Restored to its Cinerama roadshow length, Battle of the Bulge (1965) is a war epic best appreciated for its lavish production values and action set pieces, rather than for what ultimately are two-dimensional characters in a historically-inaccurate account of one of the Second World War's most significant battles. Warner Home Video's presentation is superb, however - the Ultra-Panavision lensing looks stunning on big, widescreen TVs, and after years of cut-down general release editions this apparently complete version fills in some narrative gaps.
Directed by Ken Annakin, the film might almost be considered a follow-up to The Longest Day (1962), which Annakin co-directed. In the months following the invasion of Normandy, D-Day, American forces in Europe have grown careless, certain the war will be won by year's end. But the Nazis have a surprise offensive up their sleeve, to send a battalion of tanks in a northern push to Antwerp, to bisect Allied forces and buy Germany time to launch a new wave of destruction with jet planes, V2 rockets and, it's hinted, atomic bombs.
Career Col. Martin Hessler (Robert Shaw), initially doubtful of Gen. Kohler's (Werner Peters) plans, is flush with enthusiasm after inspecting the fleet of modified Tiger tanks placed under his command. But Hessler's arrival is spotted by American interrogator Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley (Henry Fonda). This and other information lead Kiley to suspect the Germans are on the move, an assertion met with suspicion by Gen. Gray (Robert Ryan) and especially Col. Pritchard (Dana Andrews). But, as history knows, on December 16, 1944, German tanks broke through an American front in the Belgian Ardennes, a fight that would rage on for nearly a month.
Battle of the Bulge is at times stunning to look at, an attribute mostly lost in 40 years of panned-and-scanned TV airings. Even a letterboxed laserdisc edition only hinted at just how handsome this production is at times, despite being rushed through production to meet a locked-in release date. A good part of the credit must go to art director Eugene Lourie, who had designed films for directors as varied as Jean Renoir and Charlie Chaplin (and who directed several films himself, including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). Lourie's sets are outstanding - he seems to have designed them with the ultra-wide, high-resolution image in mind, not always the case on such films - while his supervision of the picture's extensive visual effects is often equally superb. Though the film has several obvious miniatures, some are almost imperceptible, such as the decimated city above General Kohler's headquarters.
Former President Eisenhower reportedly denounced the film's many historical inaccuracies (even the casual viewer must have given pause to the sudden appearance of desert terrain in snow-covered Belgium), but the bigger problem is the script's characters. If not for the eminent watchability of actors like Henry Fonda and Robert Ryan, Battle of the Bulge would play much more blandly than it does. The script consists of stock characters: Shaw's is an obsessed militarist whose thirst for battle robs him of any humanity. Fonda's is a standard everyman wanting to do his part, and whose sincerity and determination gradually win the respect of naysayers like Col. Pritchard, who seems to exist solely to shoot down Kiley's theories. James MacArthur has a prominent role as a green lieutenant whom war shapes into a seasoned leader. And so forth. These characters have been seen in a hundred other war movies, but the actors make them reasonably acceptable.
The picture seems to have helped the burgeoning careers of both Charles Bronson and Telly Savalas, especially in Europe, where they became stars more quickly than they would in America. Savalas's black-marketeering sergeant is a real oddity, playing like it was written for someone else. In some scenes he's like a wise-cracking Harvey Lembeck while in others he's romancing Pier Angeli, a mismatched couple if ever there was one, yet Savalas, too, makes his scenes almost work.
The German sequences would have played better in German, as was done with The Longest Day, and with a real German in Robert Shaw's part. Shaw, despite his myriad abilities as an actor, playwright, and novelist, seemed typecast in Hollywood during this period playing mostly icy, single-minded soldier types. This is little more than a variation of his Red Grant role in From Russia with Love (1963). The Germans actors are familiar faces, though their fame was generally limited to domestic fare. Werner Peters, for instance, was a character player frequently seen in Dr. Mabuse and Edgar Wallace mysteries, while Karl-Otto Alberty popped-up in lots of American war movies shot in Europe, including The Great Escape (it's he who captures Richard Attenborough's Big X) and Kelly's Heroes.
The technical credits are varied. The title design is unique and evocative, but Benjamin Frankel's score is noisy but adds nothing to the film.
Video & Audio
This is not a film for 4:3 standard size TVs. Presented in its original, super-wide, Ultra-Panavision aspect ratio in a transfer of about 2.74:1, Battle of the Bulge looks great on big TVs, with an image razor sharp for most scenes, with only the limitations of the huge (and incredibly heavy!) lenses creating flaws in a few shots. This 16:9 anamorphic transfer has quite obviously been mastered off 70mm elements, and bears the Cinerama logo. The film runs 2:49:27 including overture, intermission, and exit music. The color is also outstanding (original prints were by Technicolor) with very strong reds, blues, etc. The 5.1 remix is a decent approximation of the original multi-track magnetic stereo release. It's possible that some originally directional dialog may have been centered, but overall the mix is excellent. Optional subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
There are three short extras, all worthwhile. The first is The Filming of "The Battle of the Bulge", a 9 1/2-minute featurette in black and white and shot full frame. Its focus is technical advisor General Meinrad von Lauchbert, who had been commander of the German 2nd Panzer division during the original battle. It's more than a little weird watching his very enthusiastic coaching of Robert Shaw in the proper Sieg, Heil! salute. Henry Fonda provides some (clearly-scripted) commentary. Director Annakin and Robert Shaw's then-wife, Mary Ure, are also seen.
History Recreated is nothing about the real Battle of the Ardennes, but actually eight minutes of interviews with co-producer, co-writer Milton Sperling and a nervous-looking Robert Shaw. It, too, is in black and white/full frame and runs eight minutes.
A Trailer rounds out the extras. It's incredibly sharp, probably off the original negative, and its distribution appears to have been limited to Cinerama theaters, and is not a general release trailer. Running a long five minutes, it's 16:9 enhanced.
Battle of the Bulge is not for everyone. War buffs may scoff at its many historical inaccuracies, while dramatically the film is routine at best. But on big TVs it's now possible to recreate that roadshow environment, right in your own home, where Battle of the Bulge's epicness still impresses.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.