Director: Ken Annakin
Writer: Bernard Gordon, John Melson, Milton Sperling, and Philip Yordan
Cinematographer: Jack Hildyard
Producer: Sidney Harmon, Milton Sperling, Philip Yordan, and Dino De Laurentiis
by Jon Cvack
Similar to good popular 90s films, I’ve coming to the bottom of the bucket in terms of the Epic World War 2 action films produced from the 50s through the 70s. A Bridge Too Far (1945), The Longest Day (1962), Van Ryan’s Express (1965), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and Kelly’s Heroes (1970) all utilized grand set pieces, with countless numbers of tanks, planes, and soldiers packed into every scene. Where Eagles Dare (1968) was the last one I watched, and while not perfect, the closing sequence is one of the most incredible action scenes ever created. It’s watching these films that you realize how inferior modern VFX are by comparison, and why a film like Dunkirk (2017) is a far more powerful cinematic experience than cramming each action sequence in with as much computer graphics as possible.
Battle of the Bulge is directed by the same Ken Annakin who gave us The Longest Day; with this one in color (I was expecting black and white) and one of the few films from the sub-genre I’ve seen on Blu-Ray. Not knowing a thing about the film (beyond the obvious), an Overture kicks off and the credits begin to roll. In grand cinemascope, flying above the skies of the Ardennes Forest, we meet Lt. Colonel Daniel Kiley (Henry Fonda) and his pilot on a reconnaissance mission, eventually flying overhead of who would become Kiley’s primary villain, Nazi Colonel Martin Hessler (Robert Shaw). At the time, Allied forces had assumed the worst was behind them, and that Nazi Germany would fall in a matter of months. Kiley is convinced otherwise; believing that a massive force was hiding in the Ardennes; the place where Hessler is headed. There he meets his superior, General Kohler (Werner Peters), who walks him through an incredible series of corridors and rooms, showing everything from a mini-cooper sized Panzer tank model, to a war room with an ornate switchboard, helping them to coordinate their every move while walking us through the story.
One of the best description for movies such as Volcano (1997), Twister (1996), 2012 (2009), San Andreas (2015), etc. is Disaster Porn. While I’ll stick to Epic World War 2 Action Movies, you could easily call this War Porn, as the film glorifies all manner of machines, vehicles, and guns. As a kid, this is the type of action film that’d make me jump from my seat, grab my toy weapons cache, and go play war in the backyard for a couple hours until I tired myself out and needed another dose of inspiration.
Kiley admonishes his superiors officers of the suspected attack, including an old friend Gen. Grey (Robert Ryan) who while wanting to believe him, just can’t take the risk rolling out such a significant number of troops in preparation. Kiley remains committed, heading to the Siegfried Line front where he meets a battle hardened crew watching the Germans not more than a quarter mile away, led by Major Wolenski (Charles Bronson).
Back in the German barracks, Hessler is put in command of a Panzer division; however, with Germany having taken on such large casualties, he’s left with only young boys fresh from the academy with little to no battle experience, determined to demonstrate their courage. Kiley then takes another reconnaissance flight, flying beneath the fog to discover the Panzer division which then shoots Kiley and his pilot down, though before he forwards the message. To complicate matters, German Command has sent in American-sounding GI’s to help sabotage the response. The tanks open at the Schnee Eifel, obliterating American forces, and forcing them into retreat.
So begins the battle that defines any Epic World War 2 film in which hundreds of war machines and soldiers fight for the remaining hour, culminating in one of the most impressive final sequences I’ve seen from the genre (and any action film overall) in which dozens upon dozens of full scale tanks battle across the fields; duking it out across acres and acres of land, using trenches to gain advantage. Soon it ends up at a fuel station where hundreds and hundreds of 50-gallon drums of gas are stacked high in all directions, which you know is going to be the end Hessler.
Once again you’re left desiring a return to this type of filmmaking, in which what you’re seeing - from the characters to the machinery - is entirely real. The closing sequence was so awesome in the truest sense of the word that you grow saddened by the thought that the thought that the visual arts have actually devolved. The Battle of the Bulge is not the best from the subgenre, but like Where Eagles Dare, the action and characters more than make up for it. Robert Shaw, Peter Fonda, and Charles Bronson are all fantastic; with Shaw serving as the star of the show, as even though Jaws is my favorite movie of all time, I neither knew he was English or ever played a German Nazi. While there’s not as much snow as you expect, it’s a fun film.
BELOW: Robert Shaw plays one heck of a Nazi
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