I’ve reached my 700th post and have decided to make it special by reviewing the first war movie I ever saw. My family was living in Japan as my father flew a F-105 fighter/bomber in the Vietnam War. My father took me and my brothers to see it in a theater off base. It was a big deal for us even though, at age seven I did not get the big deal about Ultra Panavision. At least I can now claim that I saw the movie in the format and environment (ultra wide screen) that it was meant to be seen in. I don’t remember much about that first view, but naturally at that age I found it very entertaining. And throughout childhood, its periodic appearances on TV always had the boys glued to the TV screen. It wasn’t until later, after I became obsessed with history, that I began to reassess my opinion of it. As with some of my childhood favorites, it does not hold up to scrutiny.
“Battle of the Bulge” was directed by Ken Annakin (“The Longest Day”) and is a similar all-star battle epic. It was filmed in Spain with the advantages of support from Franco’s military (he provided 500 soldiers and 75 vehicles), but the disadvantages of inaccurate terrain. Robert Shaw had his first major role and was paid $250,000 (more than his total paychecks up to then). That dollar figure is the same amount that was paid to recreate the town of Ambleve so the movie could rubbleize it. The movie premiered on the 21st anniversary of the battle.
The movie opens with an overture. For you non-baby boomers, that means that while you are settling into your seat you are treated to orchestral music. This is followed by a narrator and the accuracy problems are off and running. The narrator explains that it is December, 1944 and the Anglo-Americans are on the brink of victory. The Ardennes Forest is a quiet sector. Gen. Montgomery’s 8th Army is to the north of the forest. (In the first example of sloppy history, the 8th was actually in Italy.) Lt. Col. Kiley (Henry Fonda – continuing a tradition of casting actors too old for their roles) is scouting in a spotter plane and takes an incredibly accurate photo of a German officer in a moving car. He later identifies the mystery man as a German tank savant named Col. Hessler (Shaw). Hessler is on his way to a meeting with a general who surprises him with der Fuhrer’s plan to launch a go for broke offensive in the Ardennes. The target is the port of Antwerp and the plan will depend on poor weather to keep Allied air grounded. He will have 50 hours of fuel, queue the countdown clock. Hessler is no Nazi fanatic, but he does love a challenge so he is on board. He is, however, skeptical of his young, green tank commanders until they break into a rousing rendition of “Panzerlied” (“Panzer Song”). As a child, I was ready to enlist in the panzers at this point. Meanwhile, Kiley is trying to convince his overconfident superiors that a major attack is imminent. He is derided by the mustache twirling Col. Pritchard (Dana Andrews). In an “I’ll show you by getting myself killed” move, he visits a bunker on the Siegfried Line where Maj. Wolenski (Charles Bronson) shrugs empathetically. What do you want me to do? Here come the Germans!!
Now that the shooting has commenced the movie jumps between several characters. Hessler and his aide Conrad (Hans Christian Blech) attack the city of Ambleve and head for the Meuse River while ever aware of their dwindling fuel supplies. Kiley goes from intelligence officer to combat soldier. Lt. Schumacher (Ty Hardin) leads German commandoes disguised as Americans in causing chaos behind American lines. Sgt. Guffy (Telly Savalas) finds the battle an inconvenience impacting his black market operation. He commands a Sherman tank and the screen when he is on it. He does have to share the screen with a bunch of tanks in the climactic battle.
“Battle of the Bulge” may be a all-star battle wannabe, but the cast is nowhere near “The Longest Day”. The acting is less than stellar also. Fonda is comfortable as the ex-cop who butts heads with the brass, but his character is put in some ridiculous situations including getting shot down by tanks firing their main guns. He has to be everywhere to glue together the American arcs. “The Longest Day” did not stretch any of its characters like that. Col. Vandervoort did not plan the invasion, paratroop behind the lines, and land on Omaha Beach. Shaw is good as the war-loving Hessler. Blech makes a fair foil for Hessler, but their relationship is not realistic. Savalas steals the show with his Guffy. The character brings some forced comic relief and the required redemption arc. He does a lot of scenery chewing, but at least he didn’t have to eat any snow.
The problem with the movie is not just that it is an historical atrocity, but it is also laughably ridiculous. Not one character is named after a real person, which must have been a dictate from the studio’s legal department. (This was partly due to the fact that Columbia had green-lighted a movie called “16th of December: The Battle of the Bulge” featuring Eisenhower, Montgomery, and Hitler. John Wayne was set to play Patton. Those who cry for a redo on the battle, should ponder what a make would have been like.) Fortunately for the producers, events cannot sue. The script shows a contempt for the historically knowledgeable, but an understanding of what passes as entertainment for the masses. (The movie has an incredible 67% on Rotten Tomatoes.) This explains why the snowless Spanish plains (perfect for Panavision) stand in for the snowy hills and dense forest of the Ardennes. It also explains how most of the main characters end up at the gas depot. The first big battle scene is adrenalin pumping, but if you have seen many war movies, you’ll laugh at some of the silliest deaths ever. (Those Spanish extras add a nice twirl to their touchdown signaling.) They must have story-boarded that scene using plastic army men. The battle of Ambleve and the final tank battle are equally silly tactically. But there are lots of explosions. Accompanied by pompous epic movie music.
If the movie was entitled “Battle of the Bugle”, I would tell you to watch and kill some time while you eat your popcorn. (No need to cozy up by the fire, this isn’t the “Band of Brothers” episodes on the Bulge.) But this is a war movie blog, so war movies are held to a higher standard here. “Battle of the Bulge” might be the worst of the all-star battle epic subgenre. Keep in mind that the subgenre includes “Pearl Harbor”, which is definitely superior to it.
GRADE = D-
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie has a disclaimer at the end that explains that in order to cover the battle, some names and places have been generalized and “action has been synthesized to convey the spirit and essence of the battle.” But it also claims that the movie honors the participants in the battle. Since the Battle of the Bulge was the biggest battle in American History and it was only 21 years old, there were still plenty of participants who could clearly remember the battle. For instance, they could remember the freezing cold temperatures and frostbite-inducing snow. The movie makes a mockery of the hardships they endured. This must have been part of the reason why Dwight Eisenhower came out of retirement to tell the press that the movie was terrible. You did not have to be a veteran to be offended by it. Being an historically-informed person put you in the offended group. It’s not like the battle was ill-covered by historians. It was not like the Battle of Ia Drang for people seeing “We Were Soldiers”.
The movie is not without some education value. The first third does a fair job of outlining the situation before the German attack. The American high command was complacent and overconfident. However, there were some warning signs, just not like Kiley’s snooping. The German plan was summarized well. It was a last ditch gamble by Hitler. The target was Antwerp, but generally he was hoping to break through and cover as much ground and do as much damage as his forced could accomplish before fuel and clear weather became factors. Much of the military leaders were skeptical of the plan and Hessler does not represent this group well. The movie glosses over any concerns and basically uses the “Panzerlied” to make him a Kool-aid drinker. Hessler is based on the real-life Joachim Peiper who was an SS commander who would have been drinking Kool-aid through the whole war. The screenwriters made Hessler fictional because the regrettably still alive Peiper threatened to sue. Poor decision by him and his lawyers as Hessler was a big upgrade to Peiper’s reputation. For instance, Peiper ordered the Malmedy Massacre, while Hessler laments it. The only other character that can even loosely be linked to a real person is Schumacher representing the famous Hitler fav Otto Skorzeny. Skorzeny rescued Mussolini and then was given command of Operation Greif. He deserves a movie of his own.
The opening breakthrough is fairly accurate. American forces were taken by surprise, but it was more due to the weather than the Tigers. Wolinski’s unit was typical of the ass-whipping that many units received. For a large-scale epic, the movie curiously concentrates on just Gen. Gray’s (Robert Ryan) division versus Hessler’s division. Schumacher’s men are thrown in to exemplify Operation Greif. Their activities like turning around signs are true, but their unintended effect of sowing confusion among American soldiers is not touched on. Even Ike had to answer questions to prove he was a legit American. The movie gives them way too much credit. They did not capture and hold any bridges. The Malmedy Massacre was another no-brainer inclusion and it is satisfactorily rendered. One quibble is that there was not a “Great Escape” moment with a machine gun in the back of a truck. And, in this case, there was no snow on the ground – the bodies were covered by snow before their discovery.
The assault on the town of Ambleve represents several towns that were taken under similar circumstances. It is doubtful the Germans would have use tanks as artillery, but the movie shows virtually no artillery being used by either side. It also does not give any credit to Allied air. In the final battle, which is based on the Battle of Celles, air and artillery played a major role. The depiction of Shermans suicidally sacrificing themselves to bleed the German tanks of their fuel is farcical. In actuality, the victory was a combination of Shermans, artillery, and Typhoons pouncing on the already fuel deficient Germans. The defense of the depot is pure Hollywood, but an appropriate bit of nonsense to close out the film.