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Battle of the Bulge

It didn't take more than two or three decades after the event for virtually every aspect of World War II to be committed to celluloid, either as documentary retelling, semi-fiction, or roman à clef yarns; the brutal global conflict that set the stage for the latter half of the 20th century — preceding a chilly, often-obscure Cold War — never failed to draw audiences, and still does as a new century arrives (as of this writing, Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards has been in pre-production seemingly for years). Therefore, it's little surprise that "The Battle of the Bulge," Nazi Germany's fierce last stand on a rapidly shrinking continent, would earn a film in its own right. The script (co-written by HUAC-blacklisted Bernard Gordon) may play a bit loose with names and details, but director Ken Annakin's splendid cast and generous production budget help deliver an epic that's enjoyable despite its rough edges. Henry Fonda stars as Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley, an American officer whose former job as a police detective sets him at odds with his superiors. It's December of 1944, and the dead of winter has stalled the Allies in France, six months after the D-Day invasion. Conventional wisdom among the Allied commanders insists that the German military machine is broken and demoralized, but Kiley can't ignore his own hunch — he believes the Germans are about to launch a major campaign. Meanwhile, Nazi Gen. Kohler (Werner Peters) summons his finest tank commander to headquarters. Col. Martin Hessler (Robert Shaw) has earned his reputation in some of the war's most crucial conflicts, and he's now instructed to launch a 50-hour blitz into occupied areas of western Germany, culminating in a single point (the "bulge" that gave the battle its name): France's Ardennes region and the town of Bastogne. Aided by poor weather that keeps Allied aircraft grounded, the campaign catches the American military by surprise, winning initial success. But the spirit of the fighting G.I. — and Kiley's dogged pursuit of Hessler — eventually marks this blitzkrieg as Hitler's last.

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Journeyman director Ken Annakin originally began his career as a documentary filmmaker, finding greater success after he was tapped by Disney to helm some of their most popular live-action movies (including The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and Swiss Family Robinson). However, before his career ran aground with 1982's musical spoof The Pirate Movie, he found his greatest success with 1962's The Longest Day and 1965's Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines — and perhaps the only thing to complain about is that The Battle of the Bulge (also 1965) occasionally resembles the latter as much as the former. Like The Longest Day, there are many small, personal portraits found in the mosaic of war, particularly with Charles Bronson as a tough-nosed officer and Telly Savalas as a freewheeling tank commander (both, along with co-star Robert Ryan, would re-appear in Robert Aldrich's wonderfully anarchic The Dirty Dozen two years later). As the German military genius Hessler, Robert Shaw is particularly brilliant, able to convey his frustration with the Nazi high command, as well as his own innate nobility, without ever once allowing the audience to forget that he's a ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to reach his assigned objective. But some elements of the script could have used fresh oil and tighter screws — the introductory scene when Kohler shows Hessler models of advanced German technology is such transparent expository screenwriting it feels more like 007 territory (if not Austin Powers and those "factories… that make models of factories.") The Nazi "Tiger" tanks are nothing of the sort, but instead Vietnam-era mobile armor (we are told, again thanks to some clever exposition, that these are "new" Tiger tanks). And, perhaps most unforgivable of all, the lead character is the least interesting person on screen — were it not Henry Fonda offering us warm cup of gosh-darn midwestern common-sense in every one of his scenes, Kiley would be entirely forgettable, particularly compared to his nemesis Hessler. After all, the German tank commander is a Nazi killer who has no time to extend sympathy to friends nor enemies, and he's prepared to crush everything in his path to defend the Fatherland. Evil, yes. But not boring.

Warner's DVD release of Battle of the Bulge features an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from source materials that appear nearly pristine, with rich color saturation, while audio comes in a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Supplements include two vintage featurettes, "The Filming of The Battle of the Bulge," which includes narration by Henry Fonda (9 min.), and "History Re-Created," a British program featuring short interviews with producer Milton Sperling and star Robert Shaw, who declares his Nazi commander could be seen as the hero of the film (8 min.). Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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