In the 1960s it seemed to be all the fashion for a host of big name actors to appear in World War II movies. From THE LONGEST DAY to THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE GREAT ESCAPE and BATTLE OF BRITAIN every big name actor made his appearance in big epic war pictures commemorating a war that, at that time, was still fresh in the memories of many.
From the extremely realistic (as much as Hollywood will allow) such as THE LONGEST DAY, BATTLE OF BRITAIN and (to a lesser extent) THE GREAT ESCAPE to the more Hollywood-ized versions of the war represented by THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and THE DIRTY DOZEN the quality of the movies was unquestionably epic in nature with varying degrees of historical accuracy.
Somewhere in-between the examples above falls BATTLE OF THE BULGE (1965) which purports to illustrate the events of the winter of 1944 in which the Nazi powers sought to separate the American frontlines from their supplies and reinforcements. The movie works well as far as mindless action entertainment and we have some truly great performances by Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Telly Savalas and Charles Bronsan, but it seems as though the script writers threw the history books in the trash and decided to write the battle as they would have liked it to have played out.
The result is some truly shocking historical inaccuracies. Firstly, the movie suggests that the Germans were running low on fuel and were desperate to capture Allied fuel depots. In fact the Nazi's had enough fuel for the offensive but suffered due to supply lines that were constantly being bombed by Alied aircraft.
The Malmedy Massacre is portrayed here as an organized slaughter of American GI's. In fact, this was not the case. The massacre certainly happened, but it was more of a spontaneous affair.
Another historical inaccuracy is in the portrayal of the German armor. The movie gives the impression that the assault was carried out exclusively with King Tiger tanks when in fact many more Panzer tanks were utilized in the offensive. Germany it appears did not have an overabundance of King Tigers.
Compounding the movies historical difficulties is the creation by the movie makers of characters to lead the German and American divisions. Most blatently obvious is the character of Col. Hessler (played by Robert Shaw). In fact the officer in charge was a Col. Joachim Peiper. The movie makers also created a fictional character - Lt. Col. Kiley - for Henry Fonda and a Gen. Grey for Robert Ryan and totally ignores the role of Gen. Patton in the struggle.
Where the movie gets it right is in the Battle of Bastogne, the use of English-speaking German special forces behind Alied lines to mess up logistics and the fact that the American forces were hopelessly overextended.
However, if you are not looking for a history lesson and instead would just like a comic-strip style action movie, then you can do a lot worse. Growing up and seeing this movie on television I found it exciting and exhirating. Taking top honors in the acting department is Robert Shaw as the cold and grittily determined Hessler. The scenes between him and his subordinate Cpl. Conrad (played by Hans Christian Blech) show the deep conflict in 1940s-era Germany between the fanatical Nazi's determined to carry on the fight and the regular citizenry who, although patriotic, wished only for an end to the conflict. The scenes are poignant and revealing and represent some of the best scenes in the movie.
Overall this movie is flawed, but its still enjoyable and thought provoking.