'A Bridge Too Far' – When Masculinity Mattered at the Movies

'A Bridge Too Far' – When Masculinity Mattered at the Movies

On September 17, 1944 the Dutch sunshine was blotted out by 4,700 aircraft of all types in a stream that stretched ninety-four miles long and three miles wide. It was the largest aerial armada in the history of warfare featuring 35,000 Allied glider and paratroops.

Code-named “Operation Market-Garden,” the plan called for the airborne divisions of the US 101st and 82nd, British 1st Divisions and Polish 1st Parachute Brigade to descend far behind the German lines and capture key Dutch bridges. The lightly armed units would hold the string of river and canal crossings as the battering ram of a powerful British armored column smashed its way up a single road through Holland and crossed the Rhine into Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley … ending the war by Christmas.

It was a disaster.

The Germans, better organized and armed than Allied intelligence believed, utilizing topography wholly unsuited for tanks, stopped the advance before it could reach the key road bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. The Allies suffered terrible losses, especially the isolated British airborne tasked with taking the Arnhem bridge.

Although a major defeat for the Allies, it did provide a great story for Cornelius Ryan’s book “A Bridge Too Far” which director Richard Attenborough and producers Joseph and Richard Levine made into the epic war film of the same name in 1977. It featured an all-star cast that included Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Maximilian Schell, James Caan, Elliot Gould and Lawrence Olivier among others.

In the pantheon of great war movies, Attenborough’s ambitious three-hour epic is often overlooked. Yet, the sweeping cinematography and attention to historical detail make for some of the most realistic and well-crafted combat scenes you will find. But I think this film is special for another reason. It is an homage to distinctly male values much dissipated today: duty, honor, camaraderie, chivalry and ballsy grit rarely exhibited by men depicted in today’s Hollywood where it seems the pasty-faced overly-sensitive coastal metrosexual vampire (“Twilight”) or the buff but caricatured superhero (“The Green Lantern”) is what passes for manhood these days.

To say they don’t make ‘em like they used to is cliché. But even some clichés are born from valid observation.

I Googled “50 best guy movies” and for one list plucked at random, which ranges from “The Searchers” to “The Bridge On The River Kwai” to “The Dirty Dozen,” the average year of production is 1978. United Talent agent Louise Ward offers an explanation of sorts:

“I believe there’s been a certain feminization of the American male. As a result, there are a lot of ‘mama’s boys.’ …That kind of nurturing softens what we’re used to seeing on the screen.”

When I watch “A Bridge Too Far” I am compelled to ask if a film like this could ever be the success it was in today’s America. In a nation where a calamitous 41 percent of children are born to single mothers, and as such lack fathers to instill in their sons the notion of “honorable manhood,” I just don’t know.

I’ve noticed the modern war movie seems to focus on telling the fictional stories of individual soldiers in small squads just struggling to get by; the heart of these films tends to be psychological torment, emotional angst that leads to dissention, and incessant griping. “Platoon” and even “Saving Private Ryan” come to mind.

Still, one would think this genre is the last bastion of real manhood. But consider: one of the most celebrated was the 2008 Iraq war drama “The Hurt Locker” (directed by Kathryn Bigelow). I see the main character, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), strapping on a bomb disposal suit not because he’s brave per se but rather because he either needs the rush or has a death wish. WW1 flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker described courage as “doing what you’re afraid to do.” Sgt. James is not courageous. He’s psychologically dysfunctional. Not so the men in “A Bridge Too Far.” They fight on because it is part of that lost code of manhood.

In a classic demonstration of old school bravado, the tough-as-nails Col. John Frost (Hopkins) is called to the roof of his bombed out HQ by the umbrella-wielding Maj. Carlyle (Christopher Good). Stepping over the rubble, a German soldier (Lex van Delden) approaches the surrounded band of exhausted and ultimately doomed British 2nd parachute battalion troops bearing a white flag of parlay.

German: “My General says there is no point in continuing this fighting. He is willing to discuss a surrender.”

Frost (to Carlyle): “Tell him to go to hell.”

Carlyle: “We haven’t the proper facilities to take you all prisoner! Sorry!”

German: “What?!”

Carlyle: “We’d like to.  But we can’t accept your surrender. [pause] Was there anything else?”

Compare this to the whining of Bill Paxton’s character, Pvt. Hudson, when faced with a hopeless predicament in “Aliens” a mere decade later:

“That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over! What the f**k we gonna do now?”

Fine, so it’s sci-fi but he’s still a Marine. Anyway, the Waffen-SS, not known for being softies on a battlefield, were so impressed by their gallant foes that they permitted cease-fires to allow for tending of the wounded. 

When the Arnhembridgehead is finally liquidated, in the film we see SS-Obergruppenführer Wilhelm Bittrich (Schell) offer a gesture of kindness and respect to the wounded Frost, who is now his prisoner, by saluting him and offering a bar of chocolate.

Attenborough’s classic aptly demonstrates the respect among soldiers that only men of a more masculine age can understand. Though not depicted in the film, during the actual battle, SS Squad Leader Alfred Ringsdorf took stock of his British opponents:

“Believe me these are real men! They won’t give up that bridge until we carry them out feet first.”

“A Bridge Too Far” is filled with real men who did extraordinary things that would defy a modern soft-handed latte-sipping male’s imagination! One of the most intense American scenes is 82nd Airborne’s Maj. Julian Cook (Redford) leading his band of paratroops in flimsy canvass boats across the Waal River under murderous German fire to successfully assault the Nijmegan Bridge.

But alas, says “The Dark Knight Rises” casting director John Papsidera:

“The ugly truth is that American leading men just aren’t terribly manly anymore.”

He goes on to cite as a root cause “how predominant the sixties and the women’s movement were here” and laments how guys “talk about their ‘feelings’ far more.”

Professor Victor Davis Hanson observes:

“The generic American male accent has all but died out, to be replaced by something affectedly ‘metrosexual’ … a precious voice often nearly indistinguishable from the female. I watched 12 O’Clock High the other day, and Gregory Peck and Dean Jagger sounded like they were from another planet.” 

So do the men in “A Bridge Too Far,” filmed just 35 years ago. My son, not yet 10, loves this movie. My theory is that when he sees how these soldiers comport themselves with stoic valor that belies their genuine fears it taps into his still developing innate manhood; something primordial in him triggers a connection with alpha males like Col. Frost, the taciturn Gel. Gavin (O’Neal) the rock steady British Genl. Roy Urquhart (Connery), the no-nonsense cigar-chomping Col. Stout (Gould) and the cool and collected Sgt. Dohun (Caan) – who risks court-martial to honor a promise to keep his severely wounded lieutenant alive.

I’m not saying there are no real men left in any war films. “Black Hawk Down” from 2001 is certainly an exception. Perhaps truth is braver than fiction. Whatever the case, I think this generation of young American boys, lost and all-to-often fatherless, could use a dose of such undiluted old fashioned machismo as displayed in these films to remind them what those two things below their belts symbolize … especially in an over-liberalized age when genuine real men are needed to navigate an ever more threatening world, on the screen and off.

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