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Battle of the Bulge Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007

Image The real Battle of the Bulge started on December 16, 1944 during one of the coldest winters in France. Though the movie has the battle beginning on that date, other than place names and a few names of important military personnel, the movie version of the battle veers widely astray of actual events.

In fact, Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a World War II veteran and past President of the United States, took particular umbrage with the movie’s presentation of the battle. Several historians have stepped in and pointed out the various inaccuracies of the film. The German Tiger Panzers seen in the film were actually American tanks made after World War II. Likewise, the American tanks were ones that were used hardly at all during the war.

Historical inaccuracy can be a burden to Hollywood—they’re after excitement and thrills. While the battle took place in snow and mud, the filmmakers didn’t want to try to make a picture and get it in on time under the same conditions. They opted for fair weather filming and thereby ticked off a lot of people who actually were involved with that battle.

The cast was some of the cream of the crop of Hollywood at that time. Emerging, soon-to-be cinema superstar Charles Bronson and future TV big shot Telly Savalas hold pivotal roles in the movie. Bronson plays Major Wolenski, a bored army officer as tough as nails. He looks good as a scraggly soldier wielding a submachine gun and barking orders. Savalas stars as Sergeant Guffy, a get-rich-quick-schemer who commands a tank. He’s got the only romantic part, and in just a few seconds he really pulls it off. Pier Angeli was the only actress who carried any weight in the film. She split her career between Italy and the United States. Henry Fonda stars as Lieutenant Colonel Kiley, an information specialist. The role could have been written for Fonda because he plays the same kind of hero he played in several films before and after this one. Kiley’s a no-nonsense kind of guy who listens to his gut more than the evidence presented to him. In civilian life, he was a police detective and explains his behavior by saying that he’s learned to watch what people do more than what they say they’re doing. His role in figuring out the German armor’s weakness was well done, but a little over the top. Kiley is the only man who seems to know what’s really going on, and at the end he’s the one that comes up with the plan to stop the Germans in their tracks. Still, these are the kind of heroes I grew up on and I’m still partial to them.

Robert Shaw is the central villain, Panzer Colonel Martin Hessler. At the beginning, there’s much to respect about Hessler. He’s as much a soldier and warrior as anyone else in the film. However, the trait that separates him from the truly heroic mold is best brought out by his major domo, Corporal Conrad (Hans Christian Blech). Blech has a fine touch with both characters and really brings out the best of Shaw’s performance.

General Grey (Robert Ryan) is the commanding officer in the Ardennes where the battle takes place. He delivers the part easily and interacts well with Fonda and the others.

James MacArthur stars as a young, green lieutenant named Weaver. His story of redemption, threaded throughout the almost-three hour movie, is more than a little saccharine. Worse than that, I kept looking over his shoulder for Steve McGarrett. With the haphazard way the story was told, the viewer doesn’t really see the changes Weaver goes through to become a true military leader as he is at the end.

George Montgomery as Sergeant Duquesne is the brave and fearless, hardened combat veteran to a T. Ty Hardin, another TV veteran on television, plays a German soldier working behind enemy lines who has disguised himself as an American MP.

With the various plot points, director Ken Annakin keeps his potboiler boiling. It takes about an hour to really get into the movie, and the focus seems to be a lot on the Nazi war machine; the viewer loses focus on American forces for a while. However, with Fonda anchoring that interest and being so recognizable, it only takes the viewer to a moment to get back into that part of the movie.

Once that 50-hour clock the Germans have established as their timetable begins ticking, the movie demands attention. Something is going on all the time. Different story lines, different characters, are picked up and dropped as each advances toward the part they have to play.

Oddly enough, the character interaction that sparks the most sympathy is that of Hessler’s major domo. The connection between those two men, and even of Conrad’s two sons who never put in an appearance in the movie, really stands out. There are other bit pieces, like the young boy who attempts to assassinate Hessler, that are memorable as well. Prices have to be paid in war, and Hessler comments on that several times throughout the movie.

The video portion of the disc is exemplary. I was really surprised at how well the transfer to high-definition turned out. The scenes are beautiful. Unfortunately, the quality of the transfer also seems to bring more attention to those scenes that were filmed on studio lots. When Fonda is in the reconnaissance plane at the beginning of the movie, viewers will quickly note that no air is moving around him. Later, when he’s riding in a jeep down a dirt road and encounters Guffy and his tank, the same lack of air movement is noticeable. The battle sequences look really good. Thankfully no actual World War II film footage was spliced into the movie version. Of course, that would been hard to do because the film was in color, the weather was totally wrong, and the tanks were not the tanks that were used in that battle.

Where the disc really suffers is in the audio. Although the viewer is promised Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, that promise is rarely kept. I only noticed a couple of sequences, one of them being the steam engine bringing the howitzers to the American forces, where actual surround sound really kicked in. The train noise alternates between the right front and right rear speaker as the camera angle changes on screen. The dialogue sounds good, not tinny as many of the older transfers do.

The special features offer James MacArthur talking about the filming of the movie; he tells a lot of stories about the behind-the-scenes production and interaction. Nearly all the other stars have passed away. The vintage featurettes about the filming of the movie are really interesting because of the information they relay, but also because of the format they are in. They appear as time capsules of a different Hollywood and a different media slant that the public had on stars and movies than we have today.

And at almost three hours of viewing time, “The Battle of the Bulge” isn’t a movie you can just sit down and watch without planning out the time. There’s no gore, nudity, or shocking violence that will offend anyone. This movie could be watched on family night as a semi-real presentation of World War II. However, it should not be used as a basis for a history paper for school. This is Hollywood playing cowboys and Indians, not preserving the actual time period for the event. Fans of war movies, especially the old war movies, will find much to love about this one.

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