Ken Annakin's 1965 war epic "The Battle of the Bulge" is a film not known for its historical accuracies. Loosely inspired by the infamous battle that was responsible for nearly 100,000 American casualties and was the last major push by the German forces during World War II, Annakin's picture features a number of familiar faces. Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Telly Savalas and Charles Bronson are all big stars in their time. Shaw is one of the film's principal characters, as is Henry Fonda's character, but Telly Savalas has a supporting role with Charles Bronson not appearing for more than a couple scenes. The picture is heavily maligned by military buffs for its gross inaccuracies. The military hardware, camouflage schemes, geographical features of Bastogne and Ardennes and the factors in the Allied victory during the Battle of the Bulge are all incorrect throughout the film.
Having been an anti-tank TOW missile gunner in the U.S. Infantry, I have been fairly well versed in tank identification and standard camouflage schemes used by the various armies. It is very important to quickly determine whether an armored tank is a friend or foe. From my training, I can tell you that all tanks featured in this film are of American origin. The German Panzer and Tiger II tanks are actually M47 Patton tanks; which were the tanks used by NATO and American forces after the Korean War. The American Sherman tanks are portrayed by M24 Chaffee light tanks. These particular weapons did see World War II service, but saw very little service during the Battle of the Bulge. They were not main battle tanks and could not stand up against the heavier armored Tiger II and Panzer tanks of the German army.
The tanks and other vehicles themselves are also painted incorrectly. The American jeeps, tanks and deuces are painted in a Spanish Army camouflage scheme. The film was created in Spain and I would tend to believe the Spanish Army volunteered vehicles for the production. U.S. Army insignia appears to be chalked onto the camouflage and not actually painted on. During World War II and in the European theater, the United States Army utilized an olive drab paint scheme. The German vehicles shown in the film were all painted a solid grey. This is also inaccurate, as the Tiger II tanks used by the Germans at Bastogne were typically painted with a tan, brown and green mix for its camouflage. A few German tanks did adorn the olive drab scheme of American tanks as subterfuge, but those tanks that served were indeed not grey.
Moving past my knowledge of tanks and how the film poorly represents the massive armored beasts that fought during the Battle of the Bulge, the film also poorly depicts the entire range of reasons that were the eventual downfall for the Germans. A number of factors were responsible for the German defeat. The previously foggy and overcast weather at Ardennes and Bastogne gave way and the United States Army was able to resume air-to-ground support missions and bomb the lumbering tanks of the German Army from the air. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery of the British Army has also joined the conflict and took command over a portion of the U.S. First Army over to Montgomery's command and the British strategist helped defeat the 5th Panzer Army. The third factor was the sole factor featured in "The Battle of the Bulge" and this is the fact that the German Army was quickly running out of diesel fuel for their main battle tanks.
Robert Shaw portrays the fictitious German Panzer commander, Col. Martin Hessler. Shaw's died blonde hair in the film certainly gives the British actor a German appearance. His demeanor and mannerisms were certainly inspired by the film's military advisor, who was the actual commander of the Panzer division. Henry Fonda is not the most believable Lieutenant Colonel as Daniel Kiley, but he brought a sense of compassion to his performance for his fellow soldiers. Watching Kiley, it was easy to like the character. Telly Savalas was an annoying character and I simply could not find myself rooting for Sergeant Guffy at all. I wanted to see him shot by the Germans to eliminate his character from the film. Charles Bronson is Major Wolenski and does a fine job. It is a shame that Bronson wasn't used more in the film, as he was a fine actor when given the chance.
The film itself is a decent war film. A few of the tank combat sequences are quite entertaining and the world doesn't have enough great tank combat scenes for us military buffs to enjoy. Some of the maneuvers and situations depicted in the film are accurate and Major General Meinrad von Lauchert, who commanded the main Panzer Division during the Battle of the Bulge served as the military advisor to the film. The battle scenes cannot quite compete with what was seen in HBO's "Band of Brothers" or "Saving Private Ryan," but they are very good considering the vintage age of the film. War films had limited technology in 1965. The film follows the conflict close enough to serve as a general education for those watching the picture. I've seen a lot of bad war films in my time, and although "The Battle of the Bulge" is horribly inaccurate in its details and simple in its scope of coverage, it is still a slightly above average effort in the grand scheme of things.
One thing can certainly be said about the Blu-ray release of "Battle of the Bulge" and that is that it looks absolutely amazing in high definition. The 2.76:1 ultra wide image is absolutely stunning in its VC-1/1080p mastered transfer. This is the second older catalog title that Warner Bros. has released that absolutely amazes me, joining "The Searchers" in the upper echelon of catalog releases. I cannot begin to describe how vividly detailed this picture is. This forty two year old film is more impressive than many recent pictures. The textures of the geographical surfaces, each angle and contour of the American tanks used in the film and every crease of each soldiers uniform is so clearly defined that I watched much of the film in awe at how good it looked.
The source materials used for this high definition remastering were also awe-inspiring at how clean they were. There was nary a single blemish to be found throughout the near three hour running length of the film. A few scenes exhibit a minimal amount of film grain, but these are few and far between and easily offset by the highly detailed and colorful imagery. A number of low lit and night scenes are contained and these exhibit excellent shadow detail. The film as a whole features strong black levels. With this strong transfer, "Battle of the Bulge" has a true three dimensional appearance. It may appear that I'm overly gushing about the look of this film, but it deserves every ounce of praise I can give it.
Not nearly as impressive as the video presentation of "Battle of the Bulge," the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is good, but cannot stand up to the same amazing level as the visuals. The film inhabits the front speakers throughout much of the film and even the most intense battle scenes of the film rarely do much with either the surrounds or the .1 LFE subwoofer channel. Sounds do make their way to the rear surrounds, but their presence is not particularly strong. Bass response is decent through the left and right channels, but the soundtrack is unable to shake the room when even the biggest explosions are present. Regardless, "Battle of the Bulge" still is very clean and clear in its audio presentation. Dialogue is very good and the film's musical score powerfully echoes through the front channels. While being technically sound, "Battle of the Bulge" lacks the awe inspiring capabilities of the visual aspects of the Blu-ray release.
Given the fact that "Battle of the Bulge" runs for a lengthy 169 minutes and that the transfer is as detailed as it is, there is little surprise in the fact that not much room was spared for supplemental materials. I would imagine a second platter would be required to contain any value added content with meat on its bones. The new high definition releases do get some new bonus materials to make this the best release yet on home video for Ken Annakin's film. The Audio Commentary features the film's director and actor James MacArthur. It is really special that two of the people involved in making this film are present in this track. Both participants have been around for roughly eight decades and neither man sounds their age in this track. They are energetic, informative and worth listening to. Annakin claims to be overly accurate with this film, but I'll ignore that because the anecdotes about Charles Bronson and others were well worth listening to. This was a great commentary track.
A few supplements have made their way over from previous DVD releases. While not of the same quality as the commentary, these vintage black and white featurettes are nice additions, none-the-less. The Filming of Battle of the Bluge (9:34) has the cheesy and overly loud music and narrative that is typical of these grand old features. With some historic information, this is mostly a making of feature and I just wish it had been longer, as it was quite interesting. The second featurette, History Recreated (8:08) lacked the musical backing, but was another high entertaining vintage piece. This dealt more with the historical information pertaining to the war and provided interviews with producer Milton Sperling and his experiences as a combat photographer. Finally, the film's Theatrical Trailer is present on the disc.
I can't help but to feel an amount of disappointment at the poorly preserved historical facts and inaccuracies that plague the film. The filmmakers claimed to be very accurate and I remember hearing a quote where the producer claimed the tanks were accurate to those used in the battle. The simple fact is that most of the tanks seen in the film weren't built until nearly a decade after the battle. This is still a pretty decent war film that loosely preserves the details of the Battle of the Bulge. There are a few very nice tank battles and some nifty footage as the Americans try to defend Bastogne. The actors in the film are familiar and Charles Bronson and Robert Shaw are notable in their performances. Where this Blu-ray release really shines is the amazing level of detail found in the transfer. This is easily one of the best high definition catalog titles yet and the film competes with many new motion pictures released on the format. Sound and features are nice as well, but the real reason to own this title is for how good it looks.