I watched BATTLE OF THE BULGE (1965) for the first time this afternoon. It strains mightily to be an important, "event" motion picture. It was released in the now defunct Cinerama format with a running time of 170 minutes and the film includes an overture, an intermission and exit music. Pretty fancy treatment for such a mediocre war movie.
I have no beef with the cast of BATTLE. Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson went on to co-star in Sergio Leone's magnificent ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST while Bronson and Telly Savalas were both members of Robert Aldrich's THE DIRTY DOZEN. In BATTLE, Savalas plays a tank commander/black marketeer, a part that he would repeat in KELLY'S HEROES. Robert Ryan was also in THE DIRTY DOZEN and James MacArthur went on to co-star with Jack Lord in the long running television series HAWAII FIVE-O ("book 'em Danno"). Starring as the German tank general is British actor Robert Shaw who is quite good in the role (and would have made a good Doc Savage!). The film cost a small fortune and all of that money is on-screen as the production values are high, although some scenes that combine exteriors, interiors and miniatures are not entirely convincing.
No, my biggest problems with this film are two fold. First, the script by three different screenwriters (never a good sign) Philip Yordan, Milton Sperling and John Melson, plays fast and loose (very fast and loose) with actual historic events. All of the characters are fictitious, no real American or German officers or soldiers are depicted, many of the events are either entirely fictitious or very loosely based on real events and the whole enterprise plays like Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson team-up to fight and defeat Robert Shaw. On the surface that's not a bad idea for a war film but if you're going to make a film entitled BATTLE OF THE BULGE, I suspect you should try and pay attention to what really happened.
For those of you who came in late, the Battle of the Bulge took place in December, 1944 and January, 1945. It was the last great offensive of Hitler's German army, a desperate and bold attack designed to split the lines of Allied forces in France, Belgium and Luxembourg. The surprise, last-ditch offensive actually worked for awhile and the Allies suffered heavy casualties. American troops in Bastogne were surrounded by the Germans and faced a slow death through a combination of factors: enemy artillery, lack of food, ammunition, medical supplies, reinforcements and warm, dry clothing. It was bitterly cold that long ago December and the weather was as much as a killing force as the German army was.
None of this is depicted in BATTLE. Granted, there is a very brief sequence involving Bastogne but that's it. Remember, the real Battle of the Bulge took place in a heavily wooded area of Europe in the dead of winter. There was constant cloud cover (which restricted air-support for either side) and snow.
Yet, BATTLE OF THE BULGE has tank battles taking place in broad daylight under clear, sunny skies. What's more, the terrain where the action was filmed doesn't look anything like the landscape of central Europe. The hills, mountains and open, dry, dusty plains expose the fact that BATTLE was filmed on location in Spain, a beautiful country, yes, but one whose geography doesn't look anything like the location of the real battles. I'm sure the film was produced in Spain for budgetary reasons but every time I saw a Spanish landscape (and there are many) I wanted to scream. Please understand, I've never been to Spain, France, Germany, Belgium or Luxembourg but I've read enough WWII history to know that what I was seeing in BATTLE just wasn't kosher.
If you want to see a film that does a good job of addressing the real Battle of the Bulge, I recommend PATTON (although the battle is a small part of the film) and the HBO mini-series BAND OF BROTHERS (there's an entire episode devoted to the battle). But I can't recommend BATTLE OF THE BULGE unless you go into it thinking it takes place on an alternate earth. That's about the only way this bloated mess could work.