Battle of the Bulge (film)

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Battle of the Bulge
Bulge sheet A.jpg
Original movie poster
Directed by Ken Annakin
Produced by Sidney Harmon
Milton Sperling
Philip Yordan
Dino De Laurentiis (uncredited)
Written by Bernard Gordon
John Melson
Milton Sperling
Philip Yordan
Starring Henry Fonda
Robert Shaw
Robert Ryan
Narrated by William Conrad
Music by Benjamin Frankel
Cinematography Jack Hildyard
Edited by Derek Parsons
Production
  company
Warner Bros.
Cinerama Productions
United States Pictures
Distributed by Warner Brothers
Release date(s)
  • December 16, 1965 (1965-12-16)
Running time 167 minutes
Language English
Box office $4.5 million (est. US/ Canada rentals)[1]

Battle of the Bulge is a widescreen war film produced in Spain that was released in 1965. It was directed by Ken Annakin. It starred Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Telly Savalas, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews and Charles Bronson. The feature was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 and exhibited in 70 mm Cinerama. Battle of the Bulge had its world premiere on December 16, 1965, the 21st anniversary of the battle, at the Pacific Cinerama Dome Theatre in Hollywood, California.

The filmmakers attempted to condense a battle which stretched across parts of Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg and lasted nearly a month into under 3 hours. They also shot parts of the film on terrain that did not resemble actual battle locations. This left them open to criticism for lack of historical accuracy, but they claimed in the end credits that they had 're-organized' the chronological order of events to maximize the dramatic story.

Unlike most World War II epics, "Battle of the Bulge" contains virtually no portrayals of actual senior Allied leaders, civilian or military. This is presumably because of controversies surrounding the battle, both during the war and after. Though Allied forces ultimately won the battle, the initial Nazi counteroffensive caught them by surprise and caused high casualties.

Plot[edit]

Lt. Colonel Kiley (Fonda) and his pilot, Joe, are flying a reconnaissance mission over the Ardennes forest. they discuss the state of the war, with Kiley still apprehensive about Germany. Spotting a German staff car, they make repeated passes, causing the driver, Conrad, to crash into a ditch out of fear. The Officer, Colonel Hessler, chastises him. Kiley spots something interesting and takes a picture. As the plane flies away, a group of camouflaged German tanks are revealed. On the ground, Hessler describes the hopelessness of the war, believing "the world is going to get rid of both of us". He chastises Conrad for leaving the motor running and wasting precious fuel. Hessler is briefed by his superior, General Kohler (Werner Peters), who presents models of the latest German wonder weapons: jets, V-2 rockets and the King Tiger tank.

Suddenly, Kohler and Hessler are captured by what appears to be a squad of American soldiers. They are German soldiers in disguise led by Lieutenant Schumacher (Ty Hardin). In the upcoming mission, the English-speaking Germans are given the task to seize vital bridges and sow confusion behind the Allied front lines.[note 1]

Kohler points out a clock with a 50-hour countdown: the time allotted for the mission, beyond which the odds of success will fall off. Finally, Hessler is presented with a yard full of King Tiger tanks, in response to which he proclaims the operation can be done.

Meanwhile, Kiley returns to headquarters where he warns Germany plans one more all-out offensive. His superiors, General Grey (Ryan) and Colonel Pritchard (Dana Andrews) dismiss it out of hand: all intelligence points to Germany not having the resources and manpower to launch another attack.

Back at German HQ, Conrad confronts Hessler about the chances of success, pointing out all the experienced veterans who have fallen since Hessler first led the Panzers into Poland. Concerned, Hessler reviews his new tank commanders and discovers they are all young and mostly inexperienced. He expresses his lack of confidence to Kohler. The commanders, overhearing this, break into a resounding chorus of Panzerlied. Moved by their spirit, Hessler casts aside his doubt.

Hoping to uncover more proof, Kiley visits a U.S. infantry position on the Siegfried Line under command of Major Wolenski (Charles Bronson). En route, he is slowed down by a Sherman tank commanded by Sgt. "Guffy" (Telly Savalas). As the tank moves off the road, black market goods Guffy peddles to soldiers at the front fall from the tank, and he stops to retrieve them, explaining his intent to not return home poor. A patrol led by Lieutenant Weaver (James MacArthur) and Sergeant Duquesne (George Montgomery) capture some young Germans. Kiley concludes experienced German troops have been replaced by these men and withdrawn for an offensive, but Pritchard dismisses this as well.

Early the next day as G.I.'s sleep, Hessler launches his attack. Awakened by the noise of German tanks, Wolenski leads his men into the wooded area of the Schnee Eifel where his men try to stand their ground but are overrun. A group of Shermans, Guffy's tank among them, attempt to slow the Panzers, but the Sherman's weak guns and thin armor make them ineffective. Guffy's tank is rammed into a ditch by a panzer, and two of his crew are killed. Guffy and his gunner escape from the tank and crawl to the rear.

Lt. Schumacher and his disguised German troops are parachuted behind the Allied lines. They capture the only bridge over the Our River capable of carrying heavy tanks. With his route secure, Hessler continues his spearhead through the Allied front toward Ambleve, while being observed by Kiley. Schumacher later takes control of a vital intersection of three roads connecting Ambleve, Malmedy, and the Siegfried Line. Schumacher sabotages the road signs, and the rear echelon of Wolenski's troops take the wrong road to Malmedy, where they encounter an SS Division, and almost the entire unit is captured and massacred. Lt. Weaver manages to escape, but Duquesne is killed. U.S. soldiers become suspicious when they witness his military police lay explosives incorrectly on the River Our bridge, and Schumacher's masquerade is revealed.

Kiley notices the Germans are carrying rubber hoses and empty metal drums and deduces that they are short on fuel and scavenging for it. Conceding the German attack is a major effort, Pritchard apologizes to Kiley.

As Grey evacuates his HQ, an unarmed soldier runs past. When Grey stops him and asks where his unit is, the young solder exclaims they're all gone. Seeing what's happening and not wanting his division to disintegrate into a rabble, Grey turns around and orders every man to stand and fight. Guffy meets with his black market associate, Louise, to shut down his business in the area. She presents him with money earned without selling any goods (e.g. Prostitution) which angers him, but she explains they are business partners and the money is for both of them. They kiss before he returns to action.

Kohler informs Hessler that he is at the head of the German offensive. Bursting with pride, Hessler reveals to his adjutant Conrad that before this attack, he never thought Germany could win. Now everything has changed. Conrad asks what will become of his sons, to which Hessler replies they will become soldiers, fight and die for Germany.

With Hessler's forces now surrounding the town of Ambleve, Grey summons heavy artillery. But as the train loaded with ordnance races toward Ambleve, a lone German tank destroys the engine, denying General Grey the means to defend against heavy armour.[note 2] German troops assault Ambleve but fail to capture the town.

General Kohler orders Hessler to bypass Ambleve, but Hessler, after presenting a fresh cake which was baked in the United States, argues that capturing it will eliminate a thorn in their side and severely damage American morale: if the Americans have the fuel and aircraft to fly things as trivial as cake to the front, such an overwhelming defeat may force them to reconsider their chances of winning the war. Kohler concedes. As night falls, Hessler's tanks and infantry storm Ambleve, finally taking the town.[note 3] Although many Americans are captured, Grey, Pritchard, Kiley, and others escape to the River Meuse.

While in Ambleve, Hesseler is shot at by a young boy. His troops capture and bring him before Hessler. Hessler pauses to consider what to do with him, when the boy's father shows up and begs for mercy. Hessler spares the boy but has the father shot. (This scene was deleted on the DVD or VHS releases.)

Hessler is brought lunch by Conrad in his command car. When Conrad brings him captured food, Hessler tells Conrad that he must eat what his commanders eat. Hessler also presents Conrad with a gift to his sons, Conrad has been promoted. The shooting of the father can be heard in the background.

Wolenski is captured and demands to know whether his troops will be murdered like those at Malmedy. Angered by the accusation and the knowledge that such massacres can "turn a disorganised rabble into avenging soldiers", Hessler complains to General Kohler. American resistance is stiffening everywhere. Kohler points out the units at Malmedy are SS troops and not under Wehrmacht control.[note 4]

Meanwhile, angry at the thought of his sons never living in peace, Conrad confronts Hessler, denouncing him a murderer and saying he "would murder the whole world" to stay in his black Panzer uniform. Recognizing Conrad's past loyalty, Hessler spares his life, but has him transferred to fuel services.

American forces regroup and begin to reorganize for a counterattack. Guffy goes around the men, asking if anyone who fought at Ambleve is around. When one man tells him that there is 'nothing left' of Ambleve, Guffy morosely asks General Grey when he's going to let them fight back.

Facing the dangers of a foggy night, Col. Kiley conducts an aerial reconnaissance in an attempt to locate the main German spearhead. His aircraft nearly crashes into a cliff. Undaunted, he continues, ordering the pilot to shut off the engine and glide in an attempt to listen for enemy tanks. Suddenly through a gap in the fog he spots the jackpot: Hessler's column of Tiger tanks heading toward American lines. Kiley radios in the coordinates, but is hit by German fire and crashes near an American fuel depot.

Meanwhile, General Grey's force, with the river Meuse at their back, prepare to fight off Hessler. The outgunned, out-armored American tanks are systematically destroyed, but at the cost of the Germans burning up much of their fuel. The top half of Guffy's tank, including the turret and main gun, is blown off but he is left unharmed. After attempting to take on the German Tanks with ramming tactics, Guffy is convinced to withdraw to the rear. Guffey soon stops and prepares to take on the enemy tanks firing the Sherman's .30 caliber machine gun from the hip. After threatening to shoot Lt. Weaver, who has taken command of a group of walking wounded, Guffey, Weaver, and the men head to the Depot to get more fuel for his tank.

Aware of the fuel shortages, Hessler leads a detachment toward an American depot to capture its stocks. Conrad, moving fuel drums, watches him go. Weaver and the stragglers arrive first, taking out Schumacher's men who had taken control of the fuel dump after Weaver, who saw Schumacher at the Our river Bridge, recognizes him. Hessler's tanks appear. The U.S. defenders flood the road with gasoline. Drums are punctured and rolled downhill where they are set ablaze. Numerous German tanks are destroyed, and the crews abandon them in fear of the flames. Hessler desperately goes it alone, commandeering the controls of his Tiger, intending to drive it into the depot. However, the tracks of his tank get bogged down in the soaked mud, followed by the panzer catching fire and exploding where he dies inside.

As the film ends, an American scout informs Grey the Germans have given up and are marching back to Germany. At the end of a column, Conrad discards his rifle and ammunition. And as the camera pans away, we see an array of abandoned German vehicles strewn across the field.

Vignettes from the actual battle are included in the film, including General McAuliffe's reply of "Nuts!" to an offer of surrender at Bastogne. The character of Col. Hessler was modeled after Waffen-SS Standartenführer Joachim Peiper.

Historical inaccuracies[edit]

The final tank battle is a rough depiction of the Battle of Celles on December 26, 1944 where the U.S. 2nd Armored Division smashed the German 2nd Panzer Division. The film creates the false impression that large numbers of American tanks sacrificed themselves against the heavy Tiger IIs and in the process lured the enemy off course which caused them to run out of gas. In reality, they were already stranded. The tanks used (despite the claims of the producer in an interview which is one of the DVD extras) are not historically accurate. But the American M47 Pattons representing German King Tiger tanks conveyed the superior size and firepower which the M4 Shermans, represented by M24 Chaffees, had to contend with.

Aside from the initial American encounters with the German offensive, there is some absence of cold weather and snow, which were the conditions in which the real battle was fought. There is no trace of snow at all in the film's major tank battle scene. Nor were some battle scenes fought in flat and bare territory, considering the mountainous, and forested and grassy nature of the Ardennes. The film was shot on location in Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range and Madrid, Spain.

The role of Lt. Schumacher and his men was based on Operation Greif, the plan to parachute English speaking Germans using American equipment behind American lines to sow confusion and capture the bridges.

Absent from this movie is the response by General George Patton whose Third Army relieved the siege of Bastogne. Indeed, there is no reference to British forces in the area, although British troops were largely kept behind the Meuse river and thus almost entirely out of the fighting. Also not mentioned is General Eisenhower's decision to split the Bulge front into two, ceding temporary command of two American armies to Field Marshal Montgomery in the northern half of the Bulge; implying a totally American operation. Neither was there mention of the role of Allied air power hitting the Germans hard at the first sign of clear weather.

The film's opening narration, by William Conrad, does mention both Montgomery and Patton, but is inaccurate, saying:

to the north, stood Montgomery's Eighth Army. To the south, Patton's Third.

In fact, Montgomery's northern command was actually the 21st Army Group. The Eighth Army, Montgomery's previous command, was actually in Italy at the time of the Battle of the Bulge. Although Patton was in charge of 3rd Army during the battle, this army was part of a much larger American force in the south. Third Army was one of four American armies that constituted the 12th Army Group under General Omar Bradley.

The film recaptures the major aspects of the battle, depicting how the inexperienced replacement American units stationed in the Ardenne were initially overwhelmed and the confusion which followed. It points out the superiority of heavy German tanks, along with their one weakness, lack of fuel.

Production[edit]

Screenwriter Bernard Gordon claims to have rewritten John Melson's original screenplay.[2] Some of the original choices for director were Richard Fleischer who turned it down and Edward Dmytryk, with whom Jack Warner of Warner Bros. refused to work.[3] Technical advisor on the film was Meinrad von Lauchert, who commanded the panzer division that made the most headway in the actual battle.

For an economical price and with no restrictions the Spanish army provided an estimated 500 fully equipped soldiers and 75 tanks and vehicles, some of World War II vintage.[4]

Reaction[edit]

President Eisenhower came out of retirement and held a press conference to denounce the film for what he considered its gross historical inaccuracy.[5]

The film was one of the most popular movies at the British box office in 1966.[6]

Later releases[edit]

The original VHS release of the film for home video use was heavily edited to fit in one VHS tape (to reduce costs to the consumer) and used a full screen "pan and scan" technique often employed in network telecasts of widescreen motion pictures. The 1992 Laserdisc and 2005 DVD releases, however, run at their full length and are presented letterboxed in the original 2.76:1 aspect ratio. A Blu-ray release followed in 2007, though the aspect ratio says it is 2.35:1 on the back of the cover, the actual aspect ratio of the film is the original 2.76:1 like the previous DVD release. A more recent Blu-ray release states the correct aspect ratio.

Cast[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ In some DVD Releases, this scene is deleted.
  2. ^ This scene was shortened in some later theatrical and TV releases.
  3. ^ In some theatrical releases, the Ambleve evening assault was not shown.
  4. ^ In some DVD releases, this scene is deleted.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Big Rental Pictures of 1966", Variety, January 4, 1967 p 8
  2. ^ pp. 193-194 Gordon, Bernard Hollywood Exile: Or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist University of Texas Press, 1999
  3. ^ p.194 Dmytryk, Edward Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten SIU Press, 1996
  4. ^ p.68 Simonis, Damien Spain 7 Lonely Planet, 01/03/2009
  5. ^ pp.110 Niemi, Robert History of the Media: Film and Television ABC-CLIO 2006
  6. ^ "Most popular star for third time." Times [London, England] 31 Dec. 1966: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 16 Sept. 2013.

External links[edit]