July 25, 2013

Movie Review: Battle of the Bulge (1965)

Our column has made the farthest advance! We have outrun the other Panzers! The eyes of Germany are on us! The Fuhrer himself will decorate me. We have done it Conrad! We have done it! - Colonel Martin Hessler (Robert Shaw)

Director: Ken Annakin

Writers: Bernard Gordon, John Melson, Milton Sperling, Philip Yordan (front for Bernard Gordon)

Producer: Sidney Harmon, Milton Sperling, Philip Yordan, Dino De Laurentiis (uncredited

Studio: Warner Bros.

Major Stars: Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas

Note: I have a policy about movies 25 years old or more ... I feel no compunctions about revealing the ending of the film. With that in mind, there are SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

Battle of the Bulge is an attempt to tell the story of the last wide-scale battle in Western Europe during World War Two; the German assault on Allied lines in the winter of 1944. What it ends up being is an average war flick that is riddled with historical inaccuracies. I can tell you now that this won’t stay on the ‘Top 100’ list. It’s here right now for two reasons; I own it so I can review it right away and frankly, I need some filler as I try to find the rarer films (if anyone knows where I can get a region 1 DVD of Talvisota, I’m in your debt).

With that in mind, in this film we mainly follow two colonels; Colonel Martin Hessler (Robert Shaw) of the German Wehrmacht and Lt. Colonel Daniel Kiley (Henry Fonda) of the US Army. Hessler is a Panzer commander, leading the armored thrust of the German attack aiming for Antwerp in an attempt to cut the supply line for the Allied forces. Kiley is an intelligence officer who tries to convince his superiors the Germans are about to attack. When that fails, he attempts to stop the Germans before they reach vital gas depots they need to continue their attack.

That’s the basic thrust of the film. There is a smaller third plot involving Operation Grief, the insertion of English-speaking German soldiers behind Allied lines in US uniforms to wreak havoc and commit sabotage. But it is secondary to the stories of Heller and Kiley. Robert Shaw does a nice job as Heller, a dedicated Nazi warrior who lives to fight and whose wish is to have perpetual war. He really plays the part and you almost forget this guy would go on to get eaten by a shark in Jaws. Fonda comfortably slots into the role of American hero, not only spotting the Nazi armored column from the air on a foggy morning but also stopping Heller at the gates of the fuel depot. If you are looking for a simple war film that has some good visuals, then you’ll like Battle of the Bulge.

But if you like historical accuracy in films that purport to be about historical events…maybe not so much. The tanks used are flat wrong; the German King Tigers are American M47 Patton tanks. The American M4 Shermans are actually M24 Chaffees. Now, you can excuse the producers for not being able to get King Tigers. But you can’t tell me they couldn’t find some old Shermans to use for the film. The best part is that they lied about it, telling interviewers they were in fact the actual tanks.

Then there was the location of the filming. The Ardennes is a thickly forested area. But there are scenes in the film that take place on open, arid plains. That is because they shot the whole film near Madrid, Spain. Which really kind of kills the whole realism vibe.

In general the entire battle was greatly simplified for the film, neglecting the historical record so much that Eisenhower issued a statement complaining about the fact.

More interesting are the stories behind the film. The character of Martin Hessler was supposed to be Joachim Piper, the real-life SS colonel who led one of the armored assaults of the Germans. But the producers were worried about a possible libel suit and so they changed the name. Considering that Piper had served 11 years in prison and was still an unrepentant Nazi at the time, I can’t imagine what libel suit he could’ve possibly come up with. On the upside, he was assassinated in France in 1976. Yes, I am cheering the assassination of a Nazi. I’m edgy like that.

Then there was the whole story behind the writing of the film. You’ll notice that Philip Yordan is listed as a front for Bernard Gordon. Gordon was blacklisted during the HUAC hearings in the 50s and the ensuing Communist witch hunt. He and other writers worked in Yordan’s basement writing scripts. Yordan would then present the scripts in Hollywood as his own, helping to keep his friends in work. Does anyone else see the irony of a war film showing a fight for freedom being written by a writer who was blacklisted because he wouldn’t legitimize a witch-hunt by Congress?

Battle of the Bulge is the kind of film you watch to kill a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. But it doesn’t hold any deeper meaning or leave a lasting impression. And while that doesn’t make it a bad film, it’s not a great one either. I’d have to put this below The Devil’s Brigade because it is even less historically accurate.


  1. I liked your review of this film. I like it a little better than you do because I feel the main story is coming of age Lt. Weaver - James MacArthur AKA Dano. I did like your commentary of HUAC. Good job.

    Snarky Movie Reviews



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