Battle of the Bulge is a 1965 American widescreen epic war film produced in Spain, directed by Ken Annakin, and starring Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Telly Savalas, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, and Charles Bronson.
The feature was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 and exhibited in 70 mm Cinerama.
Battle of the Bulge had its world premiere on 16 December 1965, the 21st anniversary of the titular battle, at the Pacific Cinerama Dome Theatre in Hollywood, California.
In December 1944, Military Intelligence officer and former policeman Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Kiley (Fonda) and his pilot, Joe (Robert Woods), are flying a reconnaissance mission over the Ardennes forest. Spotting a German staff car, the plane buzzes the car and photographs the officer. Alarmed, the chauffeur flees the car, leaving the engine running. “Petrol is blood,” rebukes the German officer, marking a theme of the film, the German shortage of fuel.
In a subterranean lair, it is revealed the officer is Colonel Martin Hessler (Robert Shaw), a fictional Panzer tank commander who is loosely based on SS-Standartenführer Jochen Peiper. Hessler is briefed by his superior, General Kohler (Werner Peters), on a new German attack, piercing west against the American lines. Kohler points out a clock with a 50-hour countdown, which is the time allotted for the operation beyond which Germany has no resources for a full-scale attack. At the same time, German soldiers disguised as American troops, led by Lieutenant Schumacher (Ty Hardin), are tasked with seizing vital bridges and sowing confusion behind Allied lines.
Meanwhile, Kiley returns to headquarters, where he warns that the Germans are planning another all-out offensive. His superiors, General Grey (Robert Ryan) and Colonel Pritchard (Dana Andrews), dismiss it out of hand since all available intelligence points to Germany not having the resources and manpower to launch another attack.
Hessler, having become concerned about the abilities of his tank commanders after his orderly, Conrad (Hans Christian Blech), points out the staggering losses that Germany has sustained since the war began, reviews them, and discovers they are all young and lacking in experience. Overhearing his criticism, the commanders break into a chorus of Panzerlied, restoring Hessler’s faith.
Hoping to uncover more proof, Kiley visits an American infantry position on the Siegfried Line under the command of Maj. Wolenski (Charles Bronson). A patrol led by Lieutenant Weaver (James MacArthur) and Sergeant Duquesne (George Montgomery) capture some young and obviously-inexperienced German soldiers. Kiley concludes that experienced German troops have been replaced by these men and withdrawn for an offensive, but Pritchard dismisses that as well, rebukes Kiley for “crackpot hunches,” and is determined to relieve him of duty.
Hessler launches his attack the next day. Awakened by the noise of German tanks, Wolenski leads his men into the wooded area of the Schnee Eifel, where they try to fight them off but are overrun. A group of Allied tanks, led by Sergeant Guffy (Telly Savalas), also attempts to slow the Panzers, but their tanks’ weak guns and thin armour make them ineffective and so force him and his crew to retreat. On the trip back to Amblève, Guffy enlists one of his crew to help move black market goods from a nearby farmhouse before they fall into enemy hands.
Lieutenant Schumacher and his disguised troops capture the only bridge over the Our River that can carry heavy tanks. Hessler continues his spearhead toward Amblève while he is observed by Kiley, who also discovers that a German truck is carrying empty fuel drums. Just before the Germans attack the town, Guffy finds Louise (Pier Angeli), his business partner, and they split the proceeds of their racket. As Guffy departs for the coming battle, Louise confesses her love for him, and he does the same for her.
Schumacher later takes control of a vital intersection of three roads that connect Amblève, Malmedy, and the Siegfried Line. He sabotages the road signs, and the rear echelon of Wolenski’s troops takes the wrong road to Malmedy. Almost the entire unit is captured and massacred by SS troops. Lieutenant Weaver manages to escape, but Duquesne is killed. US soldiers become suspicious when they witness Schumacher’s “military police” lay explosives incorrectly on the Our bridge, and his masquerade is revealed although it is too late to stop Hessler.
When Kohler orders Hessler to bypass Amblève, Hessler replies that the Americans have no concept of defeat and cites that they will ship things as trivial as a fresh chocolate cake to their front-line troops. He feels he can break their will to fight, and Kohler gives him the night to do so.
Hessler’s tanks and infantry storm Amblève and finally take the town. Although many Americans, including Wolenski, are captured, Grey, Pritchard, Kiley, and others escape to the Meuse River. American forces regroup and begin to reorganize for a counterattack. Guffy learns that Louise died in the German assault on Amblève.
Facing the dangers of a foggy night, Colonel Kiley conducts an aerial reconnaissance in an attempt to locate the main German spearhead. He orders Joe to shut off the engine and to glide in an attempt to listen for enemy tanks. Suddenly, through a gap in the fog, he spots Hessler’s tank column heading toward American lines. Kiley radios in the coordinates, but his plane is hit by German fire and crashes near an American fuel depot, killing Joe and wounding Kiley.
In Hessler’s command vehicle, Conrad finally confronts the Colonel about his warmongering ways after Hessler boasts about the war going on forever and so Conrad’s sons will have to become soldiers and fight. Hessler responds by transferring his longtime orderly to the fuel battalion, rather than having him shot for defeatist talk.
Meanwhile, General Grey’s forces, with the Meuse at their back, prepare to fight off Hessler. The outgunned and underarmored American tanks are systematically destroyed, but the Germans expend much of their fuel. Guffy encounters Weaver, who has taken command of a small force of wounded men. The surviving Americans head to the depot, the same one in which the wounded Kiley is recovering.
Aware of the German fuel shortages, Hessler leads a company of Tigers toward the fuel depot to capture its stocks, with Conrad watching him go. Weaver and the stragglers arrive first. Weaver recognises Lieutenant Schumacher, still posing as American Military Police, whose men have taken control of the depot; but Schumacher fails to recognise him. At Weaver’s signal, he and his men open fire on the disguised Germans and kill all of them. As Hessler’s column approaches, the American defenders flood the road with gasoline and set it ablaze. The young German crews abandon their machines in terror, only to be either shot by the Americans or consumed by the flames. Abandoned by his crew, Hessler goes it alone, only for his tank to be exploded by a burning fuel drum. Grey arrives in time to see the Panzers burn.
Out of fuel, the remaining Germans give up the attack and march back to Germany. Conrad, bringing up the rear, discards his rifle and cartridge belt and confidently marches on, his personal war is over.
- Henry Fonda as Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Kiley.
- Robert Shaw as Colonel Martin Hessler.
- Robert Ryan as General Grey.
- Dana Andrews as Colonel Pritchard.
- George Montgomery as Sergeant Duquesne.
- Ty Hardin as Lieutenant Schumacher.
- Pier Angeli as Louise.
- Barbara Werle as Elena.
- Charles Bronson as Major Wolenski.
- Hans Christian Blech as Conrad.
- Werner Peters as General Kohler.
- James MacArthur as Lieutenant Weaver.
- Karl-Otto Alberty as Major Von Diepel.
- Telly Savalas as Sergeant Guffy.
- Steve Rowland as Eddy.
- Robert Woods as Joe.
- Charles Stalmaker as Major Burke.
- Robert Rietti Voiceover.
The aviation reconnaissance scenes with Henry Fonda were filmed with one or more Cessna L-19 aircraft, which did not fly until December 1949. The scenes could not have been filmed with a Piper L-4, which was widely used during World War II, since the L-4 did not have an electric starter on the engine. It had to be started on the ground by someone pulling the propeller.
The final tank battle is a rough depiction of the Battle of Celles on 26 December 1944, where the US 2nd Armoured Division smashed the German 2nd Panzer Division. The film creates the false impression that large numbers of American tanks sacrificed themselves against heavy Tiger IIs and, in the process, lured the enemy off course, which caused them to run out of gas. In reality, they were already stranded. The tanks that were used, despite the claims of the producer in an interview in one of the DVD extras, are not historically accurate. Although the M24 Chaffee light tanks used in the scene were World War II-era vehicles, they were not used in the scale shown in the film but were relatively rare.
The US M47 Pattons representing German King Tiger tanks and the M4 Shermans, as represented by the M24 Chaffees, contributed much to the myth of the superior size and firepower that US armour had to contend with. In World War II, although it was true that tank for tank, the Tiger II was superior to the Sherman, most of the anti-tank duties were actually the task of the tank destroyer units.
Aside from the initial American encounters with the German offensive is the absence of cold weather and snow in which the real battle was fought. There is no trace of snow at all in the film’s major tank battle scene, and some battle scenes were fought in flat and bare territory, unlike the mountainous, forested and grassy nature of the Ardennes. The film was shot on location in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range and Madrid, Spain.
The sequence with Schumacher and his men was based on Operation Greif, the plan to parachute English-speaking Germans using American equipment behind American lines to sow confusion and capture the bridges.
Absent from the movie is the response by General Patton, whose Third Army relieved the siege of Bastogne. Also, there are no African-Americans in the movie even though the 761st Tank Battalion (The Black Panthers) played a role in Patton’s Third Army. Indeed, there is no reference to British forces in the area although British troops were largely kept behind the Meuse River and thus almost entirely out of the fighting. Also not mentioned is General Eisenhower’s decision to split the Bulge front into two, transferring temporary command of two American armies to Field Marshal Montgomery in the northern half of the Bulge; the film implies an all-American operation.
There is also no mention of the role of Allied air power in hitting the Germans hard at the first sign of clear weather. In fact, in the film, the sky during the battle is clear and partly cloudy.
The film’s opening narration, by William Conrad, mentions both Montgomery and Patton but is inaccurate: “to the north, stood Montgomery’s Eighth Army. To the south, Patton’s Third Army.”
In fact, Montgomery’s northern command was actually the 21st Army Group. The Eighth Army, Montgomery’s previous command, was actually in Italy at the time of the Battle of the Bulge. Although Patton actually was in charge of Third Army during the battle, it was part of a much larger American force in the south and was one of four American armies of the 12th Army Group under General Omar Bradley.
The film recaptures the major aspects of the battle by depicting how the inexperienced replacement American units stationed in the Ardennes were initially overwhelmed and how confused the situation became. The film points out the superiority of heavy German tanks and their major weakness, a lack of fuel.
Some early scenes, showing discussions among German officers, accurately depict the Third Reich’s desperation to cut American-British supply lines to neutralize the Allies’ huge logistical advantage.
The characters of Kiley and Hessler were loosely based on Colonel “Monk” Dickson and Waffen-SS officer Joachim Peiper. However, both names were changed, as the fictional characters bore marked differences from their real-life inspirations. For example, Peiper did not die in a tank attack but lived until he was murdered by vigilantes in 1976.
Screenwriter Bernard Gordon claims to have rewritten John Melson’s original screenplay. Some of the original choices for director were Richard Fleischer, who turned it down, and Edward Dmytryk, with whom Jack L. Warner of Warner Bros. refused to work. The technical advisor on the film was Major General (then Colonel) Meinrad von Lauchert, who commanded the German tank division that made the most headway in the actual battle.
For an economical price and with no restrictions, the Spanish army provided an estimated 500 fully-equipped soldiers and 75 tanks and vehicles, some of which were World War II vintage.
General Eisenhower’s Reaction
Eisenhower came out of retirement and held a press conference to denounce the film for what he considered its gross historical inaccuracy.
It was one of the most popular films at the British box office in 1966.
The original VHS release of the film for home video use was heavily edited to fit on one VHS tape and used a full-screen “pan and scan” technique, which is often used in network telecasts of widescreen motion pictures.
The 1992 Laserdisc and 2005 DVD releases run at their full length and are presented letterboxed in the original 2.76:1 aspect ratio. A Blu-ray release followed in 2007, also in the original 2.76:1 aspect ratio. In 2018, a new film, Wunderland, retold the story of the Battle of the Bulge.
- The filmmakers attempted to condense the Ardennes Counteroffensive, a World War II battle that stretched across parts of Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg and lasted nearly a month, into under three hours, and shot parts of the film on terrain that did not resemble actual battle locations.
- That left them open to criticism for lack of historical accuracy, but they claimed in the end credits that they had “re-organised” the chronological order of events to maximise the dramatic story.
- Unlike most other World War II epics, Battle of the Bulge contains virtually no portrayals of actual senior Allied leaders, civilian or military.
- That is presumably because of controversies surrounding the battle, both during the war and afterward.
- Allied forces ultimately won the battle, but the initial German counteroffensive caught them by surprise and caused many casualties.
Production & Filming Details
- Narrator(s): William Conrad.
- Director(s): Ken Annakin.
- Producer(s): Sidney Harmon, Milton Sperling, Philip Yordan, and Dino De Laurentis (uncredited).
- Writer(s): Berbard Gordon, John Melson, Milton Sperling, and Philip Yordan.
- Music: Benjamin Frankel.
- Cinematography: Jack Hildyard.
- Editor(s): Derek Parsons.
- Production: Cinerama Productions and United States Pictures.
- Distributor(s): Warner Bros. Pictures.
- Release Date: 16 December 1965.
- Running Time: 167 minutes.
- Rating: Not rated.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.