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Film / Battle of the Bulge

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Von Diepel: General Kohler says we are behind schedule. He wants to know what's holding us up.
Col. Martin Hessler: Tell the general the Americans are learning how to retreat.

Battle of the Bulge is a 1965 epic World War II film about the famous battle of the same name, directed by Ken Annakin.

Henry Fonda plays Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley, a maverick American intelligence officer whose warnings of an impending large-scale German attack are ignored by Army Brass. Robert Shaw plays Col. Martin Hessler, the ruthless commanding officer of a German panzer unit at the front of the attack. Also appearing are Hans Christian Blech as Hessler's orderly Conrad; Charles Bronson as Maj. Wolensky, the commander of a U.S. infantry unit; Telly Savalas as Sgt. Guffy, who leads an Allied tank group; Robert Ryan as Gen. Grey, Kiley's CO who does not heed his warnings about the attack; and Dana Andrews as Col. Pritchard, Grey's assistant.

The feature was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 and exhibited in 70 mm Cinerama. Unlike most World War II epics, it contains virtually no portrayals of actual senior Allied leaders, civilian or military. This is presumably because of controversies surrounding the battle, both during the war and after. Though Allied forces ultimately won the battle, the initial German counteroffensive caught them by surprise and caused high casualties. The film itself is completely made up, and doesn't really match any of the actual Battle of the Bulge moments in December 1944 though January 1945, with the sole exception of the Malmedy Massacre. None of which prevented the film from being frequently aired on American television, especially in The '70s.

Upon its release, the film was widely criticized by actual WW2 veterans for its many inaccuracies, most notably the former Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe: Dwight Eisenhower, who held a press conference to denounce the movie.

See also Battleground, a 1949 film about the Bulge that at least had snow, as well as possibly the most realistic depiction of the battle, the "Bastogne" episode of HBO's Band of Brothers.

Associated Tropes:

  • Aborted Arc: Hessler is told that because of shortages of resources he has 50 hours to reach the River Meuse, and the German command bunker has a special 50 hour clock. When the attack starts we see the clock start ticking, but after that we hear very little about the deadline and never see the clock again. Hessler is often told that he needs to keep moving, but that's a bit different from an inexorably ticking clock.
  • Anachronism Stew: Many examples, which include:
    • The stand-in vehicles for German Tiger Tanks are all American M47 Patton tanks, which were not produced until 1949.
    • The uniforms are all wrong.
    • Lt. Colonel Kiley's scout plane is a Cessna L-19 Bird Dog, which was not produced until 1949.
    • Jeeps in the film are models that were not yet developed in WWII.
    • The bazookas used in the films are 1950s Spanish rocket launchers (the film was shot in Spain).
    • American engineers use C-4, which wasn't invented until 11 years after the war's end.
    • Soldiers are shown reading Playboy magazine, which was not published until 1953.
  • Achilles' Heel: Kiley discovers that the Germans are so low on gas that they are foraging for it.
  • Artistic License – Geography: Too many to count. Possibly the most egregious is the use of Spanish plains for a Belgian forest in the winter. Aside from the lack of trees, this also causes a major Artistic License Weather problem, in that the movie is clear and sunny throughout, while the real Ardennes battle was notorious for the snow and bitter cold, with fog that grounded Allied aircrafts.
  • Artistic License – History
    • The film's Tiger II tanks, the biggest elephant in the room, so to speak.
      • Tanks, but No Tanks aside (pretty much nothing was used to make the M47s Patton look more like the role they're supposed to play in the picture), the German tanks are depicted as all being the famous Tiger II "Königstiger". Tiger IIs were indeed famously part of the battle, but in no way did they make the bulk of German armor - they were too wide for the narrow roads and too heavy for the bridges, as Real Life Standartenführer Joachim Peiper (whose Kampfgruppe had about 40 of them) found out the hard way. Panzer IVs, Panthers and Jagdpanthers were still used in large numbers, and they can't be seen anywhere in the film.
      • The Tiger II is also presented as a brand new secret weapon being used in combat for the first time. It had already made its combat debut in the Normandy campaign on 11 July with the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion, and in the Eastern Front on 12 August with the 501st Heavy Panzer Battalion, and was crucial in Otto Skorzeny's attack on Budapest in October. The heavy panzer units involved in the Ardennes offensive had been reequipped with them months earlier, not immediately before the offensive. It was also not kept secret on introduction, being used in propaganda in spring of 1944 (the United States also knew about its development and began developing its own heavy tanks — the T29, T30, T32 and T34 — to counter it by March 1944). The idea that these "new" Tiger II tanks being nigh-invincible against American tanks (to the point that Allied tanks in the movie serve little purpose other than to be destroyed by them) is a fiction as well—if barely. True, the Sherman and Chaffee tanks that served as the bulk of the U.S. tank forces in the region had real trouble getting through a Tiger II's front armor on a good day, but they were by no means impenetrable, especially from the sides and back. And, thanks to Germany's struggling wartime industries, the build quality of said Tigers could vary wildly, meaning they were just as vulnerable to being rendered useless by mechanical failure as they were by enemy fire—the scene in which the Tiger tank commander has the destroyed American tank pushed off the bridge had a 50/50 chance of wrecking the Tiger's transmission, leaving both vehicles broken down and blocking the only way across the river.
    • The German operation to send infiltrators behind American lines was also a lot more amateurish than portrayed. Few of the commandos spoke fluent English (let alone understood enough GI idioms to pass as one) and there was not enough time to ensure they were properly trained or equipped. They also had German armored vehicles disguised as American AFVs (with green paint and a white star) such as a Panther disguised as a M10 Tank Destroyer, which are nowhere to be seen.
  • The Big Board: The German command post includes a giant wall map on which Gen. Kohler and others track German and American positions with flags.
  • Blood Knight: Hessler. He is overjoyed that the war will continue and that he and other Germans will still be able to fight.
    "The best thing possible is happening - the war will go on."
  • Cassandra Truth
    • No one believes it when Kiley says the Germans are preparing for a major offensive.
    • Duquesne warning Lt. Weaver that the sign that says to go to Ambleve is really pointing to Malmedy.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The gasoline barrels. Kiley sees some fall off a German truck and float in the river. This causes him to later realize that the Germans are short on gasoline.
  • Child Soldiers: Most of Hessler's tank platoon are barely old enough to shave, let alone drive tanks.
  • Colonel Badass: Hessler is a tough, steely German colonel. Also counts as Colonel Kilgore.
  • Colonel Kilgore: Hessler rejoices when he thinks that the German attack is a success, because, according to him, it means that war will never end. This leads to a major disagreement with Conrad, who hopes that war will end as soon as possible.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The Germans' initial assault against the Americans, until the Americans are able to devise a way to prevent the Germans from getting their hands on more gasoline.
  • Cut Phone Lines: German infiltrators cut American phone lines prior to the start of the attack, leaving Wolenski's unit unable to raise the alarm.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Hessler has his moments. General Kohler shows Hessler scaled-down mock-ups of the new "Wunderwaffe" ("wonder weapons") that are going to turn the war around, saying, "Our Germany is far from finished." Hessler is unimpressed.
    Col. Hessler: It's a very beautiful model, General. It proves that the Germans are still the world's best toy makers.
  • Defiant to the End: The American troops in Bastogne are surrounded, and the Germans urge them to surrender. The American commander's reply? "NUTS!"
  • Dressing as the Enemy: The German commandos' tactic.
  • Easy Logistics
    • The aversion is critical to the Allies' victory. Logistics are so tight on the German side that their battle plan is dependent on being able to salvage fuel from defeated enemy units. Between a large-scale, maneuver intensive open country battle that burns up most of their fuel reserves and Weaver successfully preventing Hessler from seizing the nearest supply depot, the German tank units run out of gas and have to abandon their vehicles.
    • Used as an example of what the Germans are up against. Col. Hessler shows General Kohler something captured from an American position: a birthday cake, the wrapping paper showing it comes from Boston. General Kohler doesn't immediately appreciate the significance, so Col. Hessler points out that while Germany is struggling to merely feed and fuel its army practically within its own borders, the United States has the time and resources to worry about sending cake to individual soldiers halfway across the globe.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Hessler is a bloodthirsty warrior who is willing to toss his troops at the Allies just to buy Nazi Germany a few extra months of existence but he refuses to cheat on his wife when the commanding general sends him a NS-Frauenschaft comfort woman on the night before the attack.
  • Foreshadowing
    • During a scene in the American headquarters before the German attack, an American soldier says "I got a Christmas cake from home today. Think I'll still be here to eat it?" During the attack, Colonel Hessler shows off a Christmas cake captured from an American soldier.
    • An American observation plane runs Colonel Hessler off the road and Hessler's driver runs away, leaving the engine running. Hessler reminds the driver that he has ordered him never to leave the engine running because "Petrol is blood". During the German attack, the Germans run low on gas and eventually run out when they can't obtain the Americans' gas supplies.
  • General Failure: Colonel Pritchett.
  • Heartbroken Badass: Once he learns what happened to Louise, the now former curmudgeon Sgt. Guffy becomes one.
  • The Heavy: Colonel Hessler is technically subordinate to General Kohler, but he is the most visible and active threat in the film.
  • He's Okay: Sergeant Guffy's tank has been seriously damaged, but he still wants to fight the Germans to avenge his girlfriend's death.
    Lt. Weaver: You got a wounded man. You think you ought to get him to the medics?
    Sergeant Guffy: Ah, he's not too bad. He can still fight.
  • High-Class Call Girl: General Kohler sends a "courtesan first class" to Col. Hessler's room. Hessler, being a no-nonsense hardass, sends the call girl on her way. In point of fact, the point when he sends her packing is the moment she mentions his wife confirming his suspicion she knew full well that he was married and is implying that he has a reputation for cheating on his wife, which he very much doesn't and won't do.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: Hessler was obviously based off Waffen-SS lieutenant colonel Joachim Peiper, who bore responsibility not just for the massacre of American prisoners at Malmedy, but also for hundreds of civilians in Italy and the Soviet Union. While the units he commanded had no problem torching villages and butchering civilians, his military record was middling at best, relying on costly frontal assaults to achieve his victories. He was also a committed Nazi, expressing disdain for Poles and Jews, and remained unrepentant after the war until his death. Modern neo-nazis and admirers of World War II German armies who aren't too concerned with historical truth, however, lionize him as a romantic and dashing war hero - a no-nonsense, hyper-competent commander with a code of honor, A Father to His Men, and fairly apolitical to boot. Hessler in the movie, while still a villain, leans heavily into the latter interpretation.
  • Hollywood History: No historical characters (they're all fictional), Tanks, but No Tanks, and so on.
  • Intermission: Some home video releases have not only an Intermission, but also an Overture and Exit Music. They all have music playing over a static illustration.
  • It's Raining Men: The impostors parachute in.
  • Kick the Dog: When the infiltrator unit first appears, their commander is asked to give an American's opinion on Hitler. Being loyal soldiers, he's clearly unwilling, knowing what'll happen if he does, but also unwilling to disobey a direct order. And when he does, Hessler makes an aside to have him killed for treason after everything's over.
  • Leave Him to Me!: During the tank battle, Guffy sees a German tank with a pennant on it, the one belonging to the German tank commander, Colonel Hessler. Angry over the loss of his girlfriend due to the German attack, Guffy tells another American tank commander "This one belongs to me. He's mine." He fires at the German tank but the shell bounces off. Hessler returns fire and blows the turret off of Guffy's tank.
  • Military Maverick: Major Wolenski (Charles Bronson).
  • Noble Demon: Hessler is an officer who fights for Nazi Germany and who hopes that WWII will never end, but he has a strong code of honour: he refuses to have sex with a prostitute, he does not execute a teenager who tried to assassinate him (but he gives orders to execute his father), he does not execute his prisoners of war (even the one who provokes him) and even gives an earful to a general when he hears that American prisoners of war were executed by the SS. (Not from any "honorable" motive, mind; his goal is to reduce the Americans' will to fight. He knows slaughtering prisoners will only stiffen their resolve, and make them thirst for vengeance, increasing their will to fight. The massacre of prisoners undermines his whole strategy.)
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Hessler is based on and was originally going to be Joachim Peiper, before being changed to avoid getting sued. Peiper was acquitted on a technicality for the Malmedy Massacre and numerous other war crimes he and his SS stormtroopers committed against the Americans, French, and other Allies, and remained unrepentant afterwards. Unknown heavily-armed assailants attacked Peiper’s house in France in 1976, fatally shot Peiper and burned the house down on top of him to make sure. French authorities didn’t try too hard to find the attackers, as pretty much everybody wanted him dead.
  • Oh, Crap!
    • Hessler, when he sees oil barrels rolling towards his burning tank.
    • The American tank commander at the Our River, when he sees an entire brigade of enemy tanks approaching them.
  • Pendulum War: Either the Germans are completely succeeding or they aren't. In a battle that included over 800,000 soldiers, the battle was completely one-sided. Throughout most of the film, the Germans are succeeding in every single thing they attempt. Weather, machinery, and even the attitudes of the American leaders are on the side of the Germans almost to the point of being comical. At one point, a general even chastises a lieutenant colonel for suggesting that the Germans may intend to attack. When they do attack, the Americans are surprised. The only thing that turned the tide on the Germans was that they ran out of fuel. At that point, they completely gave up, despite still having weapons and ammunition and the ability to fight.
  • Plunger Detonator: A group of German paratroopers disguised as US MPs pretend to rig a bridge behind American lines for demolition while actually holding for their own army. Part of their act includes two men ostentatiously hooking up a detonator while other men pretend to rig charges. Everyone is fooled until the leader of the squad of U.S. Army engineers actually assigned to blow the bridge arrives and immediately protests such a clear (and stupid) violation of basic safety procedures. He and his men get shot dead for his trouble.
  • Pre-Asskicking One-Liner: Weaver to the German infiltrators at the depot after he recognizes one of them.
    Weaver: Does the road to Ambleve still go to Malmedy?
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: Throughout almost the entire movie, German characters speak in English. However, they sometimes speak in untranslated German.
    • When Colonel Hessler meets his panzer commanders, the commanders sing the Panzerlied song in German.
    • When the fake American (actually German) soldiers parachute into American territory, one of them briefly speaks in German before his commanding officer orders that they speak only in English.
  • Road-Sign Reversal: During the attack, German infiltrators switch the road signs around, making it appear that the road to Malmedy leads to Ambleve. The U.S. troops going to Ambleve follow the sign and are captured by the Germans, leading to the Malmedy Massacre.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Hessler's crew abandon his tank when fuel drums start exploding against it.
  • Sticky Bomb: Infantrymen slap plastic explosive sticky bombs onto attacking German tanks.
  • Tanks, but No Tanks: Probably the most famousnote  cinematic example ever. American M47 Patton tanks were used as stand-ins for German Panzer VI B Königstiger and M24 Chaffee tanks were called "Sherman M4" (while only two Chaffees saw battle in December 1944), let alone the wrong painting on the "Tigers". To be fair, not only were the M47s and M24s the equipment available from the Spanish Army, along with reservists playing both Germans and Americans (as extras), there were precious few running Tiger II tanks even in 1965. The M4 Shermans were another story, as the Spanish Army did have over 300 of them in storage in the mid-1960s, but perhaps the cost of getting enough running, especially for the final battle scenes, was more than what the producer was willing to spend. The comparative capabilities of an M47 versus a M24 was not unlike what a confrontation between a Sherman and a Tiger II would have been, especially for armor and firepower. However, the M47 Patton had a far better power/weight ratio than the King Tiger, although, with that Continental V12 engine (same as in Jay Leno's "Tank Car"), it guzzled even MORE fuel per mile.
  • That's an Order!
    • Before the German attack starts, General Grey orders that Christmas dinner be delivered to every soldier in his command and adds a "That's an order" command to make it clear that he means it.
    • Lieutenant Weaver orders Sgt. Duquesne to drive the way a signpost indicates. When Duquesne (who knows the signpost is wrong) tries to argue with him, Weaver adds "That's an order!"
    • Colonel Hessler tries to argue with General Kohler, insisting that he should be allowed to capture Ambleve. Kohler orders him to bypass Ambleve and continue with his mission, emphasizing it by saying "That's an order!"
    • During the climactic tank battle, Sergeant Guffy's tank loses its main gun. His commander tells him to get back to the assembly area. Guffy refuses, insisting that he can ram the German tanks. His commander again tells him to retreat, this time adding "That's an order!"
  • Took a Level in Badass: Lieutenant Weaver
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: And the closing credits admit it.
    To encompass the whole of the heroic contributions of all the participants, places, names and characters, have been generalized and action has been synthesized in order to convey the spirit and the essence of the battle.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Major Wolenski's fate is unknown after his conversation with Hessler.
  • You Monster!: Conrad accuses Hessler of this towards the end of the film.
    Conrad: [upon being called a traitor by Hessler] And you are a murderer. You would murder my sons, you would murder my country, and you would murder the whole world, to stay in that uniform!