It has many historical inaccuracies, but just like “The Great Escape” (click here for my review) from two years earlier, “Battle of the Bulge” is one of those big-screen spectacle films you don’t want to miss. It splashes across the widescreen like a Tiger tank crushing the opposition. If you are a World War II movie buff, there is just no question that you have seen it. “Battle of the Bulge” has it all: the big cast, solid acting and wonderful cinematography (especially its extensive use of models – a big contrast to the computer-generated special effects of war movies today such as “Fury”). Check it out; it’s easy to find and easy to ignore the flaws.
‘The Battle of the Bulge’
(1965; 167 minutes; rated PG; directed by Ken Annakin and starring Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw and Robert Ryan)
A BIG MOVIE ON THE BIGGEST SCREEN
(NOTE: I expanded this review on June 5, 2015, and then again, along with updating some links on March 18, 2017 – and it is the one of the most-read film reviews on my blog.)
“Battle of the Bulge” was produced, shot, edited and released in just eight months in 1965, according to IMDb.com, and despite glaring historical inaccuracies (it was even criticized by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was the supreme Allied commander in World War II), it remains one of the classic war films.
Shot in Ultra-Panavision, “The Battle of the Bulge” is nearly three hours in length and this provides the filmmakers a huge canvas to give good screen time each to the huge, A-list cast here. Not a moment is wasted and the film combines both battle and drama in a solid effort.
“Battle of the Bulge” showcases some A-list stars of the time (Henry Fonda and Robert Ryan just to name two) as well as some up-and-comers (Charles Bronson, who also played in “The Great Escape”, and Robert Shaw) in the story about the surprise German winter offensive of 1944 through the Belgian forest of the Ardennes as Hitler recreated his 1940 successful surprise attack against the French. It became an iconic battle for the U.S. troops involved and was the final offensive of the war for the Third Reich.
It isn’t anywhere near as violent as Sam Peckinpah’s only WWII effort (“Cross of Iron” – click here for my review), nor does it have the verisimilitude of the stunning “Saving Private Ryan,” but it is a spectacle film that, while not perfect, is just right.
Fonda plays “Lt. Col. Dan Kiley,” a policeman in civilian life who is convinced that the Germans are ready to mount an offensive. Ryan plays “Gen. Grey,” Fonda’s commanding officer, who is leaning to the opinion of Dana Richards playing “Col. Pritchard,” who discounts every theory by Fonda as farfetched. For him, the war is won, over and only the orders sending the allies home is next.
Fonda is in fine form here, always confident and professional but never overbearing, and Ryan plays the kind of stoic military role that would be a trademark of his career.
On the other side, Shaw plays “Col. Hessler,” the German panzer commander who is to lead the spearhead of the assault. The character of “Hessler” is based on real-life Waffen-SS tank commander Joachim Peiper, the onetime assistant to SS chief Heinrich Himmler and whose Nazi troops committed atrocities on both the Russian and western fronts, including the slaughter of U.S. POWs at Malmedy (shown in “The Battle of the Bulge”). He was accused of atrocities in Italy, too, but post-war courts held there was insufficient evidence against him, according to online resources.
“Hessler” doesn’t take responsibility for the slaughter in the film, probably because producers at the time were concerned about a lawsuit by Peiper, who was convicted of war crimes; sent to prison; released; and then, after having worked for postwar Porsche and Volkswagen, was killed at his home in France in 1976 – apparently by French communists seeking revenge on the one-time Nazi legend.
Now, back to the film …
Shaw plays the cold, efficient tank commander to perfection, the opposite of the explosive personality of “Capt. Quint” he would play a decade later in “Jaws.” His voice is so sharp that it could shred paper and the cold comes off him like a mist off dry ice. Shaw, who also played bad guy henchman “Grant” in the 007 thriller “From Russia With Love,” revels in the fact that his commands are always in the thickest of the action and suffered the most casualties. It was a prime role for Shaw in the midst of the huge cast.
The supporting cast is wide and varied.
- Telly Savalas plays “Guffy,” a U.S. tank commander who is most interested in selling black market items to troops, but can quickly turn into a combat soldier. Savalas easily conveys “Guffy’s” personality that bounces between greedy snarls to some actual vulnerability. Most famously known as TV’s “Kojak,” Savalas played numerous roles as a soldier including in the classic “The Dirty Dozen” and as straight man to Don Rickles’ sarcasm in Clint Eastwood’s “Kelly’s Heroes” (click here for my review).
- James MacArthur, already a decade into his career and three years before his most recognizable role as “Dan-O” on TV’s “Hawaii Five-O,” plays the lazy, complacent “Lt. Weaver,” who has to struggle to keep up with bold, militarily correct “Sgt. Duquesne’s” coattails (played by George Montgomery) after the Germans attack. MacArthur isn’t bad here, but he also isn’t given the chance to develop the character as he did with the military officer he plays in “The Bedford Incident” (click here for my review) from the same year.
- Bronson is “Maj. Wolenski,” a tough-as-nails U.S. combat officer who is captured and must confront Shaw about the massacre of U.S. POWs. It is a tight scene and notable in the film for both actors. Bronson is very tight in this character and has a little more emotion than one might imagine in this film. Bronson is most famous for his vigilante “Death Wish” franchise (click here for my review of the original) and I liked him better in “The Mechanic” (click here for my review). He died at the age of 81 in 2003.
- However, the best supporting work is by Hans Christian Blech who plays “Conrad,” the corporal who personally serves Shaw. Blech is the voice of conscience sitting on the ruthless panzer commander’s shoulder. He just wants to go home to his family and sees every day how it was becoming less and less likely. Blech is finally done with Shaw after an execution in a small town.
One very interesting role is “Schumacher,” played by Ty Hardin. The character is a German national who lived in the U.S. for years but came home for the war. Hardin is leading a fifth column of English-speaking German soldiers to disrupt allied communications. Many of these saboteurs were caught and executed by U.S. firing squads. Hardin offers a good turn on film as he shows his talents to German officers prior to the assault. Hardin was also in “PT 109” and after a 14-year absence from the big screen, his last movie credit was as “Colonel Sanders” in “The Back-up Bride” in 2011.
As history notes, we won the battle as well as the war so this isn’t a spoiler alert for the film.
Oddly enough, “The Battle of the Bulge” didn’t make the top 25 movies at the box office for films of 1965 with its $4.5 million in ticket sales, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film was “The Sound of Music” with $163.2 million, while the James Bond thriller “Thunderball” (click here for my review) was third with $65.3 million. The most popular war movie of the year was “Von Ryan’s Express” with Frank Sinatra with $17.1 million, which was good enough for 10th place.
Other cast and film notes (via IMDb.com and some links via Wiki):
- Blech also played a German soldier in the equally well-known “The Longest Day” from 1962. Other notables here that were in “The Longest Day” are Ryan and Fonda.
- “The Battle of the Bulge” director Ken Annakin, who also directed “The Longest Day,” was rumored to be the name inspiration for George Lucas’ “Anakin Skywalker” character in “Star Wars,” but Lucas came out after his friend Annakin’s death in 2009 and said this wasn’t so. Annakin was one of only two directors to be named a “Disney Legend.”
- Shaw died of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 51 in 1978 – just three years after the release of his signature film “Jaws.”
- Shaw was the only non-German to portray a German in the film.
- The “King Tiger” tanks in the film are actually post-war U.S. M-47 Patton tanks, a production model used frequently as filmmakers as you see U.S. Sherman tanks used as German vehicles. I truly doubt that Gen. George Patton would approve of the use of Patton tanks standing in for Tigers.
- William Conrad, most recognizable as TV’s “Cannon,” is the narrator of the film.
- The film had its premiere on the 21st anniversary of the start of the real Battle of the Bulge.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “The film’s senior military advisor, Maj. Gen. Meinrad von Lauchert, was the commander of the German 2nd Panzer Division during the real Battle of the Bulge. He then had the rank of Oberst (Colonel).”
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