The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Battle of the Bulge

The Rebel Base from The Empire Strikes Back

I’m a fan of old-school war movies and it’s pretty clear that George Lucas is, too. For me, Battle of the Bulge, directed by Ken Annikan is a movie that I hadn’t seen prior to the recommendation of Dave Filoni, the supervising director on Star Wars: The Clone Wars. During one of the many times I harassed Filoni about movies they were watching behind the scenes of The Clone Wars to inspire themselves and the show, he told me that this was a big one I needed to watch and he wasn’t kidding.

Annikan also directed Swiss Family Robinson, which had more direct inspirations tied into A New Hope, but this war film still has its moments.

Battle of the Bulge is a 1965 film that dramatizes the final counterattack of the Nazis in World War II. The Nazis are led by none other than Robert Shaw (who played Quint in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws) who could be very easily viewed as an analogue to General Veers or Admiral Trench.

The Americans are much more of an ensemble cast, but many of them seem to get involved in very Star Wars-like moments. Perhaps the biggest of these moments comes after the American Sgt. Duquesne (George Montgomery) is captured by the Nazis, he utters the now famous, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” with the cool understatement of every character in the Star Wars saga.

The spirit of this film seems alive and well in The Empire Strikes Back. The good guys spend the entire film on the run, and the way the battles play out substitutes Hoth for the European countryside.

The Germans are making their final attack, their last show of force before the Allies mop them up completely and the brilliant enemy commander leads a column of Tiger tanks to blast through the American lines. From the inside of his very AT-AT looking tank, Shaw leads the final assault, but finds that the good guys are a step ahead of him.

Henry Fonda plays the American who knows the right answer for everything, even though his commanding officers don’t quite believe him. He thinks the Germans are launching their offensive? The brass says it’s impossible. The Germans are desperate and their tanks are running out of gas? Completely true, but try convincing the officers of that. It’s very much the role Anakin plays to Obi-Wan through The Clone Wars. He always seems to have the right solution to every military problem, even though no one on the Jedi Council seems to trust him.

And just before the intermission, when the Germans spring their trap across the bridge, cutting off the Americans and catching them unaware, it feels just like the moment the Imperials spring their trap in Return of the Jedi. For both the good guys and the audience, the bottom drops out of the film and it kicks into high gear in very much the same way as Lando’s realization: “How could they be jamming us if they don’t know…we’re coming…?”

Through the battles of the film there are many visual motifs that found their way into the Star Wars pictures, chief among them the views through the binoculars and periscopes of the tanks. They seemed directly translated to the visuals through Luke’s macrobinoculars and the view screens used on the AT-AT by General Veers. It felt as though I could have been watching a Star Wars movie the way they were used.

Though President Eisenhower came out of his retirement to deride this film as historically inaccurate fluff, it remains a fun piece of filmmaking that puts the audience through the more adventurous paces of battle. It echoes many of the feelings you get when you watch Star Wars in that spirit, and I’m grateful to Filoni for turning me on to it.

The film isn’t actually rated, but I’d guess it’s a PG rating. There’s nothing objectionable in it but the violence, but it’s the same sort of fantastical, bloodless violence you’d expect from a super-macho World War II movie from the ’60s. And, like every other World War II movie from the ’60s, it also features Telly Savalas in a wacky supporting role. It’s generally safe for the whole family.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmaker,journalist, and the editor in chief! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on Twitter.

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