Robert Shaw did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Col. Martin Hessler in Battle of the Bulge.
Battle of the Bulge actually is rather entertaining and works quite well as a war film if one looks at it as more of a Where Eagles Dare, than a Battleground.
The film despite wearing the name of the real battle is a heavily fictionalized version that follows a somewhat general sense of the real battle but that's about it. It crafts its narrative within original characters within this scheme of utilizing its large cast the most interesting of the characters being Robert Shaw's Martin Hessler. Hessler acts as the chief villain for the film leading the Nazis vanguard of tanks in an attempt to push the allied forces back. Now Shaw in even a basic villain roles is already something special, look no further than The Sting for proof of that, however this is not a basic role particularly as Nazis in war films are often depicted. Shaw makes the most of this as evidenced from his first scene where Hessler's chauffeur dodges an allied plane in order to run for cover while driving towards the German command. Hessler does not move from the car, in part that he knows it is only a reconnaissance plane, but the chauffeur states that wouldn't matter to Hessler if it was a fighter plane. Now Shaw in the moment is commanding, as usual, with his particularly refined voice all the more in his strict accent in the role. Shaw oozes menace as expected however that is not all there is. Hessler explains though he did not "lose a war" to die sitting in the car. Shaw in this suggests more to the colonel as he speaks with a certain underlying pathos in these words showing a soldier recognizing his soon defeat, though still with that confidence of a soldier prepared to do his duty.
The film follows Hessler as he reaches the German command in the area and Shaw carries this certain indifference as Hessler is shown around the compound. Shaw depiction of this though is not of a tired, or pathetic soldier, but rather that of a consternation of his position. Shaw's reaction to the other more ridiculous plans of the command, and more delusional statement effectively reveal Hessler as sensible in his awareness of his situation with such a subtle yet palatable disdain towards his comrades who suffer from this delusion. Shaw's terrific in his blunt delivery of explaining the situation to his commanding officer placing how the allies have them defeated. Shaw's terrific with every word so effectively portraying Hessler's clear view of the war. Shaw carefully shows that Hessler's tone does not change until he sees the sea of Tiger tanks at his disposal. Shaw is brilliant in this scene as his whole demeanor changes to perhaps the Hessler at the start of the war, as he walks now with a dominant passion, and his delivery of "it can be done" are the words of a man firmly in his convictions once more. Hessler is granted an explanation when his chauffeur questions his renewed belief, and Shaw is once again outstanding in reaffirming the man's belief not as false zealousness rather clear understanding of warfare. His monologue on "non-illusions" which include his past victories as well as his current resources, is classic Shaw as he so fiercely reaffirms Hessler's belief with that dynamic emphasis Shaw's a master of.
It has to be said that the character of Hessler is particularly well written within this film, and is actually notable precursor to other pragmatic villains, I can't help but feel he had some influence on A Song of Ice and Fire's Tywin Lannister. Robert Shaw though is essential to bringing out the strength of the writing. Shaw reinforces the idea of the character not as a Nazi who is evil for the sake of being evil, but rather a soldier who intends on doing his duty to the extent he beliefs he can, to the best of his abilities. I love the certain detachment Shaw brings in this that is quite fascinating. Shortly after being granted the Tigers, he is granted a unit of men who attempt to prove their loyalty and devotion to the cause through the singing of a German battle hymn. Shaw in this scene encourages the singing even demanding his chauffeur to do the same before joining in himself. Shaw does not depict this scene as simply as a commander being impressed by his men's devotion or being inspired by them. Shaw is exceptional in as he watches them his eyes reflect a greater intelligence of a man seeing an opportunity and chance in the song. The song less used for himself, but rather he handles the scene as though Hessler is using this very specifically as this tool to prepare his men for the battle ahead. Shaw, even as Hessler joins in, keeps his eyes seemingly fixed on the future objective and this bit of showmanship only is a means to that end.
Often times in these early war films, or later war films for that matter, scenes of the Nazis are little more than exposition scenes to proceed to the next point of the story. That is not the case here where the scenes from the enemy perspective are actually the most engaging in the film because of Shaw's portrayal of Hessler. In the battle scenes Shaw is a properly menacing villain as is to be expected to him, as he brings such a powerful sense of determination and cunning in every scene. Shaw's presence is remarkable as he personifies the strength of the enemy so well, and ensures the enemy attack is particularly intimidating through his portrayal of essentially the Nazi's best soldier. Once the battle begins though there are moments of pause in the advance where we are given the best scenes in the film as Shaw continues to depicts this complex figure Hessler. This is not to say at any point he becomes a truly sympathetic figure, though Shaw ensures you always do understand the man. One chilling scene comes as a French civilian, a teenager, takes a pot shot at Hessler, but the boy's father pleads for his son's life. Hessler spares the boy but orders the death of the father. Shaw is especially unnerving in this scene because he still shows the man working out the best, most pragmatic way to deal with the situation, which to him is to offer mercy though only through an alternative sacrifice. When he orders the death of the father it isn't without sadism, but rather Shaw grants it this professionalism of man doing what he believes he must do.
There are two scenes I absolutely love from Shaw as they directly challenge Hessler, and Shaw wholly illustrates the nature of the character in such a natural and compelling fashion. The first scene is one where an American G.I. confronts him over a massacre of American prisoners, which Hessler had nothing to do with. It is a fantastic scene, it helps that Charles Bronson plays the G.I., however Shaw is pitch perfect in the way he flows through the scene in playing in Hessler's mind while presenting Hessler's direct responses. Shaw expresses within his eyes genuine surprise at the news, while also providing a direct threat in his words as he responds in turn to the G.I.'s threat to start a riot if they are not protected. The two spar so well as Shaw and Bronson both present the direct passion of these men in the armies the represent however there is more within this. In the final agreement for no riot, but also no massacre, both keep an aggressive overt tone however with an underlying understanding. I especially love the little glint of joy Shaw brings to his face showing Hessler's appreciation for a mutually competent soldier. Shaw is terrific in taking that initial underlying surprise and bringing to an overt anger as Hessler calls into the central command to express his distaste for the massacre. Shaw again brings such a power in every word, though again precise in a way that shows his disgust is at his most severe as the massacre has ruined his battle plan which was to destroy the enemy's moral. Shaw is incredible here in that he makes you perhaps even like Hessler a bit due to the way he always portrays him as a sensible man even if he is on the wrong side, that is until he explains his long term plan to his chauffeur which is not win the war rather to extend it indefinitely. It is unsettling as it reveals where Hessler's pragmatism takes him, and Shaw emphasizes the blunt reality of this by speaking every word as simply what must be. Shaw again shows that Hessler still doesn't suffer from a single delusion, rather portrays the same clarity as the rest of his work as the man explains that he knows they've already lost the war, but as a soldier he can now postpone their defeat indefinitely. This is an outstanding performance as that moment, nor any moment, is not of a madman lost in delusion, but rather a true tactician carefully examining his only path as a loyal officer. This is yet another amazing performance by Robert Shaw as he amplifies every intriguing facet of the character making Hessler not only a marvelous villain, but also simply great character.