Remembering the great actor and writer Robert Shaw.
Unlike most World War II epics, “Battle of the Bulge” 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 Nazi counteroffensive caught them by surprise and caused high casualties.
Kohler points out a clock with a 50-hour countdown: the time allotted for the mission, beyond which the odds of success will fall off. Finally, Hessler is presented with a yard full of King Tiger tanks, in response to which he proclaims the operation can be done.
Meanwhile, Kiley returns to headquarters where he warns Germany plans one more all-out offensive. His superiors, General Grey (Ryan) and Colonel Pritchard (Dana Andrews) dismiss it out of hand: all intelligence points to Germany not having the resources and manpower to launch another attack.
Back at German HQ, Conrad confronts Hessler about the chances of success, pointing out all the experienced veterans who have fallen since Hessler first led the Panzers into Poland. Concerned, Hessler reviews his new tank commanders and discovers they are all young and mostly inexperienced. He expresses his lack of confidence to Kohler. The commanders, overhearing this, break into a resounding chorus of Panzerlied. Moved by their spirit, Hessler casts aside his doubt.
Hoping to uncover more proof, Kiley visits a U.S. infantry position on the Siegfried Line under command of Major Wolenski (Charles Bronson). En route, he is slowed down by a Sherman tank commanded by Sgt. “Guffy” (Telly Savalas). As the tank moves off the road, black market goods Guffy peddles to soldiers at the front fall from the tank, and he stops to retrieve them, explaining his intent to not return home poor. A patrol led by Lieutenant Weaver (James MacArthur) and Sergeant Duquesne (George Montgomery) capture some young Germans. Kiley concludes experienced German troops have been replaced by these men and withdrawn for an offensive, but Pritchard dismisses this as well.
Early the next day as G.I.’s sleep, Hessler launches his attack. Awakened by the noise of German tanks, Wolenski leads his men into the wooded area of the Schnee Eifel where his men try to stand their ground but are overrun. A group of Shermans, Guffy’s tank among them, attempt to slow the Panzers, but the Sherman’s weak guns and thin armor make them ineffective. Guffy’s tank is rammed into a ditch by a panzer, and two of his crew are killed. Guffy and his gunner escape out of the tank and crawl to the rear.
Lt. Schumacher and his disguised German troops are parachuted behind the Allied lines. They capture the only bridge over the Our River capable of carrying heavy tanks. With his route secure, Hessler continues his spearhead through the Allied front toward Ambleve, while being observed by Kiley. Schumacher later takes control of a vital intersection of three roads connecting Ambleve, Malmedy, and the Siegfried Line. Schumacher sabotages the road signs, and the rear echelon of Wolenski’s troops take the wrong road to Malmedy, where they encounter an SS Division, and almost the entire unit is captured and massacred. Lt. Weaver manages to escape, but Duquesne is killed. U.S. soldiers become suspicious when they witness his military police lay explosives incorrectly on the River Our bridge, and Schumacher’s masquerade is revealed.
Kiley notices the Germans are carrying rubber hoses and empty metal drums and deduces that they are short on fuel and scavenging for it. Conceding the German attack is a major effort, Pritchard apologizes to Kiley.
As Grey evacuates his HQ, an unarmed soldier runs past. When Grey stops him and asks where his unit is, the young solder exclaims they’re all gone. Seeing what’s happening and not wanting his division to disintegrate into a rabble, Grey turns around and orders every man to stand and fight. Guffy meets with his black market associate, Louise, to shut down his business in the area. She presents him with money which angers him, but she explains they are business partners and the money is for both of them. They kiss before he returns to action.
Kohler informs Hessler that he is at the head of the German offensive. Bursting with pride, Hessler reveals to his adjutant Conrad that before this attack, he never thought Germany could win. Now everything has changed. Conrad asks what will become of his sons, to which Hessler replies they will become soldiers, fight and die for Germany.
With Hessler’s forces now surrounding the town of Ambleve, Grey summons heavy artillery. But as the train loaded with ordnance races toward Ambleve, a lone German tank destroys the engine, denying General Grey the means to defend against heavy armour.[note 2] German troops assault Ambleve but fail to capture the town.
General Kohler orders Hessler to bypass Ambleve, but Hessler, after presenting a fresh cake which was baked in the United States, he argues that capturing it will eliminate a thorn in their side and severely damage American morale: if the Americans have the fuel and aircraft to fly things as trivial as cake to the front, such an overwhelming defeat may force them to reconsider their chances of winning the war. Kohler concedes. As night falls, Hessler’s tanks and infantry storm Ambleve, finally taking the town.[note 3] Although many Americans are captured, Grey, Pritchard, Kiley, and others escape to the river River Meuse.
While in Ambleve, Hesseler is shot at by a young boy. His troops capture and bring him before Hessler. Hessler pauses to consider what to do with him, when the boy’s father shows up and begs for mercy. Hessler spares the boy but has the father shot. (This scene was deleted on the DVD or VHS releases.)
Hessler is brought lunch by Conrad in his command car. When Conrad brings him captured food, Hessler tells Conrad that he must eat what his commanders eat. Hessler also presents Conrad with a gift to his sons, Conrad has been promoted. The shooting of the father can be heard in the background.
Wolenski is captured and demands to know whether his troops will be murdered like those at Malmedy. Angered by the accusation and the knowledge that such massacres can “turn a disorganised rabble into avenging soldiers”, Hessler complains to General Kohler. American resistance is stiffening everywhere. Kohler points out the units at Malmedy are SS troops and not under Wehrmacht control.
Meanwhile, angry at the thought of his sons never living in peace, Conrad confronts Hessler, denouncing him a murderer and saying he “would murder the whole world” to stay in his black Panzer uniform. Recognizing Conrad’s past loyalty, Hessler spares his life, but has him transferred to fuel services.
American forces regroup and begin to reorganize for a counterattack. Guffy goes around the men, asking if anyone who fought at Ambleve is around. When one man tells him that there is ‘nothing left’ of Ambleve, Guffy morosely asks General Grey when he’s going to let them fight back.
Facing the dangers of a foggy night, Col. Kiley conducts an aerial reconnaissance in an attempt to locate the main German spearhead. His aircraft nearly crashes into a cliff. Undaunted, he continues, ordering the pilot to shut off the engine and glide in an attempt to listen for enemy tanks. Suddenly through a gap in the fog he spots the jackpot: Hessler’s column of Tiger tanks heading toward American lines. Kiley radios in the coordinates, but is hit by German fire and crashes near an American fuel depot.
Meanwhile, General Grey’s force, with the river Meuse at their back, prepare to fight off Hessler. The outgunned, out-armored American tanks are systematically destroyed, but at the cost of the Germans burning up much of their fuel. The top half of Guffy’s tank, including the turret and main gun, is blown off but he is left unharmed. After attempting to take on the German Tanks with ramming tactics, Guffy is convinced to withdraw to the rear. Guffey soon stops and prepares to take on the enemy tanks firing the Sherman’s .30 caliber machine gun from the hip. After threatening to shoot Lt. Weaver, who has taken command of a group of walking wounded, Guffey, Weaver, and the men head to the Depot to get more fuel for his tank.
Aware of the fuel shortages, Hessler leads a detachment toward an American depot to capture its stocks. Conrad, moving fuel drums, watches him go. Weaver and the stragglers arrive first, taking out Schumacher’s men who had taken control of the fuel dump after Weaver, who saw Schumacher at the Our river Bridge, recognizes him. Hessler’s tanks appear. The U.S. defenders flood the road with gasoline. Drums are punctured and rolled downhill where they are set ablaze. Numerous German tanks are destroyed, and the crews abandon them in fear of the flames. Hessler desperately goes it alone, commandeering the controls of his Tiger, intending to drive it into the depot. However, the tracks of his tank get bogged down in the soaked mud, followed by the panzer catching fire and exploding where he dies inside.
As the film ends, an American scout informs Grey the Germans have given up and are marching back to Germany. At the end of a column, Conrad discards his rifle and ammunition. And as the camera pans away, we see an array of abandoned German vehicles strewn across the field.
Vignettes from the actual battle are included in the film, including General McAuliffe’s reply of “Nuts!” to an offer of surrender at Bastogne. The character of Col. Hessler was modeled after Waffen-SS Standartenführer Joachim Peiper.