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Battle of the Bulge(1965)
This World War II spectacular tells the story of the tank battles of December, 1944, in which the Nazi Panzer forces staged a massive last-ditch offensive on the Belgian front.
For more about Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of the Bulge Blu-ray release, see Battle of the Bulge Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on April 3, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, Telly Savalas, George Montgomery
Narrator: William Conrad
Director: Ken Annakin
» See full cast & crew
Battle of the Bulge Blu-ray Review
A lean, not so mean, but thrilling War picture lacks the soundtrack it deserves.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, April 3, 2012
War is hard on all of us.
There are two types of wars that play out on Hollywood's silver screens: the tame, rah-rah, go get 'em son, stand-up-and-cheer flicks and the über-realistic, ultra-sobering, war-is-hell pictures. The line of demarcation is pretty clear. During and after Vietnam, mass media and the social and political current shifted the tone away from war being a "necessary evil" to plain old "evil." No longer did the wars in theaters look like stage productions, a little rough and tumble to be sure but nowhere near the realism, even barbarism, of the real deal. The Allied victory in World War II led to an entire market of films that portrayed war heroically, as a difficult operation and not without repercussions and sacrifice but with a certain comfort that it wouldn't hurt in the physical, let alone the mental. Battle of the Bulge falls squarely into that post-war era of militaristic filmmaking where the battles were messy to be sure but the portrayal was tame to say the least, tame on the outside and tame on the inside. The picture tells a glamorized version of war rather than shows the true nature of war, and never does it really sink in deeply, convey the true terror and fear that chews a man up on the inside even if he survives unscathed on the outside. Director Ken Annakin's (Swiss Family Robinson) film is big, the embodiment of event cinema at least in the circle of War pictures. It's a fine example of its era's bread-and-butter style. It's entertaining through and through, but it lacks the figurative and literal punch of the modern War movie experience.
Though the Allied British and American forces were stretched thinly across Europe in December 1944, they were close to victory. Yet they would face one of the most daunting tasks of the war yet if they were to seal the deal and close the book on the bloody European front: a daring fifty hour, all-out German tank assault meant to break the backbone of the allied troops at best, at worst buy the time the German army needed to introduce new and advanced weapons onto the field of battle, including stronger and more powerful tanks, jet-engine fighters, Sturmgewehr assault rifles, and bombs capable of destroying entire cities. Little do the Americans know that German troops, dressed as American MP's and fluent not only in English but American culture and military customs, have been placed at key strategic points, effectively leaving them in German control without a single shot fired. Bad weather all but eliminates the Allied control of the skies. Germany's superior tanks and the ruthlessness and battlefield cunning of the German Colonel commanding the mission on the ground, Hessler (Robert Shaw), seems to all but guarantee a German victory. On the other side is an American ex-cop, Lieutenant Colonel Kiley (Henry Fonda), who manages to gather intelligence on the pending strike and keep up with the enemy plan of attack. He just can't get his superiors, including General Grey (Robert Ryan), to buy it. Can the Allies withstand one of the heaviest attacks of the war, or will the enemy use surprise and brute force to win the day and buy the time it needs to turn the conflict's tide in its favor?
If one were to whittle down Battle of the Bulge to a single word, that word would have to be "huge." The picture cuts no corners in its depiction of sprawling battles. The choreography of tank and troop maneuvers is as precise as a finely-tuned dance routine. Smoke and chaos might mask the details but they add authenticity. The camera covers it all, looking at the action from a distance, up-close, and in-motion. From a technical perspective, Battle of the Bulge is a complete War movie experience. The picture's set design and cinematography are marvelous, the attention to detail evident, and even if the movie plays things easy even when the combat is at its most hellish, it absolutely draws the audience onto the field of battle, into the belly of a tank, or on the sidelines back at headquarters where the war is fought with the mind rather than armor and shells. The film intermixes models and life-sized vehicles easily, with only one or two shots clearly of miniatures standing in for the real thing. Yet flash and big budget and technical expertise can't mask that the film never does quite capture the war from a purely authentic perspective. The film is built to entertain, not educate. It's at home in a theater, not academia. It's not so much an historical account as it is a stand-up-and-cheer go-getter. The film chooses its side and style and dives in headfirst. Its energy and effectiveness as pure entertainment cannot be denied, historical precision or true depiction of the real taste of war be damned.
There's another area where the movie shines, away from the complex stunts, expertly-assembled battle scenes, and fantastic photography. Battle of the Bulge spends much of its lengthy -- but never bloated -- runtime in the bunkers, back at headquarters, and in the minds of the men who shaped the battle, placed the armor, and hedged their bets that they could outthink the enemy, not simply overwhelm him with firepower. The movie is just as at home and equally, if not more so, fascinating in these scenes where drama and tactics supersede thrills and action, even as tanks rumble and fire on one another on the field of battle. The audience is presented with a front-row seat to strategies on both sides of the front, seeing first hand the clashing of cockiness and doubt, sound strategy and a more aimless run-and-gun technique, all presented with their merits from both the German and American perspectives, which also aids greatly in enhancing characters, making them full, believable, authentic people and not merely flat and invisible figures in the greater whole. The audience is left cheering on the right tactic, even if it comes from the enemy's side of the battlefield, because that's where the film separates itself from others and opens the audience's mind to more than explosions. Battle of the Bulge makes its easy to both respect and question the decisions made that shape the final outcome, all the way to a thrilling climax where everything in the story -- the tanks, the strategies, the disguised enemy soldiers -- all comes to a head and the battle is won on intuition, mental clarity, and supply line shortages and strategies, not raw muscle and overwhelming firepower.
Battle of the Bulge Blu-ray, Video Quality
Battle of the Bulge's "Ultra Panavision" photography truly needs to be seen on the largest screen possible, and Warner Brothers' 1080p Blu-ray release has the muscle to display it big for home viewing. The image is stable and handsome, generally. It serves up very nice detailing, right down to pebbly roads and muddy tank treads. Military hardware is precise and well-worn, captured nicely on film and recreated on Blu-ray with great visual clarity and accuracy. Facial and clothing textures are strong, and the nitty-gritty details of blown-out buildings, razor-sharp debris, and even the medals pinned to German chests appear crisp and nicely defined. The image remains sharp even at a distance. Colors are excellent, even if the film largely features grays and greens and browns as its primaries. Splashes of red on German uniforms, however, are presented cleanly and accurately. The image does show a few worts, but nothing that should be a deal breaker. Slight aliasing is visible in a handful of objects, such as the grill on the German car seen at the beginning of the film and later on a green lampshade in a U.S. headquarters room. The transfer also features some edge halos and light banding across some of the brightest sky shots. Overall, however, this is a proficient, handsome transfer that serves the material nicely.
Battle of the Bulge Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Nuts. For all the military muscle in Battle of the Bulge, Warner Brothers' Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack fails to bring it to life. The track is a puny one, never really getting off the ground, sounding tired, not at all aggressive, and never immersive, despite both the heavy action and the 5.1 channels at its disposal. The overture music does play with nice range and good clarity, including fairly crisp highs. Music shares that same feeling throughout. But the track fails to present even modest power or even acceptable volume at reference levels. It never feels as "huge" as the movie. Even when it manages some decent directional or area-specific sound effects -- a plane whirring on by, gunfire from a specific point in the soundstage, artillery fire zooming on by -- they play quietly and absent any sort of vigor, let alone authenticity. The closing of heavy steel doors, machine gun fire, explosions, even a speeding train play with only a meager sonic signature, a modest "hello" and a hint of what should be. The track does manage a slightly deeper rumble and greater presence in a few scenes where tanks roll slowly and heavily on through the listening area, but it's too little and much too late to really save the track. This lossy presentation does feature fair ambience; for instance, it does well to paint the picture of a busy military headquarters where ringing phones, clanking typewriters, and chatter at least do well in recreating the scene, though not anywhere near the level of absolute immersion. Dialogue is clear, but like the rest of the material it lacks authority; casual conversation definitely needs a little more oomph to it. It's not a disaster so much as a disappointment, but to be sure Battle of the Bulge won't get the old audio juices flowing even in the heat of the heaviest battle.
Battle of the Bulge Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Battle of the Bulge contains an audio commentary track, two featurettes, and the film's trailer.
Battle of the Bulge Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Battle of the Bulge might not portray war in a particularly realistic light, but it's sufficiently exciting, a hair gritty, extraordinarily big in scope, very well put together, and fast on its feet, even clocking in at just a little under three hours. The movie's battle scenes are exciting, but the picture works best behind-the-scenes as the men in charge on both sides of the battlefield choose their tactics and change them on the fly to suit the ever-changing dynamics on the battlefield. For a rah-rah World War II movie from the pre-Vietnam era, Battle of the Bulge proves hard to beat. Warner Brothers' Blu-ray release of Battle of the Bulge features solid video, disappointing audio, and a decent assortment of extras. The low price and the qualities of both the movie and the video transfer help ease the pain of the disappointing soundtrack. This is a candidate for a remaster, but until then this low-priced release is worth enjoying. Recommended.
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