Battle of the Bulge is a 1965 American widescreen epic war film produced in Spain, directed by Ken Annakin, and starring Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Telly Savalas, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, and Charles Bronson. The feature was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 and exhibited in 70 mm Cinerama. Battle of the Bulge had its world premiere on December 16, 1965, the 21st anniversary of the titular battle, at the Pacific Cinerama Dome Theatre in Hollywood, California.
The film is a highly fictionalized account of the battle. The filmmakers attempted to condense the Ardennes Counteroffensive, a World War II battle that stretched across parts of Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg and lasted nearly a month, into under three hours, and shot parts of the film on terrain, and in weather, that did not remotely resemble the actual battle conditions. That left them open to criticism for lack of historical accuracy, but they claimed in the end credits that they had "re-organized" the chronological order of events to maximize the dramatic story.
Unlike most other World War II epics, Battle of the Bulge contains virtually no portrayals of actual senior Allied leaders, civilian or military. That is presumably because of controversies surrounding the battle, both during the war and afterward. Allied forces ultimately won the battle, but the initial German counteroffensive caught them by surprise and caused many casualties.
Plot - In December 1944, Military Intelligence officer Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley and his pilot, Joe, are flying a reconnaissance mission over the Ardennes forest that spans easternmost Belgium, northern Luxembourg, and parts of bordering France and Germany. They locate a German staff car and photograph its occupants, buzzing low enough for a close-up to cause its shell-shocked driver to flee the car without stopping its engine. His commanding officer scolds him for wasting petrol, extremely precious to the German war effort.
The officer, Col. Hessler, continues on to his new underground base, where General Kohler briefs him on the top secret plan to pierce American lines and recapture Antwerp. At the same time, English-speaking German paratroopers, led by Lt. Schumacher, are dropped behind American lines disguised as American MPs to confuse and disrupt the Allies. Hessler's orderly and driver, Conrad, remarks upon the staggering losses Germany has sustained during the war, pointing out to his superior that his new young tank commanders are not the men he had trained and led through the campaigns in Poland, France, and the Crimea. Upon a review of the Panzer commanders, all of whom are, as Conrad said, young and inexperienced, both men are skeptical until the commanders break into a chorus of Panzerlied, showing him their fighting spirit. Hessler is tentatively won over.
Meanwhile, Kiley returns to U.S. headquarters and warns once again that the Germans are planning a new offensive. His superiors, Maj. Gen. Grey and his executive officer, Col. Pritchard, do not listen, believing Germany lacks the resources and manpower to mount an attack, especially in winter, let alone with the Christmas holidays looming immediately ahead. Seeking proof, Kiley is sent to an outpost on the Siegfried Line to capture prisoners for interrogation. At the loose disciplined American base, Maj. Wolenski sends callow Lt. Weaver and gung-ho Sgt. Duquesne on patrol. They capture young, green German soldiers. Rather than proof of German desperation, Kiley believes they are keeping their more experienced men back for an offensive, but is again dismissed by his superiors as a "crackpot".
Hessler launches his attack the next day, leading columns of German King Tigers, the largest and most powerful tanks of World War II. The main Allied tank, the Sherman, was less than half its weight and could not penetrate its armor in a head-to-head fight. Wolenski leads his men into the wooded area of the Schnee Eifel to fight back, but they are overrun. A group of Allied tanks, led by Sgt. Guffy, also attempts to slow the Panzers, but their tanks' weak guns and thin armor make them ineffective. On the trip back to Amblève, Guffy's crew moves black market goods from a nearby farmhouse. Lt. Schumacher and his disguised troops capture the only bridge over the Our River that can carry heavy tanks, and Hessler continues toward Amblève, secretly observed by Kiley. Guffy meets up with his Belgian girlfriend, Louise, and they split the proceeds of their racket. They also discuss their feelings for each other, implying they will marry when the war is over.
Schumacher later takes control of a vital intersection of three roads that connect Amblève, Malmedy, and the Siegfried Line. He sabotages the road signs, and the rear echelon of Wolenski's troops takes the wrong road to Malmedy. They are captured and massacred by SS troops, though a wounded Weaver escapes. Other US soldiers become suspicious when they observe Schumacher's "MPs" pretending to be demolishing the Our bridge, but laying the explosives incorrectly.
As the Americans have improvised a strong defense at Amblève, Kohler orders Hessler to bypass it, but Hessler wishes to break the Americans' will to fight, and Kohler relents. Grey assigns Wolenski to cover an Allied evacuation. Hessler's tanks and infantry lay siege to Amblève, then occupy its ruins. Although many Americans, including Wolenski, are captured, senior staff safely escapes to the Meuse River to regroup for a counterattack. Guffy learns that Louise died in the shelling.
Despite the dangers of flying in fog and at night, Col. Kiley conducts an aerial reconnaissance. He and Joe find Hessler's tanks through a gap in the fog and radio in the coordinates. German fire causes the plane to crash near an American fuel depot, killing Joe and wounding Kiley.
In Hessler's command caravan, an exasperated Conrad confronts the Colonel, calls him a warmonger, and demands a transfer. Hessler transfers him to the fuel battalion.
Meanwhile, Grey's division, the Meuse at their backs, prepare to fight off Hessler's determined effort to capture the fuel depot. In a headlong tank confrontation the Americans employ a gambit to lure the Germans into using up the last of their fuel. The American tanks are savaged, but the strategy works. Weaver, Guffy and a few soldiers kill off Schumacher and his disguised MPs before the arrival of Hessler's tanks. A wounded Kiley then staggers out of hiding and urges the men to burn the depot. Desperate, Hessler makes a last ditch effort to capture the depot. In defense, the Americans flood the road leading to it with gasoline and set it alight with grenades, immolating the German tanks and their crews. Hessler's tank takes a fuel drum rolled directly at it, incinerating him. General Grey arrives in time to see the panzers afire.
With no alternative, the surviving German soldiers abandon their vehicles and begin a long walk back to Germany. Conrad, bringing up the rear, throws aside his weapons, done with the war.