Ken Annakin’s “Battle of the Bulge” from 1965 is another solid entry into the field of War World 2 films. Over the Memorial Day weekend I had the opportunity to finally catch up with the entire film. “Battle of the Bulge” (the movie) has an interesting history. It was met with a wide range of opinions, mostly positive but plenty of negative. Some criticized the film for it’s obvious historical inaccuracies. Others griped about it’s overly talky and bloated script. There certainly is some merit to these and other criticisms, but I found the movie to be a solid war picture despite it’s overly long running time.
“Battle of the Bulge” is the telling of the German’s last-ditch offensive through the heavily forested mountain regions of Belgium in the later days of World War 2… at least the title of the film suggests that. It could be better described as loosely based on events surrounding the bloody, costly, and complicated battle. The film doesn’t depict any particular real-life figure during the war. It’s clearly intended to be a drama set during wartime. This is something some people took issue with but I don’t think the movie ever pretends to be something it’s not. Perhaps it could have chosen a different title for the film, but historical accuracy doesn’t seem to be a goal. That said, the movie does attempt to capture elements from the real 50 day battle. Some of the attempts work more than others.
The film’s centerpiece seems to be Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw), a German officer put in charge of a large group of new King Tiger tanks. His mission is to slam into and push back the Allied lines which are slowly hemming the Germans in. The Americans believe the Germans are undermanned and out of resources and incapable of a worthwhile offensive, everyone except Lieutenant Colonel Kiley (Henry Fonda). During an overhead recon flight, Kiley noticed German tanks in hiding which leads him to believe the Germans are planning an attack. His suspicions are dismissed by General Grey (Robert Ryan) and the Americans are caught unprepared when Hessler and his tank division hit the Allied lines.
Hessler seems loosely based (there’s that description again) on the real-life Nazi Joachim Peiper. Peiper was a shrewd and brutal field officer with close personal connections with Himmler. During The Battle of the Bulge, Peiper was to lead a division of the new King Tigers. The tanks were heavily armored but they were gas guzzlers (it’s said the went about 1/2 mile per gallon of fuel). We see some of this with the movie’s Hessler character. He is a shrewd and dedicated German and we definitely see the fuel issue play a key role in how things turn out. But Peiper was a high-ranking SS Nazi and was convicted of war crimes for the brutal massacre of American prisoners and civilians who he came across during the battle. Hessler isn’t an SS officer and seems to be angered when he hears of a massacre that took place elsewhere during the offensive.
On the American side we send a lot of time with Lt. Col. Kiley as he tries to persuade the higher-ups of the upcoming attack and later as he plays a key role in trying to figure out Hessler’s ultimate strategy. We also spend time with Major Walenski (Charles Bronson) and his soldiers who find themselves face-to-face with Hessler’s forces on more than one occasion. Some of my favorite moments in the film revolved around Walenski and his men. I guess that’s why I was a little let down by the way he just drops off the map later in movie. Once he disappears, we never see him again. Telly Savalas plays Sgt. Gruffy, a tank commander who has a little business on the side. The movie tries to build a little story around him but it’s pretty flimsy. I did enjoy the short side-story about a green, by-the-books Lt. Weaver (James MacArthur) and the seasoned Sgt. Duquesne (George Montgomery). When things go bad for the two Weaver flaunts his rank while Duquesne relies on his field experience. It’s a familiar dynamic but one that I enjoyed.
But the complaints about the movie’s script are legitimate. There were instances where it felt like we were seeing the same thing over and over. The American leaders would discuss what the Allied game plan should be. Then we would switch to Hessler and his heads talking about a better course of action for them. Then we would do both all over again without making any progress in between. There were also some scenes that could have been edited better. For example, there is a cool scene where the Allies are sending guns via train to the front line to stop Hessler’s advance. The camera is put on the front of the train as it races to it’s location. But the coolness wears off as the scene just keeps on going and going. There were also several scenes features rolling tanks that seem to go on forever. A little better editing could have cut out some wasted time on scenes like these.
And while I don’t think the movie should be dismissed simply because it’s not historically accurate, I can see where some may not be as fond of it due to certain out-of-place details. For example, the location of a big tank battle close to the end almost resembled Arizona more than Belgium. It didn’t at all feel connected to the real environment in which they fought. In fact, much of the Battle of the Bulge was fought in snowy, hilly areas with thick forests. We see small bits of that here and there but it completely disappears later in the film. Now I perfectly realize that this is something that only someone interested in the history behind the battle would fuss about. And while it would add so much more to the film for someone like me, it really isn’t something that killed my enjoyment of the picture.
On the flip side, “Battle of the Bulge” is a visual delight. The film is filled with huge detailed set pieces and wide screened action sequences that feel completely authentic. The camera work is fantastic and there are times where the carefully crafted angles blew me away. Jack Hildyard, the Oscar-winning cinematographer for “Bridge on the River Kwai”, handles the same duties here and his work is fantastic. The movie is immediately set apart by it’s visuals and they only get better as the film progresses.
Yes “Battle of the Bulge” is long and sometimes talky. No it’s not a movie to watch in order to learn the real details of this historical and important battle. But in terms of cinematic entertainment, the movie works. The performances are good especially from Shaw and Bronson and it’s visual presentation can stand with any other war picture. “Battle of the Bulge” may not be the best World War 2 movie, but it’s certainly a satisfying film that captures a lot of the action and spirit you want. It’s definitely worth checking out.
The movie does use some storylines from actual events that occurred at the Battle of the Bulge. There is the American officer whose answer to a German demand for surrender was “nuts”. That really happened. Also, the German soldiers who impersonated American GIs was based on real events.
The movie has a brilliant cast, not the least of is the great Robert Ryan. He is possibly the most underrated actor in Hollywood history. In his prime if Ryan told me to jump I would ask how high. He was the tough guy’s tough guy.
The Battle of the Bulge is a long movie, but the battle itself was a long drawn out affair.
There certainly are some inspirations taken from the events (the slaughter of the American prisoners is one of the best examples).
And I really wasn’t very clear in my review about the length. I have no problem with long movies. Heck, Schindler’s List and The Longest Day were both in the 5 Phenomenal World War 2 movies I did a few weeks back. So it’s not the length itself that’s a problem.
The Hessler character is interesting and I do believe he was loosely based on Peiper. But what’s really interesting is that Peiper was convicted of war crimes and it seems pretty clear he was guilty. But there were some survivors who insisted Peiper abided by The Geneva Convention in his dealings with them when they were captured. In a sense, we see a mixture of both of these perceptions of Peiper in Hessler. Pretty cool.