11/9/09

The Battle of the Bulge (1965)

Henry Fonda (Lt. Col. Kiley), Robert Shaw, (Col. Hessler), Robert Ryan (Gen. Grey), George Montgomery (Sgt. Duquesne)

Directed by Ken Annakin (The Seekers)

IMDB: In the winter of 1944, the Allied Armies stand ready to invade Germany at the coming of a New Year. To prevent this occurrence, Hitler orders an all out offensive to re-take territory and capture the major port city of Antwerp. "The Battle of the Bulge" shows this conflict from the perspective of an American intelligence officer as well as from a German Panzer Commander.

Everyone's favorite American winter campaign during WWII, the Battle of the Bulge, was poignantly brought to life in the episodes "Bastogne" and "The Breaking Point" from the miniseries Band of Brothers. It was a time of extreme hardship, heroism, and near misses that permanently turned the tide of the war, highlighting how far Hitler had slipped toward incompetency and madness.

However, aside from one particular scene I'll mention below, The Battle of the Bulge didn't illustrate much of that grief and hardship for me. Perhaps it was Telly Savalas and his antics. Perhaps it was the cocky, unlikeable way many of the Americans were portrayed--as much reckless cowboys as soldiers. I didn't come away with a genuine sense of scope or emotion, the heart of what this battle meant for the war and to the men who survived it.

This isn't to say that the movie is unwatchable. On the contrary I enjoyed it quite a bit, and particular performances stood out. Henry Fonda was likable, as always, but ultimately too flawless. His every hunch was plays out perfectly, but he's Henry Fonda so I forgive him. He's too nifty not to. Charles Bronson was actually very cool as Maj. Wolenski--not overblown and not too brash. He presented the ideal blend of resignation (receiving orders that were, in effect, a death sentence) and duty (carrying out those gut-wrenching orders to the very end).


The film dips its toe into the early stages of 1960s revisionism, presenting the "other side" with various shades of culpability. Col. Hessler, portrayed by a creepily icy and blond Robert Shaw, is a maniac. We don't realize that until the finale. No, he seems like a soldier's soldier: he eats what the crew eats, he understands tactics as well as morale, he hates how sloppy his commanders have become, and he disdains some of the decisions coming out of Berlin.

Only during his discussion with his aide, Conrad, does his madness leak out:
Hessler: Our column has made the farthest advance! We have outrun the other Panzers! The eyes of Germany are on us! The Fuhrer himself will decorate me. We have done it Conrad! We have done it!
Conrad: Then I was wrong. We have won the war.
Hessler: No.
Conrad: You mean we have lost?
Hessler: No.
Conrad: I don't understand. If we have not won, and we have not lost, than what is happening?
Hessler: The best thing possible is happening--the war will go on.
Conrad: For how long?
Hessler: Indefinitely. On, and on, and on!
Conrad: But it must come to an end.
Hessler: You're a fool Conrad. Those of us who understood knew in 1941 that we could never win.
Conrad: You mean Colonel for three years we have been fighting without any hope of victory?
Hessler: There are many kinds of victory. For the German Army to survive, for us to remain in uniform--that is our victory. Conrad, the world is not going to get rid of us after all.
Conrad: But...when do we go home?
Hessler: This is our home.
Conrad: And my sons? When do I see them? What will become of them?
Hessler: They will become German soldiers, and you will be proud of them.
Conrad's face falls. He knows the truth the moment we do, that those in charge of the German army's remains are no longer to be trusted. They are lost to their own delusions.

I'm glad I saw this. I never had the patience for it before, although I've known about it for years and years, back from the days when my dad would watch it during the holidays. It's as integral to those childhood memories as Dad singing "The Old Man" from White Christmas. But if I'm going to revisit the Bulge on screen, it'll be with the 101st in Band of Brothers.

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