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Battle of the Bulge  (1965)

 

Rating: NR

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Release Date: May 3, 2005
Review posted: May 9, 2005

 

Reviewed by Dylan Grant

 

SYNOPSIS

 

Five months after D-Day, most American soldiers think the German army is broken.  The Germans think otherwise.  In an attempt to buy time to fill the skies with their invincible new jets, they launch one fast, furious offensive: the Battle of the Bulge.

 

CRITIQUE

 

In the 1960ís and early 70ís, Hollywood let flow a wave of straight forward, tell-it-like-it-was World War II films: In Harmís Way, The Longest Day, Midway, Tora! Tora! Tora!, and others.  Most focused on specific battles, told from both sides of the battlelines, specialized in detailed recreation, and featured large, star-studded casts.  In a sense, they were not unlike the wave of disaster films that were popular around the same time; both kinds of films featured many of the same characteristics: characters that were up against seemingly insurmountable odds, often caught by surprise, turning things around and coming out on top.  Battle of the Bulge fits this tradition on every level.

 

The film looks at the lead up to and the fighting of the battle from both sides.  On the German side, Colonel Martin Hessler (Robert Shaw) is brought in by his commanders and given a glimpse at the Hitlerís vision for winning the war.  Much of it rests on new high tech weapons that they believe will decimate the Allies: jet fighter planes, tanks that are more heavily armored than anything seen before, and ďbombs that can destroy an entire city in a single blast.Ē  But the Nazis have the blueprints for a house they cannot afford to build; their new weapons are still months away from being operational, and they need time.  Col. Hessler is given the task of leading a major offensive, a surprise attack on a weak point in the Allied line.  The Germans have enough resources for one all out fifty hour assault, which they believe will set their enemies back enough to get their plans off the ground.

 

On the American side, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Kiley (Henry Fonda), an Army intelligence office, gets his hands on some reconnaissance photos that he believes point to a looming attack.  Kiley, a police detective before the war, brings the photos to his superiors, who are reluctant to act at first because the evidence is so thin.  They all believe that the Germans are on the run, that they have had it, and that it is only a matter of time before they surrender.  Everyone he talks to seems ready to pack it in, but as Kiley says over and over, there are still six million Germans carrying arms for Hitler, and the war is not over until it is over.  Fonda is good in the role, but it is one that he played over and over throughout his career, the lone man trying to convince everyone else to wake up and look at the facts.  His Lt. Col. Kiley is not unlike the roles he played in 12 Angry Men, The Ox-Bow Incident, and many other films.  But he plays it so well that it is hard to look away.

 

There are other excellent performances throughout the film.  Shaw is especially good as Hessler, the German tank commander who has won so many decisive battles that the thought of being defeated never crosses his mind.  Shaw imbues the character with an unwavering determination that comes more out of professional pride than Nazi fanaticism.  In some ways, Hessler comes away looking better than some of the Americans.  Charles Bronson plays the fanatical Major Wolenski, who thinks that Germany should be wiped off the map completely.  ďDonít leave two stones standing together,Ē he says.  The Allies should turn the whole country into an open plain, give them two buffalo and let them start over.  Wolenski is out for total destruction, a point of view that was probably not uncommon.

 

We all know how the battle turned out.  Like Titanic, or The Passion of the Christ, the suspense comes not from wondering how the story will end, but in seeing characters who are up against incredible odds and watching them figure it out.  We know the Germans are planning an attack, but the Generals wonít listen to Kiley!  Itís like watching a horror film and seeing the killer coming up behind the heroís back: we know they are going to turn around, but will it be in time?

 

The filmmakers are able to build an incredible level of suspense in Battle of the Bulge; it almost seems like a miracle that things turned out the way they did.  The film is incredibly detailed.  One of the consultants was an ex-Panzer captain, a man who led German tanks during the real life battle.  Writer-producer Milton Sperling was a combat cameraman in the Pacific, and he was with the Marines at Guadlecanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and other battles.  The whole undertaking is well directed by Ken Annakin (Swiss Family Robinson, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, The Pirate Movie, etc.), who was no stranger to epic filmmaking.  Epic is exactly what this film is; all the elements are present: life and death struggle, enemy infiltrators, incredible odds and incredible heroism.  And itís all true.

 

THE VIDEO

 

Battle of the Bulge is presented in the original 2.35:1 shooting ratio, and considering that this film was made especially for the big screen, this is really the only way to see it.  The transfer is pristine, and the colors have never looked better.  The black and white levels are expertly rendered, which is all the more important considering that much of the action takes place in the snowy Belgian winter.

 

THE AUDIO

 

This DVD features a newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack.  All the battle sounds are brought vibrantly up to date.  The layering is solid, and there is excellent dispersal throughout the film.  This film has never been as clear.

 

THE EXTRAS

 

The Filming of Battle of the Bulge: A vintage behind-the-scenes look at the making of the filming of this movie, centered around an ex-German Panzer commander, who led a tank division during the actual battle and was now a consultant on the film.  (10:00)

 

History Recreated: British television interviews.  One features Robert Shaw talking about how he created his role as the German tank commander, and another has co-writer/co-producer Milton Sperling talking about turning an epic film into an epic battle.  (8:00)

 

Theatrical Trailer: The original theatrical trailer.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

Battle of the Bulge is an epic film in every sense of the word: great performances highlighting a detailed recreation of historical events brought to life by people who, in many cases, participated in World War II.  The audio/visual quality has been updated, and the bonus material gives us an interesting look at the making of this picture from the time it was actually being filmed.

 

VERDICT: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

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:: The DVD

 

:: DVD Ratings

 

THE MOVIE

9

THE VIDEO

9

THE AUDIO

9

THE EXTRAS

7

OVERALL

9

 

:: Merchandise