This movie purports to be a dramatic portrayal of the pivotal WW II battle of the same name. But the liberties that have been taken with respect to plot and characters make it almost unrecognizable when compared with the historical event.
(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
The beginning of the movie interweaves scenes from the American perspective and the German view. We start out meeting Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley, played by Henry Fonda. He is an American Army intelligence officer stationed on the supposedly quiet section of the front line near the Ardennes Forest. But he suspects that the Germans are planning an offensive in the area. He makes a surveillance flight in a small aircraft over the forest and manages to get photos of hidden German tanks and also a high-ranking German officer arriving at the German headquarters in the area. He passes this intelligence to his superiors, Gen. Grey, played by Robert Ryan and Col. Pritchard, played by Dana Andrews at their headquarters in the town of Ambleve. Pritchard rejects Kiley’s suspicions about a German offensive while General Grey demands more proof.
Next, we meet the German officer that Kiley photographed. It is Col. Martin Hessler, played by Robert Shaw with an outrageously over the top German accent, who is being given command of a large force of Tiger II tanks with the goal of breaking through the American lines and capturing Antwerp thus crippling the Allied offensive in Europe. The Germans are sending out a party of their soldiers who have lived in the United States dressed as American GI’s. They will sabotage communication lines and road signs and try to hold the bridge over the Our river to allow the Tiger Tanks to advance.
Kiley manages to get some intelligence on the tank attack back to HQ just as the attack begins. We see the Tiger tanks destroy the American tanks while sustaining almost no damage from direct hits. And we are shown the Germans machine gunning large numbers of American prisoners. But one other thing that Kiley learns during his surveillance of the German advance is that they are gravely short of fuel for their tanks. They have only enough fuel to reach a large American fuel depot that is along the route to Antwerp. Even taking a few extra hours to destroy the town of Ambleve where the American HQ is located is sorely argued against by Hessler’s commanding officer General Kohler.
When General Grey receives this intelligence about the fuel, he decides on a plan to attack the tank force with his tanks before the Germans can reach the fuel depot. He wants to use the attack to delay the tanks long enough for them to run out of fuel. When Hessler realizes the delay tactic he heads for the depot with a force of his tanks to obtain the fuel. But the Americans at the depot spill thousands of gallons of fuel and set fire to it just as Hessler’s tanks arrive. Hessler’s tanks are engulfed in flames and he dies when his tank explodes. Without fuel the rest of Hessler’s force have to abandon their tanks and the last scene shows a long line of men walking back to Germany.
I’ve left out a lot of details. This movie is three hours long! Charles Bronson plays an American major who fights a rearguard action against the Germans until he is captured at Ambleve. Telly Savalas is an American sergeant tank crewman who also runs a black-market store in booze, stockings and chicken eggs out of his girl friend’s apartment. Savalas ends up finally saving the day when he machine-guns the disguised Germans who have taken control of the fuel depot at the end of the movie.
My thoughts on this movie are mixed. Some of the action is interesting to watch. Shaw as Hessler gives a compelling performance. I enjoy his style. Other than Shaw a lot of the acting is competent but not memorable. The tank footage looks pretty good. But the thing that I hold against this movie is that it misrepresents the events of a very important battle for which the details are very well known. There was no race to get to a fuel depot in the actual battle. The movie doesn’t show the fact that the battle took place during an horrendous frigid snow storm where the weather was as awful as the fighting. The real battle was fought hand to hand in towns, forests and trenches. If you are interested in what it really was like watch the episodes in “Band of Brothers” that chronicles the Battle of Bastogne. So, my recommendation is unless you really like war movies and don’t care about accuracy don’t watch this movie.