The Battle of the Bulge (USA, 1965)

battle-of-the-bulge-movie-poster-1966-1020170499Directed by: Ken Annakin. An ongoing interest in American war films, and WWII films from pre-modern times in general, combined with an ongoing interest in history on film in general, drew me to this one, even though I didn’t know anything about it, and I was kind of ambivalent about it. The only thing I know about the actual Battle of the Bulge is what I saw watching that one episode of Band of Brothers, but after reading about the pushback that this film got from vets and historians for being inaccurate, and comparing the two, it sure looks like this movie really Hollywood-ized the whole thing to a pretty large extent. This movie looks more like the Dirty Dozen or Kelly’s Heroes or something than it does an actual depiction of World War II, and not just because of the appearance of Telly Savalas either. The only other thing I have to compare it to is The Longest Day, usually called the “best” war film, and it’s definitely more like a “real” war, in the sense that its narrative sensibilities were encoded into it directly from the historical events—the Normandy attack was a single day, a huge, dramatic force, with a beginning, middle and end, and a happy end for the Allies, which proved symbolic of the victory to come. There’s a poetry built into the event itself, and thus, relatively little distortion was required in order to meet the demands of contemporary Hollywood (other than the daring decision to have a diverse cast of small actors and small protagonists, shifting from scenario to scenario, with a full cast of directors with different voices). Alas, this battle was several weeks (months?) long, with several skirmishes, and even though the Allies won that battle too, lending itself neatly to American mythology, the nuts and bolts of the Bulge were, I suspect, closer to the sensibilities of the Band of Brothers depiction: soldiers sitting in trenches for long periods, cold, hungry, improperly clothed, being shelled by Germans, waiting for reinforcements. This film, and I’m noticing a trend in 1960’s depictions of the war, turns that war into a series of capers, adventures, stunts, a bunch of tricks and fast ones pulled by the Germans, and won by wily, smart, inventive sleuth types, like Henry Fonda in this movie, acting on his hunches, trying to persuade his superiors (represented here by Robert Ryan, in a sympathetic light, because he is sympathetic to the irrational gut hunches of the unconventional junior officer). With the hindsight of a few decades, this movie looks like it gives you more insight into what it was like to be on the set of Hogan’s Heroes than on an actual battlefield. There are a few threads of interest that I don’t have the will or energy to weave together right now, but it’s interesting to observe this departure from reality, this wilful ideologizing of a history that a significant amount of the moviegoing public would be in a position to call bullshit on. The fact that, in this case, the veterans and historians did call bullshit maybe neutralizes my point, but this film seems to stand as an example of a growing tendency in American culture to treat this formative and traumatic and serious historical event as a playful occasion for what I can only call “capers”—daring schemes. The television series McHale’s Navy, and Hogan’s Heroes, and big action movies like The Heroes of Telemark and The Guns of Navarone (my experience here is limited) seem to confirm my theory, but I’ll have to work it out. I’m sure there were tons of veterans who hated this twisting of history for Hollywood conventions and for entertainment value, but they obviously didn’t find it too insulting, or if they did, it was easily absorbed in a culture that displayed overtly high levels of veneration for establishment politics and sensibilities (especially something as hallowed and bulletproof as veneration for WWII veterans and the American military in general). It stands as an interesting piece of the puzzle, of mythology in action. As a movie, it’s fine, not great. Fonda, Ryan and Savalas all do a fine job, but it’s the subplot with Robert Shaw and his assistant, the kindly old non-Nazi German, who steal the show. It’s weird how Shaw almost gives humanity to the evil Nazi colonel, but at the last minute almost, we see that he’s actually evil after all (surprise, surprise) because he’s more extremist and militaristic and nationalistic than his kindly assistant, who deserts in the end (and lives happily ever after? there’s still like 8 months of war ahead).

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One response to “The Battle of the Bulge (USA, 1965)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2015 | Offhand Reviews·

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