Warner Brothers, 1965, 167 minutes
Cast: Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Robert Shaw, Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Hans Christian Blech, Dana Andrews, James MacArthur, George Montgomery, Pier Angeli and Ty Hardin
Screenplay: Philip Yordan, Milton Sperling and John Melson
Producers: Sidney Harmon, Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan
Director: Ken Annakin
With the Allies pressing against the borders of Germany and the Soviet juggernaut moving east, Hitler gambled on an offensive that would create total victory. The plan was simple, wait until weather grounded the Allied air force, and then move twelve panzer and eighteen infantry divisions through the Ardennes to cross the Meuse River. The goal was the destruction of the British and Canadian armies, which Hitler believed would convince the United States to wash its hands of Europe and concentrate on the war against Japan in the Pacific. Attempts to persuade Hitler to adopt a more feasible objective failed since Hitler’s trust in his generals had evaporated following the failed Valkyrie plot. Preoccupied with their own offensives, the Allies thought that the Germans were incapable of a major offensive.
Despite total surprise on December 16, the Germans were already behind schedule by nightfall, creating a massive traffic jam behind German lines. More important, the Americans responded much faster than Hitler had expected, and moved troops to block the Germans at the Elsenborn Ridge and the rail junctions of St. Vith and Bastogne. On December 19, the Germans had their greatest victory of the offensive when two American regiments were forced to surrender. However, the American strength in the Ardennes had grown from 90,000 to 180,000 men, and the rest of the offensive was going badly. The Germans continued to advance, surrounding Bastogne, but when the weather improved on December 23, it ended the last remaining shred of German hope for victory. Bastogne finally received supplies, while Allied planes targeted the German columns. The siege ended when Patton’s tanks reached Bastogne on December 26, and all of the Allied lines in the Ardennes still held. Unwilling to face reality, Hitler refused to end the offensive until January 7, and fighting continued until January 25. The offensive was a crushing defeat since the Germans ended up at the Siegfried Line, the fallback position advocated by Hitler’s generals before the offensive, minus all of the troops and tanks lost during the Ardennes Offensive.
Believing that the war is almost over, General Grey (Robert Ryan) is preoccupied with ensuring that the Christmas meal reaches the troops of his division. Only Lieutenant-colonel Daniel Kiley (Henry Fonda) thinks that the Germans will attack in the Ardennes. He is soon proven right. Colonel Martin Hessler (Robert Shaw) will command the armored spearhead of a German army that will seize the bridges on the Meuse, capture Antwerp and divide the Allies, gaining enough time to produce more jets and other advanced weapons, which will guarantee victory. Directly in front of Hessler is a battalion of raw troops commanded by Major Wolenski (Charles Bronson). The Germans’ new Tiger tanks prove unstoppable, so Hessler’s tanks steamroll over the American defences. After Kiley realizes that the German weakness is a lack of fuel, Grey orders his tank commanders to keep fighting despite horrible losses to force the Germans to burn up their fuel, even though they have nearly reached the Meuse. The strategy proves effective, forcing the Germans to give up their tanks and walk back to Germany.
After the end of the movie there is a brief announcement that the names and characters have been generalized. That is always a bad sign. A worse sign is that the film was publicly criticized by former President (and former supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe) Dwight Eisenhower as grossly inaccurate. I suspect that he used other words to describe the film in private.
Aside from a brief shot on a map and references to other columns, there is no explanation of the overall offensive. Instead, the movie focuses on Hessler’s brigade and the efforts of Grey’s division to stop it.
The general in charge of the offensive believes that the new fighter jets, V1 and V2 rockets and Tiger tanks will defeat the Allies. Despite the general’s optimism, most of the real senior command knew that the offensive was doomed, but were also well-aware that generals who expressed negativity would probably face a firing squad. The generals in charge of the actual offensive realized that even if the Germans captured the Meuse bridges, they would be too worn down to continue, and there were no reserves left to take their place, so the best they could hope for was to hold the Meuse Bridges and concentrate on destroying all Allied troops trapped on their side. As the offensive progressed, it became clear that the Germans would never reach Antwerp, but repeated attempts to persuade Hitler to modify the objectives failed. Instead, he claimed that the offensive was stalled because the generals refused to follow his instructions. In the end, the initial success was simply due to favorable weather that grounded the Allied air force.
German soldiers who speak English, led by Lieutenant Schumacher (Ty Hardin), will be dropped behind lines to spread confusion. Schumacher’s troops play a critical role in the movie. Aside from switching roadsigns, they prevent the destruction of a key bridge and seize a vital fuel depot. Schumacher seems to be based on Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny, famous for his rescue of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from his Italian captors in the Alps a year earlier. Skorzeny had been assigned to train picked volunteers to impersonate American soldiers in order to sow confusion by cutting telephone wires and changing roadsigns. Since very few of his recruits were actually fluent in English, the missions achieved little, but the capture of several of his men sparked rumors of widespread German infiltration, adding paranoia to the mix of fear and confusion that had followed the initial breakthrough.
Colonel Hessler, commander of the panzer brigade that is the spearhead of the offensive, is played by Robert Shaw, who clearly got into his character since he stated that he thought that Hessler was the hero of the film. Hessler is based on Joachim Peiper, but the name was changed to avoid a libel suit since he was still alive when the movie was made. It is unclear why the producers worried since Hessler is portrayed as a dangerous opponent but not evil. In particular, Peiper’s involvement in the Malmedy massacre is whitewashed. The presentation of the massacre of 86 American soldiers who had surrendered and were executed near Malmedy is faithful to the historical record. Hessler is furious that the SS had massacred prisoners at Malmedy because it will make the Americans fight harder, which is the complete opposite of the real man’s attitude. Peiper had fought on the Eastern front where he took few prisoners, if any, and he kept that attitude during the offensive, claiming that speed made it impossible to keep prisoners. Some of his company commanders even told their men to kill civilians who were seen on the street or at windows. Malmedy was the best-documented massacre, but other massacres were committed by Peiper’s panzer group, including a total of 138 civilians according to the Belgian government. Several of the massacres were witnessed by Americans who had survived by playing dead or Belgian civilians. Peiper and a number of his officers and soldiers were later prosecuted.
Based on the Battle of Celles, the movie’s climatic tank battle presents the sacrifice of large numbers of weaker American tanks to delay the much more powerful German panzers, thus forcing them to burn through the last of their fuel. Actually, the Americans won the battle. Discovering that the panzer division leading the furthest German advance at Celles was vulnerable, the 2nd Armored Division’s commander, Major General Ernest Harmon, had won permission to counterattack on Christmas Day. The German panzer division was ripped apart, aided by air support from rocket-firing British Typhoon fighters and artillery in the rear. Attempts to break through and relieve the panzer division had been beaten off by air support, so only a third of the tanks escaped after three days of fighting. This victory marked the end of the German offensive’s forward advance.
The climatic tank battle symbolizes the problem with the movie. The script makes it appear that no one in Eisenhower’s HQ had any idea of what was happening or had made any effort to block the German advance, which explains his contempt for the movie. In fact, Eisenhower had reacted far faster than Hitler had expected, dispatching several divisions to block the Germans. Instead, Grey acts as if he has no contact with HQ. There is no mention that units were delaying the German advance while defences were being made in the rear. Hessler is only four miles away from the Meuse River, and Grey plans to retreat to the other side of the river. In reality, the Germans never got near the Meuse. Even if they had, it would not have mattered, since Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had already moved troops to defend all of the bridges on the Meuse River.
Filmed in Spain, the terrain does not resemble the densely forested Ardennes region, while the weather was much too sunny. In fact, there is little if any snow in most of the scenes, even though the battle was fought during horrible cold.
It is an epic war movie, with a cast of thousands, but the focus never moves beyond a single division. Given the scale of the movie, the lack of overview is a missed opportunity. The only reference to the rest of the offensive is a short scene where the German generals are confused by the American answer of “Nuts” to the offer to surrender at Bastogne. Viewers would think that the Battle of the Bulge was a close call, saved only by a few brave, bright men. Actually, the only reason that the offensive had any success at all was that the cold weather kept the allied planes grounded for days.
The script spends too much time on Fonda’s character Kiley, the hero of the film, who has to figure out the Germans’ entire plan by himself, which seems a bit unfair. Surely someone in Allied HQ could help out a little. Worse, he has to do so even though he spends most of his time fighting on the front-line. Kiley even forces his pilot to fly in the fog so he can find the panzer army so the tanks can fight their battle.
One explanation for the misleading story is that producer Milton Sperling stated that the Americans were initially caught off-guard and then were able to hold on long enough for Montgomery to throw the weight of the British army against the Germans and win the battle. While Montgomery shares this view of his actions, it is not true. Fixated on preparing the perfect plan that would trap the maximum number of German soldiers, he delayed so long that most of the German army was able to escape.
While the overall story is bursting with inaccuracies, a couple of subplots are interesting. Admittedly, the characters are cut from cardboard, but at least it is solid cardboard, the kind that you don’t worry if it is holding a six-pack of beer. A young, inexperienced lieutenant (James MacArthur) does not take his responsibility seriously until his veteran sergeant Duquesne (George Montgomery) dies while saving him during the Malmedy massacre. Coming across several lost soldiers, he takes charge and becomes a leader, rather than an officer relying on his authority.
Telly Savalas is tank commander Sergeant Guffy, who deals in contraband, determined to go home rich. One of the best scenes in the movie occurs when Guffy’s partner Elena (Pier Angeli) admits that she sells both his merchandise and herself because she loves him and wants to make enough money for the two of them. At one point, she comments that the Germans have been there before, she survived then, she will survive now. Portraying a woman as both a prostitute and a love interest was a bit daring for the time. Then again, Irma la Douce had been a big hit two years earlier. Keeping with the prostitution theme, there is an odd scene where the general sends a courtesan to Hessler, but he quickly kicks her out.
The Battle of Bulge is a misleading, if not insulting, portrayal of the American army’s reaction to the German offensive. In short, crap. Just crap.