As someone who has spent a fair share of my time watching films about World War Two, hoping to find what they tell us about the past they depict and the present in which they were made, I think Cameron’s choice of A Bridge Too Far as his favourite war film says more than he intends.
Presumably Cameron hoped he would appeal to elderly and nostalgia-ridden Telegraph readers who – if the content of the paper is anything to go by – have a view of the past dominated by benign monarchs and brave British soldiers. Yet, for a Conservative it is a paradoxical film to choose. Released in 1977, the last time Britain struggled to recover from an international crisis and its own economic and social problems, A Bridge Too Far depicted not a victory but the worst Allied defeat in World War Two. It was closely based on real events. In the late summer of 1944 General Bernard Montgomery persuaded Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower that Germany could be knocked out if they dropped an unprecedented number of paratroops behind enemy lines to capture all the Dutch bridges they needed to cross the Rhine.
According to scriptwriter William Goldman, however, ‘The generals screwed up totally and they killed all those young men.’ For the film shows how these – British – generals committed themselves to a plan none dared criticise, even though they knew it held amazing risks. Written and produced by Americans, and based on a book written by an Irishman, the movie shows these British commanders as tea-drinking, stiff-upper lip aristocratic types: if they were brave, they were also foolish. As Goldman says, A Bridge Too Far was his chance to say ‘war sucks’, conceding that, ‘it’s a depressing movie. The good guys didn’t win’.
If the impetus for the film came from across the Atlantic, Richard Attenborough directed it and worked with a wholly British crew. In some ways it summed the supposedly Special Relationship at this time, both in film and international relations.
The most expensive movie since the disastrous Cleopatra (1963) and with more stars than Heaven – Dirk Bogarde, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Anthony Hopkins played the British leaders – A Bridge Too Far is not usually seen as a great war film. It was widely criticised for its confusing narrative, with many reviewers lost in the complexity of the operation: it was too often unclear what was going on and where it was happening, they complained.
The uncertainty went even deeper. A Bridge Too Far was a movie that tried to have its cake and eat it: at one level anti-war, it celebrated amazing acts of bravery and self-sacrifice. Indicating that the failure to capture that last but vital bridge at Arnhem was due to poor planning, the script pulled its punches over who precisely was to blame. It was in other words a film liberals and conservative could like, a catch-all war film if you will, one that failed to satisfy anybody much. Like David Cameron perhaps?
Cameron didn’t know it but his choice of a film about a plan designed to steamroller the Germans into final defeat but which actually gave the enemy one of its last victories over the well-resourced but careless Allies, anticipated criticisms of his own election campaign. A campaign that depended on Labour blowing up under pressure gave Ed Miliband’s party the chance to show that it wasn’t quite the shower the Tory tabloids claimed.
Of course there is another parallel with the 2015 campaign. A Bridge Too Far depicted a defeat but one that merely delayed the inevitable. The Allies lost thousands of lives unnecessarily but they still crossed the Rhine some months later and the Allies won the war. But one of the results of this delay was that the Russians got to Berlin first and when the Iron Curtain descended across Europe, it was to the West’s disadvantage. Maybe the Conservatives will still win this election, but not as well as they perhaps should have done? Is this, for Cameron, a campaign too far?
Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History and Director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham.
Image credit: British Film Institute