Monday, December 16, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Battle of the Bulge" (1965)

All movies are on some level flimflam, even the ones that purport to be based on "true events." This is doubly so for war pictures, which must take the chaotic and bloody gruel of combat and some turn it into a digestible cinematic meal. If an obvious narrative doesn't present itself in the historical record, Hollywood will bend over backward to impose one -- never mind how much the made-up characters and plot diverge from reality.

You know you've got a problem with historical accuracy, though, when Dwight D. Eisenhower emerges from his post-presidency blanket of privacy to hold a press conference denouncing your movie. Such was the fate of 1965's "Battle of the Bulge."

This borderline awful war drama is like a Tinseltown Cliff's Notes version of one of World War II's most decisive battles. The real Battle of the Bulge lasted nearly a month, stretched over a huge chunk of Western Europe and involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers and pieces of equipment. The movie version, however, focuses on the plight of a handful of American soldiers at various levels of command, ranging from sergeant up to general.

Not only is the role of the British downplayed in the Hollywood version, I'm not sure if an English soldier even shows up once during the movie's 170 minutes. That's ironic, considering director Ken Annakin is an Englander who directed the British scenes in the far superior "The Longest Day."

Astonishingly, despite being one of the most famous winter military deployments since Valley Forge, there's barely a hint of snow in the film, which looks like it was shot during the full bloom of summer.

My biggest complaint is that all the American soldiers are not individuals but character "types" -- usually ones that synch up nicely with the star persona of the actor playing him. So Henry Fonda is Kiley, a careful and reasonable man whose warnings about a German offensive go unheeded. And Charles Bronson is Wolenski, a tough no-nonsense major who leads a group of hardcase dogfaces.

James MacArthur plays Weaver, an untested young lieutenant who quickly gets wised up by the German Panzer incursion and the tutelage of his wiser sergeant. Robert Ryan is the determined, methodical good general and Telly Savalas is Guffy, a tank sergeant who runs a black market racket on the side and operates as the movie's Bronx-accented comic relief.

None of these actors makes much of an impression, with the exception of Fonda, who could play a telephone switch operator and make it snap.

The real star of the show is Robert Shaw as Hessler, the ambitious, take-no-prisoners German tank commander given a prime spot in the counteroffensive of the Third Reich. Hessler is loosely based on the real-life Panzer commander known for his aggressive tactics that resulted in high casualties among his own forces, while also crushing the enemy.

Outfitted with the platinum blond hairdo he wore in "From Russia with Love" and a few other films, Shaw is the model of the icy Aryan Nazi, who would rather the war go in forever in stalemate than lose his status as a military hero. Hans Christian Blech plays Conrad, his right-hand man and conscious, who whispers in his ear not to be so cruel. In the end, they break ways and Conrad is assigned to tote fuel drums. The final shot of the film is Conrad tossing away his rifle and ammunition belt as the defeated Germans march away home.

Hessler is also implied to order the execution of captured American POWs at Malmedy, an actual war crime that is depicted briefly in the film without a lot of emotional power. Mostly it's used as the turning point of the Weaver character when he stops being callow and learns to accept the consequences of command decisions.

Weaver survives the massacre to, in the movie's depiction, nearly single-handedly stop the German tank advance by rolling some cans of fuel at Hessler's column, blowing them up. Neat trick, that.

Shaw is a real treat as a hiss-able screen villain, but in terms of nuance "Battle of the Bulge" is severely lacking. It's a dumbed-down cut-up of a movie about a great, tragic event. I don't think Ike was the only one who thought it was a serious disservice to the men who fought and died.

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