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Battle of the Bulge

Original movie poster
Directed by Ken Annakin
Produced by Sidney Harmon
Milton Sperling
Philip Yordan
Written by Bernard Gordon
John Melson
Milton Sperling
Philip Yordan
Narrated by William Conrad
Starring Henry Fonda
Robert Shaw
Robert Ryan
Music by Benjamin Frankel
Cinematography Jack Hildyard
Editing by Derek Parsons
Distributed by Warner Brothers
Release date(s) December 16, 1965
Running time 167 min.
Language English

Battle of the Bulge is a war film released in 1965. It was directed by Ken Annakin. It starred Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Telly Savalas, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews and Charles Bronson.

Battle of the Bulge had its world premiere on 16 December 1965, the 21st anniversary of the battle, at the Pacific Cinerama Dome Theatre in Hollywood, California. The feature was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 and exhibited in 70 mm Cinerama.

The original VHS release of the film for home video use was heavily edited and used a full screen "pan and scan" technique often employed in network telecasts of widescreen motion pictures. The DVD (released in 2005), however, is uncut and uses a "letterbox" format that includes the proper aspect ratio of the original film; it also includes some special features.

The filmmakers attempted to condense a battle that 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 claim in the end credits that they have 're-organised' the chronological order of events to maximise the dramatic story.

Unlike most World War II epics, "Battle of the Bulge" contains virtually no portrayals of senior Allied leaders, civilian or military. Though the Allies eventually won the battle, the fact that they were caught off guard and forced into the fight was an embarrassment at the time and has drawn criticism from historians ever since.


Plot summary

A German tank force led by a fictional Colonel Hessler (Shaw) leads a last-ditch attack through the Allied front. An American intelligence officer Lt. Colonel Kiley (Fonda) tries in vain to persuade his superiors of enemy intentions, but to no avail.

The film opens with Kiley and his pilot, Joe, flying recon over the Ardennes forest. When Joe describes the war as being just about over, Kiley responds with the facts: even old men and the Hitler Youth can carry guns. Joe then spots a single German staff car on an empty road.

Kiley's continued photo passes force the staff car's driver, Conrad (Hans Christian Blech), to drive into a ditch and scramble for cover. Hessler, by contrast, maintains his cool, and chastises Conrad for leaving the car's motor running. As the two walk back to the car, they discuss the state of affairs. Even Hessler believes "the world is going to get rid of both of us."

Meanwhile, Kiley and Joe are on their way back when Kiley spots something below. Joe doesn't see it, but lets Kiley take a picture anyway. As the plane flies away, a group of camouflaged German tanks is revealed.

Conrad and Hessler arrive in the ruins of an unnamed German town. Hessler enters an underground bunker and is escorted to see General Kohler (Werner Peters). Kohler shows Hessler models of jets, V-2 rockets, and a King Tiger tank, to which Hessler comments that Germany is still the world's best toymaker.

Kohler and Hessler are apparently captured by a squad of American soldiers, only for the 'Americans' to be revealed as German soldiers in disguise, led by Lieutenant Schumacher (Ty Hardin). These disguised German soldiers are preparing to capture vital bridges and sow confusion.

Kohler shows Hessler a command centre, in which a clock shows a 50 hour countdown: the amount of time, and more importantly, the amount of fuel available for the offensive. Finally, Hessler is presented with a yard full of King Tiger tanks. With all this available, Hessler proudly proclaims it can be done.

Meanwhile, Kiley has returned to US HQ in the town of Ambleve, where he presents his findings to General Grey (Ryan) and Colonel Pritchard (Andrews). They discount his findings and are unconvinced by the photo of the Tiger tank. During the meeting General Grey receives news that Patton's 3rd Army is about to launch an attack. This convinces them that the U.S. Army high command is not expecting a German attack.

Hessler, initially lacking confidence in his forces, is reassured when his Tank Commanders, mostly teenagers, break into a striking rendition of Panzerlied. Col. Kiley visits a bunker on the Siegfried Line to find more evidence of an impending German attack. Major Wolinski (Bronson), the commander of the bunker, volunteers a patrol led by Lieutenant Weaver (James MacArthur) and Sergeant Duquesne (George Montgomery) to capture some Germans. On their return Kiley is joined by Col. Pritchard as Kiley interrogates the prisoners, who turn out to be teenagers. Kiley believes that experienced German troops have been withdrawn from the lines in preparation for an attack, but Pritchard dismisses this idea and reprimands his subordinate.

Early the next day as the G.I.'s sleep in their bunker, Hessler launches his attack. Woken by the noise of hundreds of German tanks, Wolenski leads his men into the wooded area of the Schnee Eifel. Faced with daunting odds, Wolenski withdraws his men to the bunker and then to the Belgian town. Two American tanks engage the King Tigers but are quickly destroyed. Only two men escape: Sergeant Guffy (Savalas), the tank commander, and his gunner, Eddy (Steve Rowland). General Grey dispatches Kiley to get more information on the German attack.

Lt. Schumacher and his disguised German troops have captured the only bridge over the river Our that heavy tanks can cross. With his route secured, Hessler continues with his spearhead towards Ambleve, observed by Kiley. At the Our river bridge, Schumacher has taken control of a small crossroads which is the intersection of 3 roads - one from Ambleve, one from Malmedy and one from the Siegfried Line. With the signs turned around, the rear echelon of Wolinski's troops are diverted not to Ambleve but to Malmedy, where an SS Division is waiting. In the last group, Lt. Weaver and Sgt. Duquesne argue about the route that they're taking, but then break down in the remote Ardennes and are captured by Germans soldiers when Weaver surrenders. Weaver and Duquesne are rounded up with other captured American troops, who are massacred by S.S. troops. Weaver manages to escape thanks to Duquesne, who is killed.

Kiley notices that the Germans are carrying empty fuel rubber hoses. He surmises right away that they need fuel badly. Returning with the knowledge that the German attack is more than just a weak counter-attack, Kiley receives an apology from Pritchard. Guffy, a hussler and smuggler of rare goods like champagne, perfume, and nylon stockings, meets with his partner, a French girl named Louise, in their Storehouse. he tells her that he has to leave, giving her the money he had collected. when Guffy confronts her when she produces a large amount of money despite a lack of any sold goods, indicating prostitution, he almost leaves in rage but she begs his forgiveness and the two share a kiss before Colin drags Guffy out to go meet their unit.

As Grey evacuates his HQ, an unarmed soldier runs past, only to be stopped by Grey. When asked where his unit it, the young solder says in tears that they're all gone, indicating he too is an escapee of the Malmedy massacre. Seeing what is happening, Grey turns around and orders every man to stand and fight.

With Hessler's forces now surrounding the town, Grey summons heavy artillery. As the train loaded with ordnance races towards Ambleve, a lone German tank destroys the engine, denying General Grey the ordnance to defend against heavy armour. (Note: This scene was shortened in some later theatrical and TV releases.) German troops assault Ambleve but fail to capture the town.

Hessler is ordered by Gen. Kohler to by-pass Ambleve and continue with the offensive. Hessler argues that capturing Ambleve will not only eliminate a thorn in their side, but will also severely damage American morale. As night falls, Hessler's tanks and infantry storm Ambleve, finally taking the town around dawn. (Note: In some theatrical releases, the Ambleve evening assault was not shown.) Although many Americans are captured, Grey, Pritchard, Kiley, and others escape to the river River Meuse. Wolinski is captured and demands of Hessler that his troops will not be murdered like those at Malmedy. Angered by both the accusation and the knowledge that the massacre at Malmedy could "turn a disorganised rabble into avenging soldiers", Hessler complains to General Kohler only to be told the Army has no control over S.S. units.

In a scene edited out of some theatrical releases, a young franc-tireur tries to shoot Hessler. The boy is spared, but Hessler instead decides to execute his father. Conrad watches with dismay. Lt. Col. Kiley and Col. Pritchard, having seen Guffy fetch fuel, suggest to Gen. Grey that the Germans need fuel badly. Gen. Grey orders research into the fuel capacity and range of the Tiger tank. Lt. Weaver is found by a group of American stragglers, and resolves to overcome their fears and lead them to safety rather than surrender.

As the Americans arrive at their new HQ, Guffy desperately tries to find out the fate of Ambleve, and Louise. He is devastated to find out from a GI that the town was leveled, and almost confronts General Grey, asking him to his face when he was going to let them fight.

During a foggy night, Col. Kiley goes on a reconnaissance run and almost crashes a cliff. But as the fog lifts, he spots the jackpot: a swarm of Tiger tanks heading their way. Kiley radios in the coordinates, but is hit by German fire and crashes near an American fuel depot.

Conrad asks Hessler when the war will end, so he can finally see his family. When Hessler tells him "It will go on and on", Conrad requests a transfer to another unit. In a final fit of pique, in which Hessler calls Conrad a traitor, Conrad claims Hessler is a fanatic who "would murder my sons, murder my country, murder the whole world, to stay in that uniform."

General Grey's force, with the river Meuse at their back, prepare to fight Hessler until he "runs out of gas." With his fuel supplies running low, Hessler engages an American tank phalanx that includes Sgt. Guffy and his new tank. Despite heavy casualties, the American tanks retreat slowly and force the Germans to use up their precious fuel. Hessler leads a small detachment towards the American fuel depot. Gen. Grey orders the depot's destruction, but the order is intercepted by Lt. Schumacher. Sgt. Guffy, after he is forced to leave the battle when his tank's turret is shot off, is reinforced by Lt. Weaver and his stragglers, and arrives at the depot for fuel. Lt. Weaver guesses that Schumacher's men are enemy troops in disguise, and Guffy mows down the Germans in American uniforms. Lt. Weaver, Sgt. Guffy and a wounded Lt. Col. Kiley defend the depot as the Panzer column appears just down the road. Using gasoline drums, punctured and rolled down the hill, where they are set on fire, they create a maelstrom. As the young crews flee the Tiger tanks in fear, Hessler desperately goes it alone, commandeering the controls of his Tiger, intending to drive it into the depot himself but a series of drums blow off his tracks, and them destroy the tank itself as Hessler screams in rage and horror.

General Grey arrives just as the tanks go up in a massive fireball, pleased to discover Kiley is alive, they are happy to hear the news: With no fuel left, the Germans abandon their tanks.

As the long line of troops march towards the Siegfried line, Conrad brings up the rear. In disgust, he leaves his gun and carries only his pack as he heads for home.

Vignettes from the actual battle are included the film, including General McAuliffe's reply of "Nuts" to an offer of surrender at Bastogne.


Historical inaccuracies

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. As a matter of fact, the tanks used (despite the claims of the producer in an interview which is one of the DVD extras) are not even accurate German or American tanks. The German tanks are American M-47 Pattons painted grey, not Tigers. The American tanks are not Sherman M-4s, but M-24 Chaffees, a tank that was present in extremely large numbers at the time, and they are seen impersonating as Shermans in other films.

Aside from the initial American encounters with the German offensive, there is little sign of the 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 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. There is no reference to British forces in the area which were strategically important. 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. 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. It was Bradley - not mentioned in the film - and not Patton who was Montgomery's American counterpart on the Western Front.

There is some speculation that the fictional German character, Hessler, was modeled after Colonel Joachim Peiper whose unit carried out the Malmedy massacre. However, this is not evident in the film where Hessler is openly critical of the Malmedy incident, pointing out such things turn a defeated rabble into an avenging army.

Ambleve is not a town however a river in the area.

References in popular culture

John McClane references the film in Die Hard with a Vengeance. Simon Gruber's (Jeremy Irons) use of English-speaking Germans to steal gold parallels Hitler's Operation Greif, depicted in The Battle of the Bulge.


External links



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