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November 11, 2009

Battle of the Bulge

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Ken Annakin - 1965
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

While Battle of the Bulge is the type of film that may be obvious for a Veteran's Day posting, it might not be the first choice for remembering Robert Ryan on what would have been his 100th birthday. Ryan, third billed, after Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw, has more of a glorified supporting role in this film. On could even say that Ryan cut a certain niche for himself as the Sixties progressed, playing the part of a no-nonsense officer in several war films, including The Dirty Dozen and Anzio. In Battle of the Bulge, Ryan's general is courted for approval by the unconventional, intuitive Henry Fonda and the traditional, by the book, Dana Andrews. It's nowhere near as entertaining as watching Fonda and Andrews vying for Joan Crawford's attention in Daisy Kenyon, although Ryan is almost as snappily dressed in his uniform.

My first time seeing Robert Ryan on screen was inThe Longest Day, where he was one of a hundred or so stars in Darryl Zanuck's pet project. Ken Annakin was one of several credited directors and briefly benefitted from his association with that film. I don't remember Ryan in The Longest Day, but he made a greater impression with a major role in a smaller film. Billy Budd, where he tormented innocent, angelic Terence Stamp, is one example of Ryan's ability to a truly nasty character. Looking back at the films I've seen starring Ryan, his good guys weren't always very good, while some of his bad guys relished making life miserable for others. In The Naked Spur, Ryan's sole motivation is to find ways to annoy James Stewart and chortle "do me" to Janet Leigh. It may have taken a committed liberal, as Ryan was off screen, to play a racist crook in Odds Against Tomorrow. A tribute to Robert Ryan might center on The Set-Up or On Dangerous Ground, both very worthy star turns. Ryan's appearance in Battle of the Bulge could best be cited as an example of how his authoritative presence was used as a kind of cinematic shorthand, a decision maker questioned neither by the other characters or the audience.

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The real star of Battle of the Bulge isn't Fonda, Ryan or even Robert Shaw, but Cinerama. The film was shot using using a Panavision process that replaced the original synchronized three 35mm cameras, with the film playing first run in theaters that were set up for 70mm road show screenings. Too many shots seem to have been made with the memory of the earliest Cinerama movies in mind, with point of view shots from a speeding car, a train, and a small, diving airplane, all with the intention of making the theater audience feel like they are participants in the action. Ken Annakin's autobiography indicates that some of the footage was created at the behest of Cinerama, one of the production partners. Maybe those sequences attempting to visually overwhelm the viewer worked better on a large screen in a mammoth theater where audiences gazed up at the images of giant Panzer tanks and Robert Shaw's cold blue eyes.

Ken Annakin came to the film as an almost last minute replacement for Richard Fleischer. Due to a financial shortfall, Annakin also was dismissed from the film during the post-production phase, having little to do with the final edit. Even so, Battle of the Bulge fits in thematically with Annakin's other films, with Henry Fonda's officer who operates on intuition, hunches and observation, literally diving into adventure, even when he can't really explain what he's doing or why, similar to some of Annakin's other protagonists. Fonda's opposite, the German tank commander played by Robert Shaw, knows exactly what he is doing and why, and is chilling when he reveals his love of war, not in the pursuit of a military or political goal, but as a continuous venture. Charles Bronson does well as an infantry officer who stands his ground against Shaw. I'm not sure how much better Battle of the Bulge might have been had Annakin had greater input in the film's final edit. An old fashioned war epic at the time of release, some of more intimate scenes remain more impressive than the attempts at visual bombast and gimmickry.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 11, 2009 12:09 AM