In December of 1944, the Allied high command is convinced that German forces in Belgium are in a low state of readiness, and perhaps even about to withdraw. Only one officer on the front lines, intelligence specialist Lt. Col. Kiley (Henry Fonda), believes otherwise — that the Germans are actually planning an attack. His opinion is rejected by his immediate superior (Dana Andrews) and his commanding general (Robert Ryan). Kiley spots several suspicious signs of German activity behind enemy lines on a reconnaissance flight, and he is at the front looking for evidence when the German counter-offensive starts. Taking advantage of Allied unpreparedness and a weather front that grounds all aircraft, their heavy tank units, supported by infantry, roll over the American forces, assaulting the lines at five different points in an attempt to ultimately divide the Allied forces in the west.
Battle of the Bulge reminds me of The Longest Day in a lot of ways. Both movies are about a major military offensive (German in one, Allied in the other). Both stories are told from the German as well as the Allied point of view. Both run about the same amount of time – three hours. And both feature an all-star cast. As in The Longest Day, I enjoy seeing how most (if not all) of the story lines converge at different points, although it’s not really on the same scale (still awesome, though). One of my favorite parts about BotB, besides the horde of amazing actors (which I’ll get to in a moment), is the infiltrator subplot. That thread runs through the whole movie, and works well at making everything into a cohesive whole, something that could prove a bit difficult with so many things going on at once. Eventually the infiltrators run into almost every major character – from Guffy to Weaver to Kiley – which is great, and provides a real sense of continuity.
I’ve seen this film several times, but this was my first viewing since I became 1) a WWII history buff and 2) a Henry Fonda fan, and that made the whole thing much more interesting. It’s hard to pick a favorite Henry Fonda role, but Kiley is definitely up there on the list. (Yet another Henry Fonda character who’s at odds with the majority.) It was neat to see Dana Andrews in a major role as well, since my first real introduction to both Fonda and Andrews was The Ox-Bow Incident, another film that they co-starred in. Robert Shaw plays the fanatical German colonel, Hessler, and although I can’t say that I like his character, he did give a thoroughly believable and complex performance. Half the time I had a grudging respect for him, and the other half of the time I hated him. He’d do something like make sure some French nuns had medical supplies for their wounded, and two seconds later be condemning an innocent man to death. Confusing, but not at all boring.
Several other characters stand out: Hans Christian Blech as Konrad, Hessler’s aide – I found his character to fascinating and sympathetic. Telly Savalas was great as Guffy, a character who starts out as being comic, but through the course of the movie becomes more and more bitter, tragic, and ultimately heroic. Seeing Charles Bronson in a role is always awesome, and he did a great job portraying Major Wolenski, an officer who looks out for his men and isn’t afraid to speak his mind to Hessler, of all people. And I also liked Sergeant Duquesne (George Montgomery) and Lieutenant Weaver (James MacArthur); Duquesne for who he is, and Weaver for who he becomes. Oh, and I have mention Lieutenant Schumacher (Ty Hardin), the leader of the infiltrators. While I can’t really like him, I was impressed by how quick-thinking and resourceful he was. Also, his little rant about Hitler was great.
“Adolf Hitler is a crazy Austrian house painter. He’s a madman. Thinks he knows more than the whole general staff. And he’s leading Germany to total destruction.”
Throughout the film, several scenes stick out. The Malmedy massacre. When all of Hessler’s new troops start singing ‘Panzerlied’. The fiery finale. The long, wide, wandering shot at the very end. Even if it’s a tad slow in places, Battle of the Bulge is still a first-rate war movie, one of my favorites, and one I’d highly recommend to any fan of war films.
“Care must be taken in telling our proud tale not to claim for the British Army an undue share what is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war, and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever famous American victory.” ~Winston Churchill