In the winter of 1944, the Allied Armies stand ready to invade Germany at the coming of a New Year. To prevent this occurrence, Hitler orders an all out offensive to re-take French territory and capture the major port city of Antwerp. "The Battle of the Bulge" shows this conflict from the perspective of an American intelligence officer as well as from a German Panzer Commander. Written by
Anthony Hughes <email@example.com>
This big, bloated epic re-creation of the battle which turned the tide of World War II manages to be on the most historically inaccurate and over-blown adventure pieces ever produced. It's also one of the most entertaining war movies to grace the big screen. The combination of heroics and history shouldn't work as well as it does.
Writers John Melson, Philip Yordan and Milton Sperling remain faithful to the broad outlines of the real battle, and then fill their story with several important fictional characters, and director Ken Annakin uses a combination of Hollywood heroics and historical accuracy to deliver an entertaining tale. The film relies solely on the excellently-shot action sequences and superb acting by the leads to hold it together.
Veteran director Ken Annakin knows how to make this film work. In the lead, Henry Fonda ("Midway") seems to be having plenty of fun as Colonel Kiley. He gets to argue with people, shoot at Germans, fly in a plane, and even help fend off a Panzer attack not bad for a civilian-turned-soldier, eh? On the flip-side, Robert Shaw ("Force 10 from Navarone") is fantastic as the fanatical Colonel Hessler, a devoted Panzer officer who will stop at nothing to accomplish his mission. Hessler brings new meaning the Hollywood-Nazi-type: he's brutal, nasty and dedicated despite the fact that he knows Germany cannot win the war.
The supporting cast is filled with the familiar faces of Charles Bronson, Ty Hardin, James MacArthur and Telly Savalas but the real star is Hans Christian Blech ("The Longest Day"). As Conrad, the war-weary, aging German Corporal, it's his best work in a war film. Conrad wants to go home and is devoted to Hessler, until he realizes that his commander's dedication sits precariously on the edge of madness. His facial expressions bug-eyed outbursts, sad frowns, frightened glances at strafing airplanes have never been more convincing.
This epic was shot for the big screen using Cinerama, and the only way to appreciate the action sequences is to see this movie in widescreen. Pan-and-scan prints cut it down from a 2.7:1 ratio to 1.33:1 - that's losing more than half of the image! It was shot on the vast plains of Spain, and although it looks nothing like the brutal winter in the Ardennes forest, this scenery makes from some very impressive landscapes for which to shoot colossal battle scenes. Annakin shows tanks facing off with each other on the plains and in the snow-encrusted woods and shows hand-to-hand fighting in the streets of a French city. These scenes are set to an excellent, rousing Ben Frankel score, which only adds to the excitement. There are hundreds of extras running about, as well as several dozen loud, clanking tanks. Annakin often places his camera on the front end of a tank, train or moving car to give the viewer a "you-are-there" perspective, a technique which is ruined with the pan-and-scan process.
The dramatic effect of the serious scenes is severely hampered by preposterous Hollywood heroics and some incredibly poor special effects. Quite often, the combat and destruction look incredibly real, but there are some truly laughable shots of exploding model tanks and roaring model trains, too. The battle scenes, notably a huge tank vs. tank battle and a conclusion involving an attempted German capture of an Allied fuel dump are incredibly corny and false-looking - first for their false-looking special effects, which looked bad even in 1965, and secondly for their placement in a desert rather than a snowy forest - which really destroyed the credibility Annakin had been working up to. A strong subplot involving an American tanker, Guffy (Telly Savalas, "The Dirty Dozen") and another, centering on the Malmedy Massacre, help to offset this cheesiness.
"Battle of the Bulge" is a true Hollywood epic in every sense of the word. It may not be historically accurate, but it's probably the most entertaining and engaging war film I've had the pleasure to watch. The characters are main fleshed out enough to keep the viewers interested, the scope is amazing and the direction often borders on brilliance as often as it fails miserably.
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