The idiom “a bridge too far” is typically used to reference something that is too ambitious or drastic to be realistic, or to describe an action that is very complicated and challenging to execute so much so that it is likely to fail. It can be used in a variety of settings to describe things that are just out of reach, either strategically, financially, or personally. Often, but not always, people attach the phrase to things that wind up causing serious problems or consequences. For instance, a shop owner’s heady decision to franchise or quickly open multiple locations might be described as a “bridge too far” if those locations failed and ended up costing a lot of money. The idiom owes its roots to the Second World War, when the allied forces led a failing mission to overtake a number of German bridges in a mission known as Operation Market Garden. That failure was the basis of both a novel and, later, a film carrying the “Bridge Too Far” title, which together are chiefly responsible for the idiom’s widespread usage in English-speaking communities.
When one uses the phrase "a bridge too far," the implication is that the goal or mission being described is not going to happen, or is going to wind up being unsuccessful. For example, a company with an overreaching goal might end up going out of business. A person's or group's project that is too ambitious might have to be scrapped altogether when it cannot be completed, resulting in a waste of time, money and effort. A more realistic target would be much more likely to be reached, and extending the goal too far might result in a disproportionate amount of unwanted consequences if success is not achieved.
The idiom owes is popularity to British Lieutenant General Frederick Browning, who was one of the key leaders in the failed allied mission known as Operation Market Garden in September 1944. In this operation, the Allies attempted to get past German lines and seize several bridges in the Netherlands, which at the time was occupied by Nazi forces.
During the mission the Allied troops were able to seize several bridges but were delayed by the demolition of a bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal. Far more resistance was encountered than had been anticipated, and in the end, the Allies were overrun. Many troops were trapped because the bridges were not held, and they had to be evacuated. The exact number of casualties among the Allied forces is unknown, but there are believed to have been more than 15,000 dead, wounded or missing. Browning, who is said to have been skeptical of the mission from the outset, reportedly told the mission’s organizers that “I think we may be going a bridge too far” before the operation started. His words were apparently unheeded, but sum up the sentiment of the idiom as it is used today.
Literary and Media Titles
The idiom became popular after Browning’s quote was used as the title of a 1974 novel by Irish writer Cornelius Ryan, and a motion picture based on that book and carrying the same title was released in 1977. The movie was directed by British filmmaker Richard Attenborough. Additionally, the phrase is used as the title of a World War II-themed video game released in the mid-1990s by the U.S.-based Microsoft Corporation.
Examples of Colloquial Use
People don’t typically use the idiom to describe warfare or military strategies, and indeed it can be applied to any number of everyday circumstances. In common speech it is often used to describe something that simply requires to much effort to achieve. A person thinking about vacation expenses might say something like “We were in the hotel for a week, we did some fun excursions, but chartering a boat was just a bridge too far.” Similarly, someone thinking about demands on time might remark that an extra task, chore, or request was a bridge too far — particularly if accomplishing it would cause the person some intense stress or hardship.