“Battle of the Bulge” has many historical inaccuracies, but, just like “The Great Escape” (click here for my review) from two years earlier, it is one of the classic big-screen, big-cast 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 cast, some solid acting and wonderful cinematography (especially its extensive use of models – those were back-in-the-day technology for special effects that have given way to today’s computer-generated efforts such as you see such in “Fury”). Check out “Battle of the Bulge” … 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. I reorganized and expanded the review with more opinion, trivia and the updating of links on April 29, 2018.)
“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 (the film was even criticized by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was the supreme Allied commander in World War II), it remains one of the classics of the war film genre.
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 each member of the huge, A-list cast. Not a moment is wasted and the film combines both battle and drama in a very 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.
“Battle of the Bulge” isn’t anywhere near as violent or graphic as Sam Peckinpah’s only WWII effort (“Cross of Iron” – click here for my review), nor does it have the verisimilitude of the Steven Spielberg’s stunning and instant WWII classic “Saving Private Ryan,” but it is a spectacle film that, while not perfect, hits just the right notes.
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.
On the other side, Shaw plays “Col. Hessler,” the cold, distant German panzer commander who leads the spearhead of the assault with calculated vigor. 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”).
Each side has successes and failures – of course at opposite times for the opposing forces. And the ending is beautifully done and the perfect panoramic ending scene focuses on the actor who arguably does the best job of the entire cast.
The cast is numerous and varied …
- Oscar winner and two-time nominee (not for this one) Fonda is in fine form here, always confident and professional but never overbearing. He’s everyman’s officer and it’s simply impossible not to like him. Fonda is a Hollywood legend his CV is too extensive to review in a few words. He won his Oscar for “On Golden Pond” and was nominated for “12 Angry Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” He also received an honorary Oscar for career accomplishments. He died at 77 in 1982 of cardiorespiratory arrest.
- An Oscar nominee (not for this one), 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 slice wet 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. I also liked him as the hero in “Black Sunday” (click here for my review) and he was nominated for “A Man for All Seasons.” Shaw died of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 51 in 1978 – just three years after the release of what would be his signature film – “Jaws.”
- Oscar nominee (not for this one) Telly Savalas plays “Guffy,” a U.S. sergeant who commands a tank. He’s more interested in selling goods on the black market than he is in combat, but, don’t worry, he quickly turns into a real 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). He died at 72 in 1994 of bladder cancer.
- 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. He died at 72 in 2010.
- 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) as well as being in the classic “The Magnificent Seven” with Steve McQueen. I liked him better in “The Mechanic” (click here for my review) and he wasn’t all bad in the espionage thriller “Telefon” (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. It is almost a sublime job that Blech does to near-perfection in this one. He died at 78 in 1993 in Germany.
The film ends with Blech the last soldier in line walking back to Germany.
One very interesting character is “Schumacher,” played by Ty Hardin, who plays 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. The 6-foot-2 Hardin died at 87 in 2017.
As history notes, we won the battle as well as the war, so this isn’t a spoiler alert for the film.
Continuing a historical note started earlier in this review, Peiper 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 worked for postwar Porsche and Volkswagen and never admitted being a war criminal. Fate caught up with him as he was killed at his home in France in 1976 – reportedly by French communists seeking revenge on the one-time Nazi legend.
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. Here are the other two films from 1965 that I’ve reviewed on my blog:
- “The Bedford Incident” (Cold War thriller) – click here for my review
- “Dear Brigitte” (wonderful Jimmy Stewart) – click here for my review
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 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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