Judge Ryan Keefer couldn't fight in a war unless there was an ample supply of vanilla Coke and fish tacos. Mmmm, tacos...
The last desperate fight that changed the course of history.
Battle of the Bulge was one of the last war epics that the country has been witness to, with a runtime of almost three hours and an honest goal of portraying events from both sides of World War II during a crucial time. So in the desire to add to a growing list of next generation titles, does Battle of the Bulge pass inspection?
Facts of the Case
From a story by blacklisted writers Bernard Gordon and Philip Yordan (55 Days at Peking) and directed by Ken Annakin (The Longest Day), the stories behind the Battles at Ambileve, the Malmedy incident and to another extent the Ardennes forest are chronicled from several different perspectives. The two most visible ones are on both sides of the battle. Colonel Martin Hessler (Robert Shaw, Jaws) is a panzer commander who has felt the sting of defeat before, but the General's staff knows that he is a precise commander who will sacrifice anything for German victory. Hessler has been shown a new form of German tank which the Germans believe will help carry them to victory. On the Allied side, Lieutenant Colonel Kiley (Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond) strongly feels the Germans are planning some sort of all-out attack on the allies, and despite the discouragement of his superior officer, he approaches General Grey (Robert Ryan, The Wild Bunch) with this information. Kiley goes to the front where he meets up with Major Wolenski (Charles Bronson, The Dirty Dozen), who helps him with what he needs to relay any intelligence to the allied command. Those are the main storylines, however other familiar faces you'll see are Telly Savalas (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), Dana Andrews (Hot Rods to Hell) and George Montgomery (Hell of Borneo).
Battle of the Bulge is one of those films that I've always heard about from my father, but I've never really seen it. After all, when a boy is subjected to In Harm's Way and The Green Berets growing up, the last thing he wants to see is a three hour war movie, let alone another one about World War II. In defense of that childhood and subsequent military service though, it does appear that I've warmed up to the pre-1975 war film as of late. Oddly enough, Battle of the Bulge hasn't received part of the same mentality in my mind, and I think in large part because it tries to employ a lot of the same conventions that The Longest Day did, except it has two major flaws; first, there aren't too many supporting characters, and what few there are just don't carry enough appeal to make you care about how their destinies will turn out. Second, and this is no fault of anyone involved, it doesn't have John Wayne in it. Granted, Henry Fonda is an acceptable substitute, but the Duke is more of a physical leader, whereas Fonda in this film is an intellectual leader, seeing things that other officers don't.
The other pitfall with which this film suffers is having Shaw in the role of Hessler. Hessler is a coldhearted sumbitch and it's obvious in a lot of instances, but with this film and similar ones, he is also portrayed as the only enemy officer than doesn't underestimate the foe he's fighting. I just have a hard time thinking that Hessler was the only voice of moderation during the battle, it's too easy a plot device in the war epic. Officers talk, and I'm sure there was some minority opinion, probably more than just one, but in the compulsion to make the film work, there was a bit lost in the translation. Because of the date when the film was made, this is also one of the last films that didn't show any gore when a soldier was hit by a bullet. They threw their hands up in the air, waved them around like they just didn't care, did some sort of funky chicken/Pointer Sisters dance and then keeled over. Ugh, I hate that.
The 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer is a revelation for Battle of the Bulge. Images possess depth and detail that I wasn't expecting for a four decades-old film, and there is more color than I was expecting for the film as well. If one ever wanted to know the benefit of high definition for older catalog titles, in between this film and The Adventures of Robin Hood, you've got your answer. The Dolby Digital-Plus soundtrack even does the film justice sonically. Once the Germans invade, most sequences cut to their tanks rolling across the French countryside. You get the low rumbling of the tanks pulsing through your subwoofer, planes soaring while providing surround sound and panning from rear to front speakers. While some activities cater to the audiophile, the battle scenes themselves are filled with canned gun and artillery fire, and don't give you the kind of "concussion" you may be looking for compared to a newer track. It's still nothing to sneeze at though. From a supplement point of view, the two very old and very brief featurettes from the last disc are included here, but in an HD exclusive, Annakin and James MacArthur (who played Lieutenant Weaver in the film) come together for a commentary. The track itself is more focused on the technical details than on the actual production, but there's enough production recollections that keep the track from being completely dry. Besides, these old-school directors are usually worth listening to when they recall a decades old film, and it's nice to listen to.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the story may be a little bit lacking, the performances of the two leads in the film (Fonda and Shaw) turn out to be quite good, all things considered. Shaw is a more than convincing German (Ralph Fiennes might have channeled parts of it for his role in Schindler's List), and Fonda plays a senior officer who might be a little bit bookish, but his instincts are correct and he is eager to try to stop the war. He's slightly a Jack Ryan type with an analytical mind, which is the best way I can think to categorize him.
Battle of the Bulge was made with honorable intentions, but in terms of execution, more emphasis is put on the cerebral battle between Hessler and Kiley, rather than just sticking to the facts or transpired events from the conflicts. The technical qualities of the disc were a pleasant surprise, and for those who own the disc and have an HD-DVD player, I'd recommend the upgrade based on that alone.
The court finds for both sides of the Battle of the Bulge and hopes that the memories of their efforts will be kept at the forefront for years to come.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with Director Ken Annakin and Actor James MacArthur
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