Remember the war movie "The Longest Day"? At nearly three hours, "The Battle of the Bulge" could have been retitled "The Longest Movie." And, no, this one's not a diet joke. "The Battle of the Bulge" (1965) attempts to recreate on screen the last major German counterattack of the Second World War, an attack that lasted about a month from the end of 1944 until the Allies stopped it in January of 1945. It was Hitler's last gasp, and it led to the Allies' effectively ending the War in Europe. The battle may have lasted only a month, but the film seems to go on forever.
"The Battle of the Bulge" was a noble subject for a war movie, to be sure, but it comes off here about as enthralling as a History Channel documentary rather than as a fleshed-out motion picture. Still, who am I to question? We have what we have, and certainly the film's visuals are as superbly well defined as almost anything on a high-definition disc.
Ken Annakin directed, and we really don't know him today for his action flicks; but his resume does contain this one and the aforementioned "The Longest Day." His other famous films include "Third Man on the Mountain," "Swiss Family Robinson," and "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines." His last film was the unfortunate "New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking." In "Battle of the Bulge" he keeps the strategies of the two sides simple and keeps the audience well informed of what's going on. In a film of this length, things could have gotten confusing for the viewer, but Annakin handles the logistics in a sensible and straightforward manner. No flashbacks and weird crosscutting for the sake of spicy cinematic effect.
In keeping with epic movies of the day, "Battle" begins with an overture, ends with exit music, and even has some intermission music in between, all of it composed and conducted by Benjamin Frankel and played by the New Philharmonia Orchestra. It's a class act all the way.
Moreover, the film spares no expense on sets, props, locations, armies, real tanks, miniature tanks, and an all-star cast. Again, it's a class act. If only somebody had determined whether the script could keep one's attention for 169 minutes.
Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw star as the representatives of the two sides of the war, Fonda the American, Shaw the German. Fonda plays the fictional Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley, a reconnaissance expert who was a former police inspector before the War. He foresees the German attack through some simple deductive reasoning based on evidence he's collected, but nobody will believe him. Shaw plays the fictional Col. Martin Hessler, a brilliant, hard-nosed German Panzer officer whom the Nazi High Command pick to spearhead the counteroffensive.
It is appropriate for most war movies to attempt to put a human face on conflict by concentrating on individuals, but in this case the screenplay doesn't delineate the character of either Kiley or Hessler very well. We go back and forth from one side to the other, but we never learn much about these men beyond what I just revealed. Mostly, they are stereotypes, Kiley the likable good guy, Hessler the unsmiling villain. We get the impression that Kiley is just anxious to get home, while Hessler just wants to continue the war, all the time realizing the Germans cannot win it.
In addition, there are Robert Ryan as General Grey, the head of American military operations; Dana Andrews as Col. Pritchard, Grey's Aide and a primary doubter of Kiley's theories; George Montgomery as Sgt. Duquesne, a seasoned soldier; James MacArthur as Lt. Weaver, an unseasoned officer; and Ty Hardin as Lt. Schumacher, a Nazi infiltrator. Most important, though, are Charles Bronson as Maj. Wolenski, a heroic tough guy (what did you expect?), and Telly Savalas as Sgt. Guffy, an entrepreneur or war profiteer. It is only these last named characters who display any distinct personality, and, therefore, it is they who remain in memory longest. The other characters seem like chess pieces being moved around a board.
A narrator begins by telling us the story is about "a few battle-weary American divisions. To them the war seemed already won." The German hope was to divide the Allied troops and throw them into disarray long enough for Germany to get its new secret weapons readied, things like jet airplanes and new, superior tanks. According to the film, it was the few American divisions we see that saved the War from going on any longer than it might have.
The most harrowing sequences in the show occur at the beginning and the end: a car chasing down a dirt road and then the final tank battle. The film executes both of these segments well, and they keep our attention. It's the two-and-a-half hours in between that are the problem.
Warner Bros. originally filmed the movie in 70 mm Ultra-Panavision for showing in Cinerama, one of the widest formats available for theaters, so expect an ultra-wide screen ratio. More important, WB restored the picture from the best elements they had at their disposal, making the video look better than most new movies.
The movie's Technicolor holds up beautifully, with hues that are vivid, solid, realistic, and deep, and black levels that are extraordinarily strong. Definition is superior, even for an HD-DVD, with some shots looking absolutely spectacular, with a bare minimum of visible print grain. Like the movie "Grand Prix," from about the same time, "The Battle of the Bulge" represents some of the best picture quality the medium has to offer.
WB revamped the soundtrack, too, presenting its original multichannel in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. Given its age and the fact that many soundtracks of the era tend to come off as edgy and metallic, this one is quite smooth and natural sounding by comparison, especially the music. The sonics have a wide dynamic range, good clarity, strong impact, and a reasonably well-controlled bass. There is a wide front-channel stereo spread, although a somewhat restricted rear-channel response. The surrounds limit themselves mainly to musical enhancement, and a few explosions and gunshots. At times, too, the sound seems slightly muted, while at other times it seems a touch nasal, perhaps the result of noise reduction, I don't know. In any case, most of it comes off pretty well.
The primary bonus item is an audio commentary by the film's director, Ken Annakin, and one of its actors, James MacArthur. They may not be the most stimulating speakers in these kinds of things, but they are enormously informative. Given the fact that the film was made over four decades ago, it's nice to hear from people still around who worked on it. In addition, there are two vintage, black-and-white featurettes, "The Filming of Battle of the Bulge," nine minutes, and "History Recreated," eight minutes, both in standard definition.
The extras conclude with forty-seven scene selections, but no chapter insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. For the HD-DVD, there are also English captions for the hearing impaired, a zoom-and-pan feature, bookmarks, an indicator of elapsed time, and an Elite Red HD case.
I couldn't help thinking that "The Battle of the Bulge" has a lot in common with "The Great Escape"; they're both superb visually. But in terms of plot and character, the similarity ends. "The Great Escape" concentrated on people; "The Battle of the Bulge" concentrates on tactics. One comes away loving "Escape" for its fleshed-out, three-dimensional characterizations; one comes away from "Bulge" merely admiring its craftsmanship.