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Battle of the Bulge (HD DVD)

Warner Bros. // Unrated // May 15, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 26, 2007 | E-mail the Author
With the way most studios have attacked their release slates on HD DVD and Blu-ray, you'd barely know that Hollywood was making movies prior to 1994. Warner Bros. is the only studio to date to repeatedly dig deep into their back catalog for these high-definition formats and pulling out handsomely restored presentations of a number of their films, some of which date back almost seventy years. 1965's Battle of the Bulge is being dusted off just in time for Memorial Day, and while it's hardly an acknowledged classic the way many of Warner's other catalog releases on HD DVD have been, it's still not a bad way to kill three hours.

Battle of the Bulge picks up as the Allies' victory in the Western front seems all but assured, prompting a sense of overconfidence so pervasive that Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley (Henry Fonda) finds it nearly impossible to convince his superiors of his suspicion that the Germans are preparing to mount a devastating assault. Kiley insists that despite appearances, the Germans have not been defeated, and a determined enemy still capable of fighting will inevitably strike. His warnings go ignored as Col. Martin Hessler (Robert Shaw) is tapped to command an indomitable column of Panzer tanks as part of a ploy to split the Allied line in half, buying time for Germany to produce and unleash an advanced, incalculably destructive arsenal that would undoubtedly ensure their victory in the war. Despite Kiley's foresight, the Allied forces are caught off-guard by Hessler's assault and are manipulated further by the presence of saboteurs masquerading as American G.I.s. This all builds up to a prolonged series of battles in Belgium that would prove to be a crucial turning point against the German offense.

Warner has restored Battle of the Bulge to a 167 minute length rarely seen in the decades leading up to its DVD release in 2005, preserving a extraordinarily wide 2.76:1 frame that had been brutally cropped over the years, even in some theatrical exhibitions. Unfortunately, an additional half hour of footage and an extensive amount of imagery returned to either side of frame doesn't make Battle of the Bulge any less of a deeply flawed film.

While such events as the massacre at Malmedy and General MacAuliffe's legendary monosyllabic response to German forces at Bastogne are represented, Battle of the Bulge has little interest in historical accuracy and was savaged by Eisenhower for playing so loosely with the facts. The scale of the battle is much too complex to shoehorn into even its sprawling three hour runtime -- it's a topic better suited to a miniseries such as Band of Brothers -- but the oversimplified version offered in Battle of the Bulge still fails to build any lasting intensity. There are several swift, unexpected assaults throughout that caught me off-guard, but hardly any of the lead characters seem that intensely driven, and the pacing never feels as if it's building to a climax.

Battle of the Bulge is heavy on dialogue yet suffers from anemic characterization; they often don't even seem like characters as such so much as the screenwriters running through a checklist. Mild-mannered but determined hero who sees something everyone else overlooks and refuses to back down when dismissed? Check. Green young lieutenant who at first flees from danger but gradually steels himself into a great leader? Check. Overconfident brass? Check. Nazi with a heart of gold? Ill-fated wartime romance? Money-grubbing comic relief whose heroic streak emerges near the climax? Check, check, and check. As flat as so much of characterization is, at least Battle of the Bulge is bolstered by a cast capable of elevating such middling material, including turns by Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, and, most memorably, Robert Shaw.

As flawed as is, Battle of the Bulge does do quite a bit right, at least dramatically. The movie doesn't blindly paint Americans as the staunch heroes and the Germans as moustache-twirling villains. Both sides are shown in disarray at the start of the film, with many of their more experienced soldiers dead, injured, or otherwise occupied. Despite an overemphasis on dialogue and even though its intensity doesn't snowball into something greater, I never felt bored watching Battle of the Bulge, and that's more than I can say for a lot of movies. Its production design is first-rate, and even if the tanks being used weren't exactly era-appropriate and even though they're deployed in settings that at times didn't even bear a passing resemblance to Belgium (the climax is set at a barren desert in the dead of winter rather than the lush, snowy Belgian forests), seeing dozens of genuine tanks plowing across the screen is still somewhat thrilling. Of course, it would've been more thrilling if the battles had been better staged.

Battle of the Bulge is more interested in being grand in scale than anything else, and if that's its primary goal, I suppose the movie can still be considered a modest success. Battle of the Bulge is hardly a great film, suffering from some dated optical effects, historical inaccuracies, uneven pacing, and clumsy writing, but the combination of its ambitious production design and a reasonably strong cast make for a film that's at least watchable.

Video: Battle of the Bulge's exceptionally wide aspect ratio of 2.76:1 has been preserved on this HD DVD, and its beautifully restored Ultra Panavision 70 photography places this HD DVD in the same thoroughly impressive league as Warner's releases of The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, and The Searchers.

The panoramic image is razor-sharp and richly detailed, so much so that matte lines and the use of models stand out far more than they would have in standard definition. Director Ken Annakin notes in the disc's audio commentary that Cinerama brought one of their cameramen on-board to give certain shots a sense of depth and dimensionality, and quite a bit of the film does have an appearance that's almost tactile and three-dimensional. Its hues are bold and vibrant when appropriate, showing no signs of fading more than forty years later. No speckling in the source or compression gaffes were spotted throughout what is an essentially perfect presentation. Brightness pulses somewhat in one early shot in the film, some distortion -- presumably due to the lenses used -- is occasionally visible in the outer edges of the frame, and a handful of camera pans flatten out the image, but I'd imagine most of those date back to the original photography, and I won't hold them against this transfer. A tremendous effort from Warner, and their commitment to releasing such exceptional high definition presentations from deep in their back catalog is greatly appreciated.

Audio: Battle of the Bulge's Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix tethers itself to the front speakers but otherwise sounds nice enough. There's a strong sense of separation across the front channels, including some directionality in the dialogue and even in the instrumentation in Benjamin Frankel's score. A few scattered lines aside, the film's dialogue and sound effects are rendered crisply and clearly, and the subwoofer gets a reasonable workout thanks to rumbling engines, thundering tanks, streams of gunfire, and a healthy number of explosions. The surrounds are sparsely used, particularly outside of the battle sequences, but such moments as the young Panzer commanders' harmonized rendition of "Panzerlied" send the rear speakers roaring to life. Some light background noise is audible but easily ignored, and the overall fidelity and dynamic range of the soundtrack are rather impressive.

A French dub has also been provided alongside the usual assortment of subtitles.

Extras: Battle of the Bulge includes a pair of vintage featurettes dating back to the film's production more than forty years ago. "History Recreated" spends eight minutes interviewing producer Milton Sperling and actor Robert Shaw. Sperling touches on how his experiences as a combat photographer during the war affected the way he approached the film, and he boasts about how much effort his team went to scouring Europe for World War II-era tanks and weapons (a claim contradicted in the disc's audio commentary). Shaw's comments naturally revolve around his performance. The ten minute featurette "Filming of Battle of the Bulge" features a good bit of behind the scenes footage with narration and a runthrough of the plot by Henry Fonda, as well as noting the presence of Meinrad von Lauchert, a commander in the German 2nd Panzer Division in the battle who was brought onto the film as a consultant. Both featurettes are presented in standard definition, black and white, and at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. A five minute standard definition, anamorphic widescreen trailer rounds out the extras ported over from the DVD.

Exclusive to the HD DVD and Blu-ray releases is an audio commentary with director Ken Annakin and actor James MacArthur. It's an amiable but subdued discussion; MacArthur prefers to let Annakin do most of the talking, but trying to fill a nearly three hour audio commentary with memories of a movie shot four decades ago is difficult enough, but the 90 year old director has a particularly tough time at it. There are long stretches of complete silence, and the final hour of the film that follows the intermission is almost entirely dead air. Annakin is prone to narrating what's happening on screen or restating facts already established in the film, and he makes a few mistakes such as misattributing the slaughtering of American prisoners to Hessler. There are a good number of interesting notes, though, such as the minimal prep time Annakin had on a movie that was a few short weeks from filming when he was brought on board, reining in an initially over-the-top, Hitler-inspired performance by Robert Shaw, and struggles with the budget and the uncharacteristically cold weather. Authenticity is a particularly favorite topic, with the movie making use of real snow, real tanks, and real bunkers. MacArthur lobs out a few great comments as well, including singlehandedly sparking a snowball fight with 400 Spanish soldiers and working with Henry Fonda after kissing his daughter on stage repeatedly every night. The commentary is too sporadic to be a required listen, but it's worth playing in the background.

Conclusion: Battle of the Bulge plays hard and fast with history, and the film seems to set its sights more on panoramic popcorn entertainment than a harrowing depiction of one of the key battles of World War II. On that end of things, Battle of the Bulge works well enough. Though hardly a classic, Battle of the Bulge is still reasonably enjoyable, buoyed by its beefy production values and a likeable cast. It's not the first WWII movie I'd grab out of the Warner vaults -- it wouldn't even be my first pick of the ones Warner has already issued on HD DVD -- but it holds up passably well, and this high definition presentation of Battle of the Bulge looks and sounds remarkable. A worthwhile purchase for fans of the movie; a hesitantly recommended rental to those who haven't seen the film before.
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