The 1965 war movie, Battle of the Bulge, starring Henry Fonda, has a lot more going for it than its naysayers have given it credit for. And it still wears well as a movie today.
When I watched it with Mike the other evening, I was prepared to be bored. I wasn’t. What I carried away from it was a desire to know more about this battle, of which, I must confess, all I knew was that it was a battle in World War II. Kind of like all I remember of reading War and Peace years ago was that it had something to do with Russia.
At the end of the movie, the producers gave the qualification that it was a composite of events of the battle and not meant to be of quintessential historical accuracy. Which I understood. Especially after I did some research on the matter. No movie, however ambitious, could have replicated that “battle”, which was not, in essence, one battle, but an entire campaign counteroffensive carried out by the Germans to cut off the Allied armies from each other. This was a movie that did a more than credible job of showing us “flashes” of the real events. It was not a documentary.
The front was stretched thin over an 80-mile line and continued from December 16,1944, to the end of January 1945. The Battle of the Bulge was so named because that long front bulged westward, pushing back the Allied line. Therefore, the movie script followed one American division as representative of all the Allied defensive forces, and one German Panzer division as representative of the German offensive.
One criticism of the film is that it was shot in Spain, with much open ground for maneuvering, while the Ardennes, the area in which the battle was actually fought, covers Luxembourg and Belgium, and spills over into Germany and France, a total of 2,768,000 acres. It is mountainous and heavily forested, and, therefore, not a good canvas for tanks of any size or form. And that’s one reason the Germans chose this uninviting terrain. Not only would the Allies not suspect any self-respecting tank commander to choose that ground, they would think he was out of his mind. Another reason was that the Ardennes was not considered a likely area for a German assault, but rather a “safe” place to send those veterans who were worn down by the unexpectedly rapid advance of the Allied offensive, and for untried recruits. It was an area that the U.S. Army considered could be held by as few troops as possible.
The movie did an excellent job of showing how the Allies were taken by complete surprise. Even though intelligence sources smelled something “in the wind”, and warned that the Germans, like a rattler at bay, were coiled to strike, they didn’t know where or when. The Ardennes was the last place the brass suspected, even though there were at least two voices warning that it was the perfect place.
Henry Fonda was the voice of those suspicions, and, true to historical fact, was also not taken seriously. The film faithfully held to the weather conditions that kept Allied planes grounded. It showed raw recruits fighting alongside tired veterans. And it showed those soldiers making the Germans pay for every bloody inch of ground, slowing down the enemy in every way possible until the big guns could get there.
The film was a series of cameos of different aspects of the battle, cameos that showed us the big picture by carefully selected true details. It showed the Panzer commander’s tank and trailer hitting a land mine, a commander who lived to make his soldiers see the error of such negligence. He ordered the men to walk in front to make sure the way was clear, and that no tanks got in harm’s way. It showed the massacre of Allied prisoners of war, gunned down in a field as they waited for their captors to move them on. Few lived to tell about it. (The Malmedy Massacre).
The film showed the Germans inserting English-speaking soldiers dressed in American uniforms to infiltrate and cause time-and-man-consuming mischief behind Allied lines (Operation Greif). It showed the importance of the bridges and crossroads. It introduced the German Tiger tank, big and impressive against the smaller Allied Sherman tank. (And a whole controversy still rages over the Tiger vs. Sherman and the qualities of each). It showed the Germans having to eek out their precious supply of fuel for the tanks, and how the Allies tried desperately to deny them access to fuel depots.
After reading about the battle, I came away with a great respect for the scriptwriters who took a Herculian task and made it work as a movie, while at the same time grasping the essence and the heart of the sacrifices of American soldiers. There were more U.S. casualties during this German push than in any other battle of the entire war. And not only did the story work well as a microcosm of this huge battle, it was the forerunner of other such enduring films as The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes — with Charles Bronson and Telly Savalas like a continual thread throughout the whole war movie era. They still wear well and, while these movies are recreation, they also remind us that freedom isn’t free. It has always cost in bloody sacrifice such as those of us distanced from these events can never fully appreciate.
Notes of interest
—— Just prior to the Battle of the Bulge, a unit of 11 black prisoners of war were tortured and killed – http://www.thecincinnatiherald.com/news/2010-128/Section_B/Battle_of_Bulge_massacre_coverup_THEY_WERE_JUSt_11.html
—– The Battle of the Bulge was the event in which General George Patton moved tanks and men from Northeastern France within 48 hours. The notes following are from Wikipedia on that amazing run, beginning with General Eisenhower’s speech to his generals.
From Wikipedia – General Eisenhower speaking to his generals:
“The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this table.” Patton, realizing what Eisenhower implied, responded, “Hell, let’s have the guts to let the bastards go all the way to Paris. Then, we’ll really cut ’em off and chew ’em up.”
Eisenhower, after saying he was not THAT optimistic, asked Patton how long it would take to turn his Third Army (located in northeastern France) north to counterattack. Patton replied that he could attack with two divisions within 48 hours, to the disbelief of the other generals present. However, before he had gone to the meeting Patton had ordered his staff to prepare three contingency plans for a northward turn in at least corps strength. By the time Eisenhower asked him how long it would take, the movement was already underway.