(1961)1.5Bruce EderArmored Command has a fond place in the hearts of many World War II infantry veterans and history buffs, if only for its unique subject matter -- it's the only Hollywood movie to address the Germans' Operation Northwind (sometimes referred to as the Second Battle of the Bulge), the late December 1944/early January 1945 German offensive in the Vosges-Alsace area of France, which was planned personally by Hitler and mounted to draw some of the Allied strength away from fighting the German breakthrough in the more well-known Battle of the Bulge (aka the Ardennes counteroffensive), which started slightly earlier and was being fought simultaneously; ironically, almost no one except history buffs, the men who fought in it, and their families remembers this action today, even though Operation Northwind cost just as many lives on both sides and probably presented a much greater threat to Allied victory than the Battle of the Bulge, by opening the possibility (and even likelihood) of a split between the French and American forces. On that level, Armored Command is admirable as a movie, much more so than, say, Ken Annakin's Battle of the Bulge -- even though it gets just about as much wrong about its subject as that other movie does -- mostly because it's less pretentious in its presentation and goals. In most respects, in fact, it's just a well-made, meat-and-potatoes-type war movie, making no effort to say anything more profound about the war, the German Reich, or anything else, just tell a good story. And of course, the fact that it was an Allied Artists production didn't leave the producers much choice in terms of ambition -- Allied was not 20th Century Fox or MGM, and had few aspirations beyond making entertaining movies (i.e., telling a good story).
Chances are that Allied Artists would not have made Armored Command at all if it hadn't been for the renewed interest in World War II that manifested itself at the start of the 1960s; The Longest Day had been a tremendous hit in theaters, and television shows such as The Gallant Men were starting to build huge audiences. At times, this particular effort looks amazingly cheap and threadbare, like it should have been an episode of Combat! rather than spread across a movie screen where the budgetary limitations did show at the seams. Among other problems, Armored Command suffers from badly mismatched shots in some key battle scenes and very obvious use of stock footage. On the other hand, it has a great cast, including Earl Holliman and Burt Reynolds (who is very good in his feature-film debut) as two soldiers contending for the same woman, a German spy placed in the town, played by Tina Louise. At that time, she was a noted up-and-coming Broadway actress with some fine film credits behind her, and she acts well here, even if her accent is uncertain; mostly, she seems to be here to exploit her physique, which, when coupled with her acting skills, makes her very convincing as a spy who works her way into the confidences of men who've been too long without rest or a woman. Howard Keel is also excellent as their tough-as-nails company commander, and the movie benefits from a great supporting cast, right down to a surprisingly effective Marty Ingels in a small role.
Director Byron Haskin does very well with what he's got, keeping things believable even when the plot veers sharply away from reality (the Americans weren't caught quite as flat-footed as the movie makes out) and takes what ought to be a totally ridiculous turn, such as part of the German "plan" apparently including getting the American soldiers sloshed on cognac on New Year's Eve. Some deviations from fact here are as unfortunate as those in Annakin's Battle of the Bulge, most notably the total nonpresence of the French Army -- they lost a lot of men in this action. Additionally, as with Annakin's Battle of the Bulge, the viewer could come away with the impression that this battle was settled quickly, when it actually went on for many days and included lots of parries and thrusts by both sides across a very large front. Still, if one takes it as the story of one small unit in a larger conflict, in the spirit of, say, William Wellman's Battleground, with the espionage story thrown in as a good yarn, then it works just fine and one comes away admiring the work of Holliman, Reynolds, Keel, Haskin, et al. Additionally, one aspect of this script -- given the overall tone of the movie -- is surprising; the interaction between Reynolds' and Louise's characters includes what amounts to a rape, plain and simple, and the reality, almost never broached in war movies of this period, was that rape was a crime that took place in almost epidemic proportions from the aftermath of the Normandy landings until well past the German surrender, with hundreds of reports (and prosecutions) among the American troops. In that regard, for all of its flaws, Armored Command gets at some truths that transcend its immediate subject.
In December of 1944, while the Battle of the Bulge rages in the Ardennes, the American 7th Army settles in to what most of its officers and men figure to be a routine and peaceful occupation of the Vosges-Alsace area. The region is mountainous and treacherous, and there are still German forces nearby, but everyone from division intelligence on down figures those forces to have been stripped to support the Ardennes offensive -- everyone except Col. Mark Devlin (Howard Keel), who keeps reminding everyone that the Germans would never leave their forces stretched that thin so near their own border; but his warnings fall on deaf ears. Meanwhile, at the front lines, an infantry platoon finds a woman wounded in the snow. Alexandra Bastegar (Tina Louise) is an Alsatian and speaks all the local languages and dialects, which is more than the American interpreters can do, and she's only too happy to help the people who rescued her -- except that she was shot as a cover and is working on behalf of the Germans. Can Devlin find the proof he needs of a German offensive-in-the-making before Alexandra completes her mission?