Movies by necessity need to simplify complex battlefield events into simpler stories that fit into a 2 hour structure. But Battle Of The Bulge, despite a 167 minute running time, falls into an oversimplification trap.
The final decisive World War Two battle in Europe, that in reality lasted for more than a month and involved millions of men, is essentially reduced in the film to a contest of wits between two men, the fictional German tank commander Hessler (Robert Shaw) and the equally fictional American intelligence officer Kiley (Henry Fonda). It's a harsh summary of the movie, but the battle is basically presented as a single tank column advance, over what seems like a matter of days, and once the Germans fail to secure a tank depot, it is all over. This is not a representative history lesson.
What Battle Of The Bulge does well is to stage fairly massive tank battles, with director Ken Annakin making the most of the widescreen Ultra Panavision format. The terrain as portrayed in the film may be all wrong, but there is no denying the grandeur of the scenes of advancing German tanks swatting away feeble opposition, and then meeting American tanks in hulking steel-on-steel duels.
The film, intriguingly a Spanish co-production, also benefits from a good cast. Fonda represents the ignored voice in the wilderness warning of a sneak German attack against the weakly defended Ardennes front, and Robert Shaw is an adequate foe, although his role suffers from a jarring split personality. Hessler abruptly transitions from a reasonable and realistic commander in the first half to a fire-breathing mental case in the second half. Maybe that is what war does to people.
In support is Charles Bronson, who is incredibly listed deep in the credits although his role as Major Walenski, leading the platoon defending the leading edge of the American front line, is more prominent and interesting than most of the stars billed above him. Telly Savalas plays the typical Telly Savalas role, a minor but loud-mouthed tank commander much more interested in his smuggling business than the war, but who gets caught up in the thick of the action all the same. Robert Ryan strides around as the fictional General Grey, representing both the lack of preparedness of the American leadership, and then their rallying to turn the tide of battle.
Battle Of The Bulge may have dodgy value as a history lesson, but as an old-fashioned, action-packed, star-powered World War Two epic, it is enjoyable.