(1965)3.5Bruce EderKen Annakin's Battle of the Bulge is a guilty pleasure among war movie buffs, mostly because anyone serious about their history knows that there's a lot more wrong than right about its account of its subject, and also -- dramatically speaking -- it has some of the worst writing, and some of the worst fictionalized characters ever to grace a major movie meant to reenact a major military event; well, maybe not that bad, but the worst in any movie pretending to possess the smallest amount of basis upon facts. The problem isn't so much Annakin's direction, which is energetic enough, or the performances by the big-name cast, including Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Charles Bronson, Robert Ryan (whose performance here is almost a bad burlesque of his work in The Longest Day), Telly Savalas, James MacArthur, and George Montgomery, all of whom try hard with what they're given. Rather, it's mostly in the script, co-authored by co-producers Philip Yordan and Milton Sperling with John Melson. It seeks to encapsulate the actual events, which took place on a huge canvas and involved hundreds of thousands of men over a period of weeks (and was stopped by a combination of American perseverance, a fortuitous change in weather, and a seemingly impossible change of direction by General George S. Patton's Third Army), within two and a half hours of screen time, with lots of close combat sequences and "personal" stories as well.
The story had been told very well once before on film, from the standpoint of the ordinary foot soldier on the ground (William Wellman's Battleground), but Annakin and company made the mistake of trying to present the big picture, which was too involved and complex for the kind of action-oriented epic that the producers wanted. Their obvious inspiration was The Longest Day, which Annakin co-directed, but the events of the Battle of the Bulge were not so neatly retold or reenacted. So instead, the writers resorted more often than not to simplifications that turned into virtually complete fiction, and filled the story with multiple layers of war movie conventions and stereotypes, including the fast-talking, conniving cigar chomping Sgt. Guffy (Telly Savalas); the "green" second lieutenant (James MacArthur) who becomes a real soldier amid a baptism of fire (and survives the Malmedy massacre in the process); the tough, no-nonsense combat officer (Charles Bronson); and the too sedentary, too book-bound commanding officer (Robert Ryan). As if that weren't bad enough, the writers turn the American effort to stop the German offensive into a detective story, a kind of battlefield police procedural, with Henry Fonda's intelligence officer, a loner who wanders the battlefront at will (and who, we are told at the outset, was a police detective in civilian life) and is seemingly always in an opportune position to observe the "clues" that will solve the puzzle at hand, in this case the objective of the German assault. It's all so silly that the movie should have been a disaster; Fonda's character is always present to find those "clues" but also acts to reveal them at pivotal moments, Ryan's commanding major general pauses for effect (in what one generation now might call the best William Shatner manner) and makes self-consciously momentous statements like "I'm committing my tanks," and Savalas' tank sergeant comes close to going off the deep end, playing way over the top.
Critically, the film was stomped on by reviewers and war movie buffs, and still is. But what the movie did have, amid all of the those flaws, was lots of energy and some phenomenally staged tank battles, which looked amazing in Ultra Panavision on a big screen. And some of the actors, such as Bronson and Montgomery, and especially Robert Shaw as the German colonel spearheading the offensive in his scenes with Hans-Christian Blech as his aide (which constitute almost a separate movie), put enough into their work to carry the flat (and absurd) dramatic content. The German Tiger tanks -- 70 tons each, and almost indestructible to a frontal attack with what the Americans had (though they could be knocked out from the side or the rear) -- are also very impressive to watch, crushing anything in their path. The final tank battle is also still amazing to watch, the Americans' desperate effort to slow the offensive representing a harrowing sacrifice. (If only the script didn't keep hitting us over the head with all the "clues" about fuel, the German colonel telling his aide in their first scene that fuel is "blood," and later parading in front of us the obvious flaw in the 70-ton "King" Tiger tank -- that yes, they outweigh and outgun anything the Americans have, but that also means that they have to be fed that much more often.) The good points are there, albeit scattered, preventing this from being a train wreck of a movie, and all of those points, and a stirring score by Benjamin Frankel, make the movie work reasonably well as entertainment, if little else.
Another serious problem with fully enjoying Battle of the Bulge, however, is that apparently there is no complete edition of the film extant as of 2004. The original movie was 163 minutes in length, but the version on home video (not yet on DVD) and being shown on AMC as of the fall of 2004 runs 141 minutes and is missing some key character development dialogue between Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson in the opening 40 minutes; a scene of shocking (for its time) sexual violence involving Robert Shaw's Col. Hessler and a courtesan engaged for his pleasure by his commanding general; and a scene involving the German occupation of Ambleve and an attempt on Hessler's life, as well as a thematically and dramatically important confrontation between Bronson and Shaw's characters. Additionally, the movie was shot in Ultra Panavision, a widescreen process, but as of 2004 it only ever appeared in widescreen on a laserdisc version (in the early '90s) that was missing many of those sequences, and since then, even full-screen editions are missing material that used to be seen in TV showings. Ironically, what is intact in both editions is a piece of dialogue between Fonda and Ryan's characters that is some of the worst ever heard in a serious war movie.
In December of 1944, the Allied high command is convinced that German forces in Belgium are in a low state of readiness, and perhaps even about to withdraw. Only one officer on the front lines, intelligence specialist Lt. Col. Kiley (Henry Fonda), believes otherwise -- that the Germans are actually planning an attack. His opinion is rejected by his immediate superior (Dana Andrews) and his commanding general (Robert Ryan). Kiley spots several suspicious signs of German activity behind enemy lines on a reconnaissance flight, and he is at the front looking for evidence when the German counter-offensive starts. Taking advantage of Allied unpreparedness and a weather front that grounds all aircraft, their heavy tank units, supported by infantry, roll over the American forces, assaulting the lines at five different points in an attempt to ultimately divide the Allied forces in the west. The German top tank officer, Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw), has planned his operation perfectly, but he is in a race against time, to take as much territory as possible before the weather front moves out and American aircraft can fly again, and to capture the American fuel supplies so that the offensive can continue right to the port of Antwerp. He has the total dedication of his men, but engenders doubts from his aide, Conrad (Hans-Christian Blech), who is weary of the fighting and wonders what it is all for. Meanwhile, Kiley is trying to uncover the weak spot in the German offensive, and he crosses paths with several other key players in this drama: Charles Bronson as a combat officer charged with the defense of the collapsing American position, James MacArthur as a neophyte lieutenant who becomes a leader, and Telly Savalas as a conniving sergeant in command of a tank who unexpectedly finds a nobler, less mercenary side of himself.