portrayal of General Browning (Dirk Bogarde) was controversial. Browning’s son and his widow, the author Daphne Du Maurier, said the film made Browning the fall guy for the failure of Operation Market Garden which was unfair. His character does get to say the film’s title in a line of dialogue, though, but apparently that didn’t make up for the reputational damage.

Overall Thoughts: I loved the campy adventure of The Eagle Has Landed, but this more serious-minded WWII film often feels like homework, rather than entertainment, in a similar way to another of Caine’s war films – Battle Of Britain. There’s some genuinely impressive spectacle, and nice performances, but overall, A Bridge Too Far is just a little too long and a little too dull. The moustaches were great though.

Rating: 2/5 Combat Moustaches

Two glorious moustaches from A Bridge Too Far.

Where You Can Watch This: In the unlikely event that you subscribe to the MGM channel on Amazon Prime, this is currently streaming on there. Otherwise, it is available to rent or purchase digitally through most streaming services or to buy on Blu-ray and DVD.

Up Next: It’s Caine versus bees in The Swarm! Can he defeat them by randomly shouting in the middle of line readings, we’ll find out next time!

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