Battle of the Bulge (1965) was an Anglo-American production directed by Ken Annakin (The Longest Day). The film debuted at the Cinerama Dome Theater in Hollywood on December 16, 1965, which was the twenty first anniversary of when the battle began. Filmed in ultra Panavision 70mm, the film also boasts a cast which includes Dana Andrews (Col. Pritchard), Charles Bronson (Major Wolinski), Henry Fonda (Lt. col. Kiley), Robert Ryan (Gen. Grey), Telly Savalas (Sgt. Guffy), and Robert Shaw (Col. Hessler).
Even though the film was made with an expensive budget and tried to convey the essence of the battle and its effects on the beginning of the end of the war in Europe, the film failed to bring realism to the screen. Battle of the Bulge for me is a guilty pleasure film because it has a great cast, great battle sequences, and a great score, but the film does make me laugh at certain aspects for instance, trying to pass off the Spanish desert as the the snow covered wilderness of northern Europe, or passing off American Patton tanks painted grey like German Tiger Tanks. These were major gripes from veterans who were astounded that the filmmakers could overlook such important details.
That would be like trying to recreate George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware River to capture the Hessian garrison while doing so on landing craft. In those days, it was hard to film on actual battlefield locations, or try to acquire many armaments, so the production designers had to do whatever was necessary. In my opinion, they should have tried a little harder for realistic landscapes and suitable German tanks.
On the day the battle commences, many of the scenes show clear skies and sunshine in point of fact, a thick fog blanketed the region for many days which made it impossible for allied air power to smash the German offensive in the Ardennes Forrest. This was why the Germans waited to strike because of the poor weather and zero visibility from the air. The weather didn’t clear until after Christmas, and then the Allies destroyed most of the German opposition in the West. By January 1945, the Germans were in full retreat across their sovereign borders.
The film centers mostly around a few American divisions in a sector of the bulge which saw some of the heaviest and bloodiest action during the offensive (e.g. the massacre of American troops by the German SS in the town of Malmedy). Its almost like a bad third grade oral history report of one of the major battles of the war. Its also difficult to try and depict a month long battle which spanned over three countries in just under three hours. Certain accounts are depicted rather well like the capture of German troops who consist of young boys. Col Pritchard (Andrews) who is Col. Kiley’s commanding officer, comments in one scene that it looks like Kiley’s recon patrol have captured “a Sunday school class”. One of the Junior officers tells both colonels that the German prisoners were captured with rubber hoses on them. During the battle, many rear echelon troops were caught while trying to siphon gas from American vehicles because the Germans were running out of their gasoline reserves from Romanian oil fields. One other event depicted in the film is of German paratroopers disguised as American personnel to conduct sabotage and misdirection behind the lines. Many of them spoke English fluently, or actually lived in the states and returned to the Fatherland when the war broke out. However, they were not depicted as American military police units.
Robert Shaw’s character, one of many fictitious individuals (Col. Hessler), is placed in command of the German armor spearhead whose mission is to drive a wedge between the allies, and drive towards the North Sea and recapture the town of Antwerp, Belgium. It is believed that such a strike will divide the ally forces for over a year, and the Germans will soon perfect their rocket program, and possibly near completion of an atomic bomb which will smash London or even New York. Col. Hessler has only fifty hours and resources for full scale attack and must complete his objectives before the Allies realize what they’re up to. Almost the whole film is that of the American forces in full retreat and surrendering to the Germans. My favorite scene is a German radio man who receives a message which reads only one word from the American General William Mcauliffe (Deputy commander of the 101st Airborne division) that he and his encircled troops surrender the town of Bastogne, Belgium. His one word reply was the famous phrase “Nuts”. The German high command look at the scrap of paper and can’t understand Mcauliffe’s American slang that he and his troops have no intention of surrendering the town.
By film’s end, the U.S. comes out on top with the help of some rag tag G.I.s under the command of an American Lieutenant who escapes the Malmedy massacre (James MacArthur) and an American tank crewman, Sgt. Guffy (Savalas) who lights up the screen with his sarcastic wit and pin-point target delivery. Lt. col. Kiley played by the ever great Henry Fonda, puts all the pieces together and finds out what the Germans are planning, despite the resistance he gets from his commanding officers (Grey and Pritchard) who think his hunches are wild and inconclusive. As the end credits role, the producers thank the over one million soldiers who were involved in this epic battle of World War II and that for “dramatic” purposes, many of the battle scenes were staged for encompassing the whole of the battle.
Battle of the Bulge is a film that is flawed, but has many endearing qualities like its cast and the scope of the battle sequences. I own the Blu-Ray copy of the film and it looks positively amazing on my HD set-up. Its a movie that I enjoy to watch with gatherings of friends who love the film for its certain attributes. I certainly wouldn’t rely on the film as a major source for a research paper, but its a fun film to pop on to learn certain events of the battle.
Battle of the Bulge is available on DVD & Blu-Ray through Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented via Netflix.