Arr, matey! Judge Patrick Bromley once fought the Battle of the Bulge, but he refused to give up rum or wenches!
The last desperate fight that changed the course of history.
With full knowledge that it refers to an actual historical event during World War II, the title of the 1965 war film Battle of the Bulge still seems oddly appropriate. This is a movie ready to burst—literally bulging with its own excess. With a nearly three-hour running time, a cast of thousands, and an epically incomprehensible narrative, this is one big movie. It's so big, in fact, that a traditional movie screen couldn't hold it.
That's right, Battle of the Bulge is one of the few films shot in "Cinerama," meaning that its frame is a good deal wider than even the typical 2.35 "scope" films. Warner Bros.' reproduction of that frame for the DVD release of the movie is the best (maybe only) reason to watch it—and that's more for the sake of curiosity than anything else. Otherwise, the only thing on display is the film, and that's a long, silly, and uninvolving mess; it's a relic from the cynical studio system of the 1960s, when cost and epic were meant to equal box office. The only thing missing from Battle of the Bulge is John Wayne in full-on bulletproof mode.
The film was made in 1965, at a time when most war films were rousing bouts of heroics and gung-ho nationalism. The darker, more thoughtful crop of war films—even those dealing with WWII—hadn't yet come into vogue (like the more modern Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line—though, come to think of it, Kubrick's Paths of Glory predates this film by eight years). I can give it that. It would be unfairly anachronistic to expect the movie to confront war in the same manner that contemporary films do. But shouldn't the film still work on its own terms? This one, it would seem, wants to make military strategy its focus. It's too bad, then, that the strategy it covers makes little to no sense; nearly half the film's running time is devoted to officers on both sides (that's American and German for the history majors) making plans and underestimating one another, but little effort has been made to make sense of what's being said. There's also no real attempt to make any of these sequences cinematically engaging, meaning they fail on two levels—they don't provide a history lesson on the real Battle of the Bulge, and they fail to entertain. I'm not sure what's left to recommend in a war film.
The film that kept coming to mind while watching Battle of the Bulge was Richard Attenborough's A Bridge Too Far, released a little over a decade later. It takes a similar approach and covers similar territory: the epic narrative, the extended running time, the huge all-star cast (Bulge features Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Robert Ryan, Robert Shaw, and wisely casts Telly Savalas in the Telly Savalas role), and the focus on the strategies of both sides. The difference is that A Bridge Too Far is involving and informative. There is the feeling that something is at stake. Characters are given goals and personalities, and manage to assert themselves amidst a sea of faces. Bulge achieves none of this. This is because A Bridge Too Far is a very good film, and Battle of the Bulge a mediocre one.
All the credit in the world to Warner Bros., though, for making the film look and sound great—though, with the quality of discs they've been putting out lately, it really shouldn't come as a surprise. The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.55:1 (Cinerama!), and has been enhanced for 16 x 9 playback (warning to those without widescreen televisions, however—those black bars at the top and bottom are going to take up the majority of the screen. Cinerama!). The restored image looks gorgeous and brand new; colors are incredibly vibrant and detail is sharp. The film's audio elements have also been remastered, providing a 5.1 surround track that packs a significant punch—separation effects are plentiful, and all those explosions and gunfire give the subwoofer a healthy workout. It's a shame that Battle of the Bulge isn't a better film, actually, as Warner Bros. have given it a treatment that the movie itself can't match.
Some digging around on IMDb informs me that the director of Battle of the Bulge, Ken Annakin, would go on to direct The Pirate Movie nearly twenty years later. Not only did that information provide some hefty insight as to why the elements of Bulge fail to come together, but it also gave a good indication of what could have improved it: synth-pop, innuendo, and Kristy McNichol. And pirates. Always pirates.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Vintage Featurette: "The Filming of Battle of the Bulge"
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