Monday, May 27, 2013


War buffs find this movie problematic because of how fictionalized the account of the battle, a turning point in WWII, is. I won't quibble with that; their concerns are real, and given that the movie was made only 20 years after the war, it's odd that the filmmakers weren't more careful with easily-checked details. But as entertainment, this works better than other war epics of the era (THE LONGEST DAY, A BRIDGE TOO FAR)—there is more attention to character, the battlefield tactics are clear, and even though it's nearly three hours, it doesn't feel as bloated as the others, being well paced, dragging a bit only right after intermission. In December 1944, the Allies seem to have the Germans on the run and many American soldiers are lulled into thinking that the war is nearly over. But during a reconnaissance flight, Kiley (Henry Fonda), a former cop turned intelligence officer, snaps a picture of a highly esteemed German officer, Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw, pictured at left); to Kiley, his presence means that the Germans are planning a major offensive in Belgium, but his superiors don’t believe him. In fact, Hessler is planning a major push near the Ardennes Forest. In the meantime, the Germans parachute a small troop of English-speaking soldiers, led by Schumacher (Ty Hardin) who spent time in Texas and knows enough American pop culture to pass, in order to disrupt communication; they switch road signs and pretend to be Allied soldiers about to explode the Ruhr bridge, delaying the real Allies from destroying it until the Germans can cross. Eventually, Kiley is proven correct and his bosses (represented by Robert Ryan and Dana Andrews) change their strategy and drive the Germans back.

Though the facts are not always correct and clich├ęs abound, one of the strong pluses of this film is character development. We get to know a handful of men who become our guides to the twists and turns in the narrative. Fonda is good as the man in whom his superiors can't quite put their faith, until it's almost too late. As those superiors, Ryan and Andrews aren't given much to do except to voice the official Army line. George Montgomery is an experienced sergeant who is the driver for a newbie lieutenant (James MacArthur); Montgomery resents the callow youth, but when the two are captured and witness the German slaughter of American prisoners as Malmedy, MacArthur has his own personal turning point and plays an important part in the climax, in which the Germans make a last stab at taking over an American oil depot to get desperately-needed fuel. Hardin (seen at right) is good, even a bit fun, as the fake Texan. Telly Savalas is mostly comic relief as a sergeant who runs a lucrative business in "merchandise" (mostly cigarettes and booze) with the help of a French girl who has fallen in love with him. But the best performance is by Robert Shaw who does a great job of bringing Hessler, the admittedly stereotyped ultra-Nazi, to life—we don't exactly get to know him, but we do find him the most compelling figure in the movie. Hans Christian Blech plays his assistant who eventually finds Hessler's fervor too much in the face of certain defeat. The battles play out well, and it is to the credit of director Ken Annakin that we are never confused about what is happening where—a problem I have with many of the later bloated war films. Some critics complain about obvious use of rear projection and miniatures, but I didn't really notice such problems. In my eyes, this is one of the better war films of the 60s. [TCM]

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