Music Album Review: ‘A Bridge Too Far – Original MGM Motion Picture Soundtrack’

(C) 1977, 1999 MGM-United Artists and Rykodisc

In June of 1977, Metro Goldwyn Mayer/United Artists released director Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far, a World War II epic based on Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 non-fiction book about Operation Market-Garden, the star-crossed attempt by the Allies to use three and a half airborne divisions (two American, one British, and one Polish brigade) and the British XXX Corps to capture a series of bridges in German occupied Holland and establish a bridgehead over the Lower Rhine River. The largest airborne operation of World War II in scale, Market-Garden was devised by British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery with the intention of outflanking the Germans’ Westwall and driving the British Second Army into the Ruhr Valley – the industrial heartland of the Third Reich – and ending the war by Christmas 1944.

Theatrical release poster. Photo Credit and (C) 1977 United Artists and MGM

Producer Joseph E. Levine was enthralled with Ryan’s book and immediately bought the film rights; the popular author – he had written the internationally acclaimed book about D-Day, The Longest Day, 15 years earlier – was dying from cancer and wished to provide for his widow and two daughters. Levine was also keen on producing a bookend to Darryl F. Zanuck’s 1962 adaptation of The Longest Day and having it released as closely as possible to the 33rd anniversaries of the D-Day landings and Market-Garden.

Among the film’s many assets – a talented director (Richard Attenborough), an Oscar-winning screenwriter (William Goldman), and an all-star cast that included Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Elliott Gould, Hardy Kruger, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, Maximilian Schell, and Liv Ullmann – A Bridge Too Far featured a brilliant score by composer John Addison (Tom Jones) that captured the audacity and courage of Market-Garden, as well as the tragedy that befell the “paras” of the British First Airborne Division and the Polish First Airborne Brigade at Arnhem.

For the composer, A Bridge Too Far was not just another gig. As a young man, John Addison had served as a tank commander during World War II; his unit participated in Market-Garden as part of Lt. Gen. Brian G. Horrocks’ XXX Corps – the armored element code-named “Garden.” Some of Addison’s close friends in the service died on “Hell’s Highway”- the single highway that ran from the Dutch-Belgian border to Arnhem – site of the “bridge too far” – and the composer, when he heard that Richard Attenborough was directing A Bridge Too Far, asked to be hired to write the score.

Per the liner notes from this 1999 CD re-release by Rykodisc, composer John Addison states that the score for A Bridge Too Far is dominated by three themes. “One conveys the tragic stoicism of the Dutch people, particularly the inhabitants of Arnhem, who have a momentary taste of liberation, only to be plunged ever deeper into the anguish and devastation of war. And the second theme represents the paratroopers, the 35,000 men from America, Poland and Britain who dropped from the skies to spearhead a bitter nine-day action which was to cost so many of them their lives. The third theme is that of XXX Corps, the XXX Corps March symbolizing the spirit of the ground forces. These are frequently heard in the course of the film.”

Addison – like many of his fellow composers, including John Williams, Elmer Bernstein, and James Horner, also do – uses the time-tested technique of “themes and variations” in his score for A Bridge Too Far; in the movie – and the soundtrack – we hear different iterations of the three themes, reworked and presented to reflect the emotional context of the scenes they serve as underscore.

For instance, the main Overture presents the themes for the paratroopers and XXX Corps in a grandiose fanfare that reflects the optimism and elan of the Allies as they set forth to carry out Market-Garden. It ends with a quiet yet worrisome rendition of the theme for the Dutch people. Later on, in the track titled Bailey Bridge, we hear the two military themes presented in such a way that conveys the efforts of the 101st Airborne to build a replacement bridge at the canal crossing near Son, which the Germans blew up in the faces of Col. Bobby Stout (Elliott Gould) and his men on D-Day of the operation.

There are also unique cues, such as the tense Futile Mission that underscores the tale of a young paratrooper who rushes out to retrieve a container dropped by an RAF Dakota just beyond the British airborne division perimeter near Oosterbeek, Holland – and gets killed by a German sniper.

Another track with no connection to the three main themes is Hospital Tent, which is heard while Sgt. Eddie Dohun (James Caan) waits outside a U.S. military hospital tent while an Army surgeon (Arthur Hill) tends to Dohun’s wounded captain.

All in all, there are 16 tracks in this 1999 re-release of the A Bridge Too Far soundtrack, including a recording, exclusive to this album, of Dutch Rhapsody, which is not heard in this form in the film itself. (Sort of like the contemporary and better known Princess Leia’s Theme was presented in the double LP album of he original Star Wars soundtrack in its concert hall arrangement, an arrangement that is not heard In the actual Star Wars film.)

Of all the soundtrack albums I own, A Bridge Too Far was the hardest one to acquire. It was released on vinyl in 1977, but my family and I were in the midst of a move when it was in stores and I didn’t have a turntable to play it on. By the time my mom, half-sister, and I settled into the new townhouse in early 1978, the A Bridge Too Far soundtrack was temporarily forgotten, and by the time I remembered about it, the album was nearly impossible to find.

In The Netherlands, A Bridge Too Far is a popular film, and many local ensembles play selections from John Addison’s score in live concerts.

I eventually bought it in September of 2000 at a music store in the Miami International Mall as a Rykodisc compact disc. The re-release – which is now extremely rare and pricey – includes a new booklet of liner notes, plus information on where and when the music was recorded. The CD is also one of those enhanced CDs that include video extras: in this case, the disc not only included John Addison’s magnificent score, but also a Quick Time video with the theatrical trailer for the movie.

All in all, I consider myself to be quite lucky; I have always been a fan of Ryan’s 1974 book and director Richard Attenborough’s film. For me, Addison’s score is a perfect match for one of the best films made about World War II. It reflects the grand spectacle of this epic nine-day struggle, as well as the tragedy for the Dutch civilians and the British-Polish contingent that met with disaster at Arnhem. A Bridge Too Far is therefore one of my most treasured recordings, not just because it’s such a rare album to find nowadays, but also because the music is both beautiful and memorable.  

Track List

1Overture
2A Dutch Rhapsody
3Before the Holocaust
4Underground Resistance
5Air Lift
6Hospital Tent
7Arnhem
8Nijmegen Bridge
9March of the Paratroopers
10Bailey Bridge
11Human Roadblock
12Futile Mission
13The Waal River
14Arnhem Destroyed
15Retreat
16A Bridge Too Far March

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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