BATTLE OF THE BULGE engages a fine cast, considerable production values and an excellent music score. But as a story of the monster WW2 clash in the wintry forests of Belgium, it’s a loser, defeated by a careless cardboard script shot to pieces with bald-faced inaccuracy. The $6,500,000 epic didn’t win any medals from critics, historians or veterans; even a former President gave it a impromptu public court-martial for fact-mangling. But the lure of battles in “CINERAMA” saw audiences volunteer for 167 minutes of make-believe mayhem, and a gross of $13,800,000 made it the 17th most-seen flick of 1965. *
“Release the boy… Shoot the father!”
In December,1944, the German Army launches a major attack in Belgium, catching American troops by surprise, defeating and capturing many. Eventually, the tables are turned. So is reality, inside out: in a fictional fake take on the largest, bloodiest battle in American history, the four-man script gets exactly three things right—the date it began (Dec.16th), the notorious massacre at Malmedy and the famous no-surrender reply of “Nuts!” issued at Bastogne. Otherwise, it salvoes a tankload of hogwash, bested (worsted) only by 1968s awful Anzio in making a hash of history. The distorted writing isn’t guilty of bad babble (the dialog is serviceable), but shows gross negligence through lazy simplification, glaring omission and outright invention. To that add spectacular but clumsy action staging that starts from mediocre, pauses at okay, then, for the big finish, goes completely off the rails into laughable. **
There’s nothing objectionable with drafting fictional characters into story service, and the veteran cast have nothing to apologize over in their performances. They’re just burdened with comic book material, which includes making a titanic month-long battle appear to happen over several days and boil down to a few hardcase opponents. The biggest bulge is that most of said phony material takes place in weather conditions and landscapes far removed from the Ardennes thick forest and subzero misery. Well photographed (credit where due) by Jack Hildyard, the 75 U.S.-made tanks loaned by the Spanish Army fight it out on an undulating, sunny plain (yes, in Spain), as the hoped-for seasonal weather delivered little snow to the locations in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains outside Segovia. The array of vehicles is impressive, though some miniature models are mixed in with humorously unconvincing enlargement shots (“Hey, I bought that Sherman at the hobby shop!”), and the bone-dry melee amounts to an insult to how things really went down in what was the worst European winter in a century.
The Americans are represented, in order of their screen time, by Henry Fonda, Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, James MacArthur, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews and George Montgomery. Pros all, with Savalas and Bronson doing the most to interject some spark into wood. The Germans fare better, dramatically anyway, as portrayed by Robert Shaw, Hans Christian Blech and Ty Hardin. Putting real fire and steel into it, Shaw has by far the best role as the ice-blooded ‘Col. Hessler’, in his war-loving glory at the head of Tiger tanks.
The Malmedy massacre sequence is effectively suggested, and the scores of tanks (US M-47s pretending to be Tigers, plus some mocked-up Shermans) grab attention (Warner’s publicity trumpeted that they used 200), but director Ken Annakin let his 2nd-unit crew get sloppy with choreographing the extras, too many of them indulging in overly theatrical “deaths”.
The dramatic “Here they come!” ad art was pretty cool. One of the movie’s strong points is the music score from Benjamin Frankel. An overlooked composer, with this film the last of 100 he worked on. His thrilling accompaniment to the main titles gets the enterprise off to a rousing start. It deserved a better movie to follow it.
Pier Angeli is shoehorned into a thankless cameo as a Belgian civilian. Subsidiary Axis threats are represented by Werner Peters (busy in the 60s playing casually unpleasant Nazis), Barbara Werle (talentless girlfriend of Cinerama’s boss, who also tossed her, figuratively, into Krakatoa, East Of Java) and Karl Otto Alberty (later to help ‘Kelly’ & Telly heist a bank). The odious screenplay was brewed up by Bernard Gordon, John Melson, Philip Yordan and Milton Sperling.
* Ken Annakin’s very amusing autobiography “So You Wanna Be A Director?” has some fun anecdotes on the large, fairly rushed production. He liked it (so did I, when I was ten), but he had much better action epics on his resume, namely Swiss Family Robinson and The Longest Day. One guy that didn’t appreciate it was Dwight Eisenhower: the former commander in Europe and ex-President was disgusted over the FUBAR presentation, and said so publicly.
One silly note from the Notice What Others Don’t Dept: in the opening credits, after the stars are billed, comes the usual “and”, “with” and “featuring”, (an ‘old days’ thing now) normally giving credit to bit players who had enough dialogue to constitute a “part”. In this instance, maybe five of these guys had anything to say, yet someone, likely one of the producers, made the call that saw fully three dozen were listed. Like Warner’s claiming 200 tanks (as if 75 wasn’t sufficient?), it just comes off as “fool-‘ya” padding, to make it seem like a somehow more prestigious production. Kid kids, that’s a given, but don’t kid a kidder, buddy.
As for credulous credit, one of the movies military advisors was former general Meinrad von Lauchert, whose tanks made the furthest punch into the Allied forces. What this Panzer-commanding Iron Cross recipient thought of the movie can only be surmised.
** The bulk of the Nazi war machine was being chewed up in the East by the Russians. The Wehrmacht‘s desperate last gasp at buying time in the West against the Americans and British was a costly embarrassment for the Allies, but a doom knell for Herr Hitler. American casualties reached 89,000, including as many as 19,000 killed and 23,000 captured. German losses came to 100,000. British units suffered 1,400. Caught in the middle, at least 3,000 civilians died.
The best feature film about “the Bulge” remains 1949’s Battleground. Others that are set in or touch on it, a mixed bag, include Castle Keep (colorful nonsense), Wunderland (pap on the hoof), Attack (good), A Midnight Clear (recm.), The Last Blitzkrieg (Van Johnson as a German saboteur? Uh…nein), Saints and Soldiers (well-reviewed). Patton devotes an excellent segment to it. The superb miniseries Band Of Brothers (highly recm.) features two powerful episodes on the subject.