What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the Umpteenth Blog-a-thon being hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. For this event, the idea is to write about a movie you’ve seen “umpteen” times. Since I’m a sucker for those “Memorial Day” war movie extravaganzas, my choice for this event literally came down to a coin flip between this and Patton. That battle was won by “The Bulge.”
You can see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon here.
Battle of the Bulge opens with a sweeping vista depicting a snow-covered chunk of northwestern Europe in December 1944. Over it flies a small spotter plane containing U.S, Army intelligence officer Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Kiley (played by Henry Fonda) and his pilot Joe (played by Robert Woods). The two are flying a reconnaissance mission over the Ardennes Forest, a strategic area which covers parts Belgium, Luxembourg, and the bordering areas of nearby France and Germany. This is an area which figured prominently in the First World War, and is about to do so in the Second.
They spot a German staff car and take several photographs of it. Along the way, Lt. Col. Kiley continues to take photographs of the Ardennes. As Kiley and Joe return to their base, the German staff car containing Colonel Hessler (played by Robert Shaw) and his orderly Conrad (played by Hans Christian Blech) make their way to General Kohler’s (played by Werner Peters) nearby bunker.
Thus begins a major exercise in dramatic irony. When Kiley returns to his base, he puts a “rush” order on getting his photographs developed. While that’s happening, Kiley’s superiors Major General Grey (played by Robert Ryan) and his executive officer Colonel Pritchard (played by Dana Andrews) question Kiley’s belief the Germans are about to mount a major offensive. Pritchard in particular is the most condescending, demeaning Kiley pre-war career as a police inspector and pointing out Kiley’s lack of military experience.
In a parallel timeline, once the setting reverts to the German bunker, it becomes very clear to the viewer that Kiley is correct. Kohler briefs Kessler on the plan to cross the river Meuse and capture the port city of Antwerrp; the strategic objective being to cut the Allied forces in two and buy time for the Germans to develop “super weapons” with which they can turn the tide of the war.
The preparations shown to Hessler include an “ambush” orchestrated by Major Von Diepel (played by Karl-Otto Alberty) and led by Lieutenant Schumacher (played by Ty Hardin). The “ambush” is actually a demonstration of a team of English-speaking German paratroopers who will be disguised as Americans and dropped behind Allied lines to disrupt Allied communications and operations.
Later, a conversation between Hessler and Conrad leads to the observation that Germany has suffered losses at an unsustainable rate, which means the men Hessler will lead into battle are not the hardened, experienced veterans to which he is accustomed. As a result, Hessler orders Von Diepel to assemble the new young tank commanders. While Hessler is skeptically reviewing them, the commanders break into a chorus of Panzerlied (“Tank Song” in English); sung primarily by the German tank force Panzerwaffe. This seems to convince Hessler…but only barely.
While it is now obvious to the viewer a German attack is imminent, back at the America headquarters, the skepticism of Kiley’s conclusions is becoming outright contempt on the part of Colonel Pritchard. Keeping his options open, General Grey orders Kiley to an outpost on the Siegfried Line to capture new prisoners for interrogation. When Kiley returns to the outpost, he discovers Pritchard is there to see the German troops for himself. Pritchard concludes that the young, inexperienced troops are proof the Germsns no long have the ability to mount an attack. When confronted by Pritchard, Kiley will not waiver; he contends these young soldier are “plants” and the Germans their more experienced men back for an offensive. Pritchard has heard enough; he calls Kiley “crazy” and tells him he is transferring back to Washington when he can “tell the President how to run the war.”
Kiley begins to doubt himself until the German officer in the photo he took at the beginning of the movie is identified as Hessler. This steels Kiley’s resolve, but it’s too late. The very next scene shows Hessler leading columns of German King Tigers, the largest and most powerful tanks of World War II…and they are rolling right into the Americans.
Everything Kiley said is becoming true, and the Americans are woefully unprepared. Out-manned and outgunned in the Ardennes, the Americans cobble together what resistance they can while falling back to defensive positions along the river Meuse. Meanwhile, Schumacher and his men disguised as Americans capture the only bridge over the Our River that can support the heavy German tanks. But while Hessler’s tank columns roll toward the town of Amblève, the police inspector in Kiley sports a clue as to the Germans’ “Achilles heel.”
While one detachment of Schumacher’s saboteurs is securing the Our River bridge, another later takes control of a vital intersection which connects the towns of Amblève and Malmedy to the Siegfried Line. They switch the road signs, sending a large number of retreating American troops into a trap at Malmedy where they are massacred.
However, Schumacher’s men back at the bridge are beginning to arouse suspicion. They are supposedly preparing to blow the bridge, but when an American demolition team arrives to actually blow the bridge, they see are not placing the explosive charges properly. Schumacher and his men kill the demolition team, but Kiley discovers the doctored road sign and together with Major Wolenski (played by Charles Bronson) they figure out Schumacher’s plot and blow the whistle.
As the battle progresses, General Grey countermands his previous order to retreat. Instead, they dig in with the River Meuse at their backs. Together Kiley and Pritchard discover the Germans’ weakness which has been foreshadowed from the opening scene. From the moment Hessler scolds Conrad for “wasting pertol,” to the captured Germans carrying lengths of rubber hose, followed by Kiley’s observation of the floating German oil drums at the Our River…the Germans “Achilles Heel” is they are critically low on fuel.
As such, they gamble the Germans are heading for a massive fuel depot. Grey sends his reserve of tanks to lure Hessler into a battle so that he burns up the last of his fuel. The trouble is that when Grey gives the order to destroy the fuel depot, Schumacher is already there. However, Kiley leads a band of stragglers and gives the order to destroy the fuel depot; the same order Schumacher intercepted. Hessler arrives at the depot only to see it being burned. Schumacher and his men are killed, and Hessler is incinerated by a rolling, flaming fuel drum.
The film ends with General Grey arriving in time to see Hessler’s tanks burning, leaving the Germans with no alternative but abandon their tanks and weapons to begin a long walk home.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
A while back, the sports analogy hidden in another movie with a military theme extolled the virtues of Drew Brees; a guy nobody thought could be a “big-time” quarterback…who became one of the greatest American football has ever seen. However, this time the hidden sports analogy is about the guy who stuck his neck out over his belief in Brees.
This story starts in the “Lone Star” state in the mid-1990s where Drew Brees is destroying the record books in Texas High School football. As a quarterback at Austin Westlake High School, Brees completed 314 of 490 pass attempts for a 64.1 completion percentage, 5,461 passing yards, and 50 touchdowns.
Despite suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in left knee during his junior year, Brees rebounded in his senior season to lead Austin Westlake High School to a 16–0 record, a state championship, while winning the Texas Class 5A High School Most Valuable Offensive Player award.
You would think given that resumé, the “big-time” college recruiters would be swarming ergo Johnny Be Goode. But the skepticism over Brees was strong because all that performance came in the body of a guy who “didn’t look the part” of a “big-time” quarterback. “Big-time” quarterbacks are supposed to be 6’4″ and have a Howitzer bolted to their shoulder. It’s being generous to say Drew Brees cracked 5’10” or 180 pounds, and he wasn’t going to throw the ball out of the stadium. Coupled with his previous knee injury, most recruiters felt he could not repeat his high-school success in one of the “big-time” college programs.
Worse yet, Drew Brees was one those guys who was just good at everything. In high school, Brees bagged varsity letters baseball and basketball as well as football. That meant many recruiters thought he wasn’t even going to play football in college; he was actually much more sought after as a baseball player…and Brees often said his favorite sport was baseball.
But there was one football coach out there who despite everything he heard saw the potential for greatness in Drew Brees. The problem was that Joe Tiller was the head coach at the University of Wyoming…which isn’t exactly Boardwalk or Park Place on the college football “Monopoly” board. As such, Brees wasn’t exactly thrilled about trading in football-crazy Texas for Laramie, Wyoming; a “cow-town” 7,200 feet up in the Rocky Mountains.
But the reality was only two schools were interested in Brees as a quarterback; Joe Tiller’s Wyoming Cowboys and the University of Kentucky. At the time neither seemed all that attractive. Lexington, Kentucky is more of a “horse-town” than a “cow-town,” and it certainly isn’t in the middle-of-nowhere. But Wildcat football then was more often than not the whipping boy of the Southeastern Conference. Not to mention, Kentucky already had a “big-time” quarterback; Tim Couch would ultimately be #1 overall National Football League (NFL) draft pick.
At this point, nobody knew where the wind might take Brees…not even Drew himself. But then fate intervened when Joe Tiller was hired in 1997 as the head coach at Purdue University. That changed the calculus by orders of magnitude. Once Tiller was getting his mail in West Lafayette, he extended an offer to Brees to come to Purdue. Tiller also made it clear to those in the Purdue athletic department that if there was any objection to his making an offer to Brees, Tiller would remain at Wyoming and recruit Brees as his quarterback anyway. Once they realized Tiller’s demand for Brees was an absolute, the “powers that be” at Purdue relented. Tiller took the job, Brees took the offer…and as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Granted, the Purdue Boilermakers weren’t very good at the time…after all, they just fired their coach. But being in the heart of B1G Ten country meant instead plying their wares in the backwaters of college football, both Tiller and Brees had a shot to shine on some of the biggest stages the game has to offer. Laramie, Wyoming isn’t without it’s charms, but it can’t compete with regular appearances on national television and playing in the 100,000+ seat venues of Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State.
Together, Tiller and Brees took advantage of this new-found spotlight to put Purdue football back on the map. By 1998, the Boilermakers notched back-to-back 9-win seasons, including consecutive Alamo Bowl wins over Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
All tolled, the Tiller/Brees combination took the Purdue Boilermakers to an overall record of 33-16, including a 22-10 mark in B1G Ten play. Not to mention, they made three bowl appearances, one of which being Purdue’s first trip in over thirty years to the “Grand-Daddy of them all” Rose Bowl. After his days at Purdue, Brees would go on to the NFL where he would go on to become one the greatest quarterbacks ever to put on a helmet.
Just in case you didn’t realize Brees is a “first-ballot lock” for the Hall-of Fame; just look at his list of accomplishments:
If that weren’t enough, at the time of his retirement Drew Brees held several NFL records:
Don’t forget…nobody thought Drew Brees was capable of any of this. Honestly, I don’t think even Joe Tiller saw the ceiling being this high.
Regardless, it’s pretty likely none of this ever happens if Joe Tiller never channels his inner “Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley” and sticks to his guns. Kiley was the only one who believed the Germans were about to mount an offensive, and Tiller was alone in his conviction Drew Brees could be a “big-time” quarterback.
The Moral of the Story:
Sticking to what you believe takes guts. The costs can be high, but so can the rewards.
P.S. Drew Brees isn’t the only Super Bowl MVP to come from Austin’s Westlake High School. Nick Foles broke many of Brees’ Texas high school passing records, and also took home a Super Bowl MVP trophy for leading the Philadelphia Eagles to victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
P.P.S. Who the hell am I kidding… “Memorial Day marathons,” my ass. I own this movie on Blu-Ray.
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