Just before Christmas in 1944, the Germans launched what was to be their last large offensive of WWII, The Ardennes Offensive. More commonly known as The Battle of the Bulge (named for the bulge in the Allied lines that the German attack caused), this was the largest battle that American forces participated in up to that time, and the bloodiest with the official death toll reaching nearly 81,000 troops either dead, wounded, or captured.
In 1965 a movie was made to commemorate this Allied victory, appropriately named The Battle of the Bulge. While the movie is filled with historical inaccuracies (Eisenhower denounced it soon after the film's release) and is overly long, there are some worth while battle scenes and exciting moments. The Blu-ray disc is equally exciting, boasting a gorgeous HD transfer from newly restored elements and a clean soundtrack that brings the battle to life.
The creators of this movie had a big problem from the beginning; how do you make a film that depicts a complex and carefully planned military campaign without it sounding like a dry documentary? They solved the problem by simplifying what actually happened and inventing some characters to give the conflict a human face. The story's main character is Daniel Kiley (Henry Fonda), a Lieutenant Colonel in intelligence, and the only member of the Allied forces who thinks that the Germans are planning an assault. Ridiculed by his superiors, Kiley tries to discover the proof that they want, but can't produce it before the attack.
Attack they do. Realizing that the war is drawing to an end, the German command comes up with an interesting battle plan. Waiting until bad weather arrives so that the Allied planes will be grounded, they plan to smash through the enemy line and in a lighting fast push capture Antwerp. This will split the Allied armies which will weaken them and, more importantly, give Germany time to develop new weapons. (An atomic bomb is hinted at though in reality the Germans were far from completing such a device.)
The attack will be led by Col. Martin Hessler (Robert Shaw). He and his tank corps only have enough supplies for 50 hours. In that time he has to use surprise, guile, and his army's superior strength to capture Antwerp and more supplies or the Nazi cause is lost.
This movie is filled with stereotypes that we've all seen from countless other war films. George Montgomery plays Sgt. Duquesne, a soldier's soldier who knows how to stay alive when trapped behind enemy lines and takes care of Lt. Weaver (James MacArthur) an innocent and idealistic officer who matures over the course of the film. Telly Savalas is Sgt. Guffy, a rough and tough tank commander who is also making a killing running the local black market. He's only interesting in money until he realizes that he's in love with the French woman who has been his partner. Then there's Maj. Wolenski (Charles Bronson) the selfless officer who puts his life on the line for his men more than once.
Another problem with this movie is the pacing. It starts off very slowly, with many extended scenes that don't really serve much purpose. (When the German tank commanders sing a song for Col. Martin Hessler is a good example.) They also hit viewers over the head with the fact that Kiley is right and the rest of the Allied Command is wrong time and time again. Once the attack starts the pace picks up significantly. However there are still several sequences that don't seem like they belong. At one point a camera is placed on the front of a train and we get to see it zipping over the countryside. While it was mildly amusing, this scene detracted from the action and went on for way too long. The movie makes sure that it portrays all of the famous events that took place during the battle, but these often feel like they are shoe-horned in and don't really fit into the narrative. (The "Nuts" reply for example.)
The dialog is often forced and sometimes really bad, such as the time when things are going well for the Germans and Hessler discusses it with his driver, Conrad:
Conrad: We have won the war.
Historical inaccuracies are rampant in this film too. I can usually forgive some artistic license (it didn't bother me that they didn't use genuine WWII tanks for example) but this movie was pretty bad when it came to sticking with the facts. Patton, who managed a nearly miraculous push north to intercept the Germans is only mentioned once at the start of the film. The ending was almost laughably contrived and insulting to a certain extent. (SPOILER: The Nazis run out of gas and walk back to Germany. Yeah, right. END SPOILERS) It really cast a pall over the whole film.
A historically inaccurate film filled with over the top dialog and caricatures instead of real people should generally be avoided, but movie isn't all bad, and in fact sections of it are quite good. The battle scenes, while they don't rival Saving Private Ryan, are exciting and sometimes tense. Seeing a phalanx of tanks emerge from a forest and advance on men armed with rifles brought home how serious the Allied position was. The tank combat scene at the end was also engaging to watch, with dozens of tanks fighting across a rolling plain. The last 2/3 of the movie is nearly constant action, and that makes up for the slow beginning.
The Blu-ray Disc:
This movie was shot with the rather rare aspect ratio of 2.76:1 and this BD accurately reproduces that. It is easy to tell from the first shots after the intro music that this film has been lovingly restored. The print is excellent, with no traces of dirt, scratches or other imperfections that can mar the image. Equally important, this BD captures all of the detail and richness of the projected image. The colors are bright, solid, and even while the blacks are strong but not crushed. The level of detail is outstanding. You can almost feel the grime on the soldier's faces, and even the smallest features are well defined. Some of the scenes just pop off the screen too, making this a really fun disc to watch.
The only defect I noticed was a slight posterization in a couple of scenes. There are one or two shots when the screen is fading to black that the black isn't as even as it should be, but this was very rare and not very noticeable.
The movie is presented with a newly created DD 5.1 mix as well as a mono French dub. The purist in me is rather disappointed that the original audio track wasn't included, and the tenchno-geek is saddened that a lossless multichannel audio track is no where to be found either. As it is, the sound was fine, but not fantastic. On the plus side, there is no hint of hiss or other audio defects that can corrupt a movie this old. The track is clean and clear and the dialog is strong. On the down side, there wasn't a lot of use made of the soundstage. The rears could have been put to better use, and the dialog was all rooted on the screen. Some of the tank sound effects could have been a little deeper too, but that is largely due to the age of the film and the limitations of the time it was made.
There are a couple of extras ported over from the 2005 SD DVD edition of this film (and presented in 480p). These include a 10-minute featurette on the making of the film, The Filming of Battle of the Bulge, and History Recreated, a 9-minute set of vintage cast interviews. New to this edition is a commentary track by director Ken Annakin and actor James MacArthur (Lt. Weaver). This was an average commentary track. While there were some gaps in the discussion (not surprising given the length of the film) the pair manages to fill the time with some interesting, and not-so-interesting tidbits about the film. While I was never engrossed with what they were saying, I was never tempted to turn it off either.
This is a film that is enjoyable in spite of the myriad problems that
are woven through the production. The battle scenes are fun and while
the characters are mostly stereotypes, it's easy to get caught up in their
stories. The Blu-ray image is very good, and the DD 5.1 soundtrack
packs a punch too. While this film won't end up on many top ten lists,
it's still worth checking out. It would make a good rental.