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. They also shot parts of the film on terrain that did not resemble actual battle locations. This 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.
It is December, 1944. Military Intelligence officer and former policeman Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley (Fonda) and his pilot, Joe, are flying a reconnaissance mission over the Ardennes forest. Spotting a German staff car the plane buzzes the car and photographs the officer. Alarmed, the chauffeur flees the car leaving the engine running. "Petrol is blood," rebukes the German officer, marking a theme of the film, the German shortage of fuel.
In a subterranean lair, it is revealed the officer is Col. Martin Hessler (Shaw), a fictional Panzer tank commander loosely based on SS-Standartenführer Jochen Peiper. Hessler is briefed by his superior, Gen. Kohler (Werner Peters), on a new German attack, piercing west against the American lines. Kohler points out a clock with a 50-hour countdown, which is the time allotted for the operation, beyond which Germany has no resources for full-scale attack. At the same time German soldiers disguised as American troops, led by Lt. Schumacher (Ty Hardin), are tasked with seizing vital bridges and sowing confusion behind the Allied lines.
Meanwhile, Kiley returns to headquarters where he warns that the Germans are planning one more all-out offensive. His superiors, Gen. Grey (Robert Ryan) and Col. Pritchard (Dana Andrews), dismiss it out of hand: all available intelligence points to Germany not having the resources and manpower to launch another attack. Hoping to uncover more proof, Kiley visits a US infantry position on the Siegfried Line under command of Maj. Wolenski (Charles Bronson). A patrol led by Lt. Weaver (James MacArthur) and Sgt. Duquesne (George Montgomery) capture some young and obviously inexperienced German soldiers. Kiley concludes that experienced German troops have been replaced by these men and withdrawn for an offensive, but Pritchard dismisses this as well.
Hessler launches his attack the next day. Awakened by the noise of German tanks, Wolenski leads his men into the wooded area of the Schnee Eifel, where they try to fight them off but are overrun. A group of Allied tanks led by Sgt. Guffy (Telly Savalas) also attempts to slow the Panzers, but their tanks' weak guns and thin armor make them ineffective, forcing him and his crew to retreat.
Lt. Schumacher and his disguised troops capture the only bridge over the Our River capable of carrying heavy tanks. Hessler continues his spearhead 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. He sabotages the road signs, and the rear echelon of Wolenski's troops take the wrong road to Malmedy; almost the entire unit is captured and massacred. Lt. Weaver manages to escape, but Duquesne is killed. US soldiers become suspicious when they witness Schumacher's "military police" lay explosives incorrectly on the Our bridge, and his masquerade is revealed.
Hessler's tanks and infantry storm Ambleve, finally taking the town. Although many Americans, including Wolenski, are captured, Grey, Pritchard, Kiley and others escape to the River Meuse. American forces regroup and begin to reorganize for a counterattack. Facing the dangers of a foggy night, Col. Kiley conducts an aerial reconnaissance in an attempt to locate the main German spearhead. He orders 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 Hessler's tank column heading toward American lines. Kiley radios in the coordinates, but his plane is hit by German fire and crashes near an American fuel depot.
Meanwhile, Gen. Grey's forces, with the Meuse at their back, prepare to fight off Hessler. The outgunned, outarmored American tanks are systematically destroyed, but at the cost of the Germans burning up much of their fuel. Guffy, Weaver and the surviving Americans head to the depot.
Aware of the fuel shortages, Hessler leads a detachment toward the depot to capture its stocks. Weaver and the stragglers arrive first. Weaver recognizes Lt. Schumacher, who is still posing as an American MP and whose men have taken control of the depot, but Schumacher doesn't recognize him. At Weaver's signal, he and his men open fire on the disguised Germans, killing them all. The US defenders flood the road with gasoline and set it ablaze. Nearly all the German tanks are destroyed in the fire, including Hessler's. The remaining Germans give up the attack, marching back to Germany.Henry Fonda as Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley
Robert Shaw as Col. Martin Hessler
Robert Ryan as Gen. Grey
Dana Andrews as Col. Pritchard
George Montgomery as Sgt. Duquesne
Ty Hardin as Lt. Schumacher
Pier Angeli as Louise
Barbara Werle as Elena
Charles Bronson as Maj. Wolenski
Hans Christian Blech as Conrad
Werner Peters as Gen. Kohler
James MacArthur as Lt. Weaver
Karl-Otto Alberty as Maj. Von Diepel
Telly Savalas as Sgt. Guffy
Steve Rowland as Eddy
Robert Woods as Joe
Charles Stalmaker as Maj. Burke
The final tank battle is a rough depiction of the Battle of Celles on December 26, 1944, where the U.S. 2nd Armored Div. smashed the German 2nd Panzer Division. The film creates the false impression that large numbers of American tanks sacrificed themselves against the heavy Tiger IIs and in the process lured the enemy off course, which caused them to run out of gas. In reality, they were already stranded. The tanks used (despite the claims of the producer in an interview which is one of the DVD extras) are not historically accurate; although the M24 Chaffee light tanks used in the scene were World War II-era vehicles, they were not in use in the scale shown in the film and were relatively rare. Unfortunately, the US M47 Pattons as representing German King Tiger tanks and the M4 Shermans as represented by the aforementioned M24 Chaffees contributed much to the myth or 'meme' of the 'superior size and firepower which US armor had to contend with.' But in WWII, that was actually the task and work of the (mobile) artillery.
Aside from the initial American encounters with the German offensive, there is some absence of cold weather and snow, which were the conditions in which the real battle was fought. There is no trace of snow at all in the film's major tank battle scene, nor were some battle scenes fought in flat and bare territory, considering the mountainous, forested and grassy nature of the Ardennes. The film was shot on location in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range and Madrid, Spain.
The sequence with Lt. Schumacher and his men was based on Operation Greif, the plan to parachute English-speaking Germans using American equipment behind American lines to sow confusion and capture the bridges.
Absent from this movie is the response by Gen. George Patton, whose Third Army relieved the siege of Bastogne. Also, there are no African-Americans in the movie even though the 761st Tank Battalion (The Black Panthers) played a role in Patton's Third Army. Indeed, there is no reference to British forces in the area, although British troops were largely kept behind the Meuse River and thus almost entirely out of the fighting. Also not mentioned is Gen. Eisenhower's decision to split the Bulge front in two, ceding temporary command of two American armies to Field Marshal Montgomery in the northern half of the Bulge; the film implies a totally American operation. There was also no mention of the role of Allied air power hitting the Germans hard at the first sign of clear weather.
The film's opening narration, by William Conrad, does mention both Montgomery and Patton, but is inaccurate, saying:
to the north, stood Montgomery's Eighth Army. To the south, Patton's Third Army.
In fact, Montgomery's northern command was actually the 21st Army Group. The Eighth Army, Montgomery's previous command, was actually in Italy at the time of the Battle of the Bulge. Although Patton was in charge of Third Army during the battle, this army was part of a much larger American force in the south. Third Army was one of four American armies that constituted the 12th Army Group under Gen. Omar Bradley.
The film recaptures the major aspects of the battle, depicting how the inexperienced replacement American units stationed in the Ardennes were initially overwhelmed, and how confused the situation became. It points out the superiority of heavy German tanks, along with their major weakness — a lack of fuel. Some early scenes, showing discussions among German officers, accurately depict the Third Reich's desperation to cut U.S.-British supply lines and neutralize the Allies' huge logistical advantage.
Screenwriter Bernard Gordon claims to have rewritten John Melson's original screenplay. Some of the original choices for director were Richard Fleischer, who turned it down and Edward Dmytryk, with whom Jack L. Warner of Warner Bros. refused to work. Technical advisor on the film was Maj. Gen. (then Col.) Meinrad von Lauchert, who commanded the German tank division that made the most headway in the actual battle.
For an economical price and with no restrictions, the Spanish army provided an estimated 500 fully equipped soldiers and 75 tanks and vehicles, some of World War II vintage.
Former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower came out of retirement and held a press conference to denounce the film for what he considered its gross historical inaccuracy.
The film was one of the most popular movies at the British box office in 1966.
The original VHS release of the film for home video use was heavily edited to fit in one VHS tape (to reduce costs to the consumer) and used a full screen "pan and scan" technique often employed in network telecasts of widescreen motion pictures. The 1992 Laserdisc and 2005 DVD releases, however, run at their full length and are presented letterboxed in the original 2.76:1 aspect ratio. A Blu-ray release followed in 2007, though the aspect ratio says it is 2.35:1 on the back of the cover, the actual aspect ratio of the film is the original 2.76:1 like the previous DVD release. A more recent Blu-ray release states the correct aspect ratio.Dell Movie Classic: Battle of the Bulge (June 1966 )