Monday, December 15, 2008

Schary's Folly Anything But :: A (Rather Long-Winded) Beer-Gut Reaction to William Wellman's Battleground (1950)

___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

"Relax, Chum. Nobody's leaving Bastogne. And
nobody's
coming in -- except maybe some Krauts,
riding tanks.
We're surrounded."
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

Good grief, but all I seem to be doing lately are memorials. People. Please. Stop dying already! Anyways, I couldn't say that Van Johnson was one of my favorite actors, but he did play a pivotal role in one of my favorite films of all time. And with the news of his recent passing, I felt it was high time to dig out this old review, put a little spit and elbow grease into it, and get is republished for your reading pleasure.


We open in Mourmelon, France where the 101st Airborne Division is currently resting, re-arming and receiving replacements after several weeks of fierce fighting in Holland during Market Garden. After watching a platoon perform some precision drilling, completely in step with the barking commands of First Sergeant Kinnie (Whitmore), two of those replacements, Jim Layton (Thompson) and his buddy, Bill Hooper (Scotty Beckett) soon part ways to join their respective platoons but promise to stay in touch. Anxious to sew on his new Screaming Eagle patch and meet his squad, despite his clumsy efforts to ingratiate himself, the wary veterans basically ignore Layton; and the harder he tries to fit in, the worse the results. Working his way around the tent, he meets the rest of the men as he's kicked out of successive bunks that he didn't know were occupied.

The squad does perk up when Holley (Johnson) returns. Wounded in Holland, he excites the others with tales of the Paris nightlife during his recovery. Seems the whole squad, except for the replacements, have been granted three-day passes to Paris starting the next day. Anticipation is running high, but when "Li'l" Abner Spudler (Jerome Courtland) asks to buddy up with Jarvess (Hodiak) and raise a little hell, his pal declines. He has other plans, namely "a private room with a private bath" -- even if he has to take it by force. Squad Sgt. Walowicz (Bruce Cowling) is skipping the Paris trip altogether so he can compete in the regimental football game, and while Cpl. Staniferd (Don Taylor) can't believe that he'd rather play football than eat, Layton keeps moving and knocks over a baby picture belonging to Hanson (Guy Anderson) and mistakes it for a little girl when it's really a boy, meaning it's time to move yet again. The good news continues as old Pop Stazak (Murphy) announces he's been granted a dependency discharge so he can care of his sick wife. And as Kipp (Douglas Fowley), the squad malcontent, wonders who will take care of Rodrigues (Montalban) after his mentor leaves, Rodrigues responds by threatening to kick in Kipp's false "GI teeth" which leaves only Bettis (Richard Jaeckel), who's convinced that the next Nazi bullet has his name on it, who wishes he could go home, too.

As things finally wind down, they all hit the sack and kill the light, leaving a flummoxed Layton standing in the middle of the tent with no place to bunk except the ground. And while the men of the Second Squad of the Third Platoon of I-Company go to sleep dreaming of wild times in the City of Lights, they will soon wake up to a nightmare...

"Bass-togg-nee. That's a name I won't be forgetting in a hurry."

As the winter of 1944 settled over the European Theater of Operations during World War II, after Operation Market Garden "fell on it's ass" and The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest accomplished little except massive casualties, the Allied and German lines pretty much stabilized along the Siegfried Line. The war wasn't going to be over by Christmas like everyone had hoped, and it appeared that the opposing armies were content to just dig in to wait out the winter before launching new offensives in the spring of '45.

Or so the Allies thought.

The Germans, meanwhile, had secretly amassed men, tanks and material along the outskirts of the Ardennes along the Schnee Eifel for a surprise attack. History would prove this to be their last major offensive action of the war, that would come to be known as The Battle of The Bulge, but during the operation's initial stages, the final outcome was very much in doubt. With the element of total surprise, the Germans launched their furious assault. Hoping to drive a wedge between the American and British sectors, the main objective was to push their panzers all the way to Antwerp in hopes of forcing a negotiated peace with the western powers, so they could then concentrate fully on the Soviet juggernaut currently steamrolling them on the eastern front. With the Allies caught with their pants down, the attack initially met with great success. But soon enough, those pants were pulled back up and the German advance was soon stymied on all fronts by pockets of slapped together, but stubborn resistance, buying Eisenhower enough time to recover, reinforce and counterattack and eventually thwart Hitler's last gamble.

Admittedly, that is a very over-simplified version of what transpired between 5:30 AM on December 16, 1944 and January 28, 1945. There are many harrowing, dastardly and heroic tales to be told about The Battle of the Bulge, but the most storied account was the defense and siege of the Belgian town of Bastogne. A strategic objective for both sides because seven highways intersected there, Bastogne was vital and the Allies had to keep it out of German hands. With the Air Corps. grounded by bad weather, holding the road intersections and bridges were a priority to stop the marauding German panzer groups. Desperate for reinforcements, Eisenhower turned to his depleted airborne divisions, sending the 82nd to St. Vith and the 101st to Bastogne. Market Garden had taken it's toll on both the 82nd and 101st: the latter had lost one-third of it's men in Holland and were currently in Mourmelon for rest and reorganization. Before the shit hit the fan, things were quiet enough that General Taylor, the Division Commander, was flown back to Washington for a conference. So when Ike's call came, it was Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe who took command of the defense of Bastogne. Facing one of the harshest winters on record, with almost no food (-- the defenders were sustained on flour flapjacks and snow), medical supplies (-- the entire 101st Medical Staff was captured early during the siege) and scarce ammunition, the besieged units managed to hold off the German offensive from December 19 until elements of General Patton's 4th Armored broke the siege on December 27th.

And that's where the film Battleground ends. It begins, however, with First Sgt. Kinnie rousting the second squad out of their slumber with some bad news. Kinnie barks that no one's going to Paris because the German's made a breakthrough somewhere, so they're all moving up to the frontline to plug the gap. Jarvess asks where, but Kinnie doesn't know, and since it's a secret move, the men have to remove their Division insignia. As the others scramble into their gear, Layton dejectedly tears off the patch that he had just sewn own. As they assemble to be loaded up on trucks, destination still unknown, Pops still hasn't received his official discharge papers so he has to go with them, praying that the orders will catch up. During the long and bumpy ride, the ice begins to break a little as Staniferd offers Layton a cigarette, and even though he doesn't smoke, the young private thanks him profusely. When the convoy arrives in the town of Bastogne, word comes that they'll be billeted there for the night. And the Third Platoon lucks out, drawing the house of the lovely Denise (Denise Darcel) as a temporary barracks, and Holley instantly tries to put the moves on her -- even though she can't speak any English. Jarvess does his best to translate for him until he relieves Layton on guard duty outside. The night has brought a thick, eerie fog, and then suddenly, ghostly figures appear out of it -- a retreating force of American Infantry. Jarvess, the most vocal about not knowing where they are and what they're supposed to do, gets the first inkling of what's really going on as the fleeing men tell of the German onslaught that's coming. He also finds out that the 101st will soon be left alone to hold the line while every one else "strategically withdrawals."

The next morning, Holley manages to pilfer some eggs but I-Company has been ordered out of Bastogne to help form a defense perimeter before he can eat them. Guarding his eggs like gold, Holley marches with the other men out of town, then dives for cover when the German shells start falling. Taking up position in the surrounding trees, the men buddy up and start digging foxholes. Being the odd man, Layton triples up with Walowicz and Hanson but is left to dig alone while they go check in with the CP. As the others take turns digging, Layton struggles by himself. And while paranoid Bettis digs deep, deeper than needed, Holley breaks open the eggs and starts to cook them -- until Walowicz returns with orders to move again, rendering their efforts useless, bringing curses from his men -- especially Kipp, who grumbles how just once he'd like to dig a foxhole and find out that's the one he'll be sleeping in. Dumping the liquefied eggs into his helmet, Holley is careful not to spill any as they move to the next position and start digging again. While Layton is again left alone to dig, in another unfinished foxhole the cold is starting to get to Staniferd who starts hacking up a lung. Again, Holley tries to cook his eggs but is ordered to take the first shift guarding the road block with Kipp and Layton. Leaving the eggs with Bettis, Holley promises him half if he doesn't get any dirt in them.

At the checkpoint, Kipp and Holley take shelter along the road, leaving Layton to stand guard by himself. When a patrol approaches, Layton challenges them but they counter with the right password. A passing Lieutenant asks if there is a bridge up ahead, and when Layton confirms that, the patrol marches on by. As they do, Holley comments that the Lieutenant isn't very smart for keeping his bars on his collar in a combat zone. After they've passed the checkpoint, one of the men trips and curses in German, bringing a rebuke from the Lieutenant to speak only in English. What goes on here?

The next morning, the weather turns worse when it starts snowing. Everyone complains except for Rodrigues, who has never seen snow up close before. As he starts playing around in the drifts, he finds Abner's boots outside his foxhole and tosses them back in. Seems Abner's tries to dry out his boots every night and sleeps bare foot. As the storm gets worse, the men start fortifying the foxholes with branches to try and keep the snow out. When Layton finds out that Bill Hooper's company is positioned near by, he goes over to see him. He asks around but nobody's even heard of Hooper until Layton says he was one of the new replacements. Then the company commander thanks him because now he can finish his casualty report: the night before, Hooper's foxhole took a direct hit from a mortar. Bemoaning that they didn't even know his name, Layton is told they couldn't even find his dog tags.

After a dejected Layton returns to his squad, Holley's latest attempt to cook the eggs is thwarted yet again when he, Rodrigues and Jarvess are volunteered to go on a patrol. Regimental Intelligence have reports that German infiltrators wearing GI uniforms might be hiding in a certain patch of woods. Seems they captured several of them after they blew up a bridge. Holley realizes that the patrol they let through must have been the culprits, and stops Layton from revealing that fact. Before they leave, the squad suffers their first loss when Staniferd is sent back to the aide station when his pneumonia worsens. When Kipp complains that nothing like that happens to him, Bettis pointedly reminds him about the time in Holland when the malcontent, after finding out about a regulation that you need at least six teeth to stay on the line, busted his dentures and was given a two week reprieve until they got replaced. Kipp denies this, claiming he knew no such regulation and just accidentally ran into a tree in the dark. Then, as the three "volunteers" prepare to head out, they hear an incoming mortar barrage and dive for cover. Here, the squad suffers its second casualty when Holley's eggs take a direct hit. And as the bombardment continues and picks up in intensity, the jumpy Bettis loses it and runs away. Knowing he should have been pulled off the line long ago, Walowicz let's him go, hoping he makes it back to the safety of the rear. Sliding back into their foxhole, with shells falling around them, Layton makes sure that Walowicz knows his name in case one of them finds its mark. But the Sergeant says he knew it all along and offers a cigarette. This time, Layton takes it and inhales deeply.

Eventually, the barrage lifts without any further casualties, and after digging out, the patrol gets underway. The men grumble about the size of woods that only three men are supposed to search by themselves, but Holley says it's G2 strategy: If they don't come back, they'll know there's Germans in there. Rodrigues hints at goofing off, and just heading back and reporting that they heard voices talking in German. Jarvess, who's had enough of Regimental Intelligence Officers, says they should go back and say they heard Japanese voices and let them figure that one out. When a jeep approaches, they challenge the occupants at gunpoint. They do know the password but Holley, burnt once already, isn't convinced and thinks they're Germans. The tense stand-off continues until they start asking trivial questions that only a real American would know, like what a hot-rod is, and who Betty Grable is dating. Once that's settled they let the jeep pass. Heading into the woods, they bump into another American patrol who claim the woods are empty of Germans. They seem congenial and know the password, but then Holley recognizes the Lieutenant from the night before. Playing it cool, he slowly herds the others back toward the road, but once they're out of earshot, he tells Rodrigues and Jarvess to haul ass because those guys were really Krauts -- who also realize they've been made and open fire. Holley loses his rifle when the butt is shattered by enemy fire, but Rodrigues manages to take out the machine-gun nest with a grenade. Continuing to fight their way out of the forest, the men come to a clearing where they spot enemy tanks on the move. Suddenly, Rodrigues is hit and hit badly. They can't move him, so Holley and Jarvess hide him under an overturned jeep but promise to come back for him with reinforcements. But when Holley and Jarvess report in, instead of sending a patrol back, an artillery barrage is ordered by the brass to try and neutralize the tanks they spotted. Alas, the jeep they hid him under is right by a farmhouse that the artillery is zeroed in on, so when Kinnie tells them to have Walowicz send out a patrol to retrieve Rodrigues once the barrage lifts, Holley angrily asks for a sponge because that's all they need to pick up what's left of him. And the hits keep on coming: Walowicz won't be sending anyone on patrol because he was badly injured in the last barrage. As they help load him up on a jeep to be evacuated, he gives Holley his helmet, rifle and command of what's left of the squad. In the distance, they hear the American barrage start-up and Holley's first duty as squad leader is to break the news about Rodrigues to Pop Stazak.

Despite the worsening weather and artillery barrage, Pop keeps after Holley to go and get Rodrigues. When Holley asks for volunteers, Pop, Jarvess and Layton step-up, the last joking that maybe they'll find more eggs. As they head out, they spy Kipp looking in a snow bank for his false teeth that have mysteriously gone missing again. Holley rips him a new one and hopes it's warm where he's headed, and after the patrol leaves, Kipp stops looking and slinks back into his foxhole. Finding the wrecked jeep relatively intact, the hopeful rescue party starts digging out the snow that drifted around it -- but those hopes are soon dashed; they were too late, and Rodrigues has bleed to death.

As the days pass, Jarvess gets his hands on a Stars and Stripes and finds out they're making a "heroic stand." There's also a report that the bad weather will continue to ground any and all relief operations. And things continue to get worse when Kinnie brings word that the entire aide station -- medics, supplies and wounded, including Walowicz and Staniferd -- was captured by the Germans. He does have one good piece of news: Pop's official discharge notice. But when Pop starts to say his goodbyes, Kipp shows up, sporting his false teeth, and tells Pop he's going no place because Bastogne is completely surrounded and cut off. Thinking it's a bad joke, Pop starts slugging him but Holley and Layton pull him off, realizing Kipp must be telling the truth or his teeth would still be missing.

Freezing, starving and low on ammunition, the Third Platoon is moved again to guard a railway bridge. They dig in for a relatively quiet night but are violently ambushed the next morning. After the sentry is killed, the men stare into the impenetrable fog. Unable to see the enemy, Hanson is the first to move and fires into the trees at a loud German voice, triggering a huge firefight. Hanson is hit but Kipp takes up his position and continues the suppressing fire. Holley, fear in his eyes, freezes, panics, then runs away. Thinking he's just trying to outflank the enemy, Layton follows him. He calls out to Holley who stops, gathers himself, and leads Layton into the forest. Kinnie spots them and orders the rest of the squad to follow. And while Jarvess charges out of their foxhole, Abner, as he reaches for his drying boots, is shot and killed. Forming up with Holley and Layton, the others silently wait in ambush until the Germans creep out of the fog. Now, with the tables turned, the enemy patrol is obliterated.

After the fight ends, Kinnie sends what's left of the squad back to Bastogne with the injured Hanson and a few German prisoners for a much needed breather. Hanson is left in a makeshift hospital that must rely on liquor to medicate their patients. When a good looking nurse gives Hanson a belt, Pop swears if she gives him another one like that he's going out and get himself shot. Later, while scrounging around for some dry clothes, Bettis finds them and offers some hot chow; he's been working with the field cooks since his crack-up, but the others aren't listening to his story or really don't care.

After the brief respite, the men return to the front, taking up position in a shelled out barn. Jarvess was able to scrounge some information, and while he tries to explain to the others exactly where they are and what there objective is, they hear something -- a small German patrol approaching under a flag of truce, wanting to palaver with the American Commanding Officer. Blindfolding the officers, they take them to the company CP. Meanwhile, Jarvess interrogates the rest of the patrol and finds out that the Germans are here to ask for their surrender. After a while, the German Officers return but are confused by General McAullife's reply to their demands. Their escort gladly translates that "Nuts" is definitely a negative response to their requests, and then tells them to beat feet back to their own lines.

So as the battle for Bastogne continues, the Germans continually drop leaflets offering food and shelter for those that surrender -- that the men use for toilet paper. When Christmas arrives, the men attend a brief service by the Chaplain that's interrupted by another German bombardment. Even Bastogne itself is being pasted by the Luftwaffe on almost a nightly basis. Everyone is starting to fray at the edges, even Layton has turned sullen and bitter. Things are getting so desperate that the walking wounded, including Hanson, are ordered to draw out rifles and get back on the line; clerks, mechanics and even cooks are ordered to take up arms. And as Bettis starts to protest, his KP takes a direct hit and he's killed. Back outside of town, Kinnie receives word that they're supposed to pull back into Bastogne but everywhere, on all sides, they see Germans -- they've been cut off. And as the enemy start closing in on them, Layton takes aim but Kinnie stops him, saying to save his ammunition "because they'll be getting a lot closer. And we'll still be here." With that, the men solemnly fix their bayonets and wait. As Kinnie moves from hole to hole to encourage his men, he notices something: his shadow cast on the snow. He quickly turns around and looks up and sees the sun has finally broken through. The weather has finally broken, and the rough and tumble Sergeant can hardly contain himself. Then suddenly, as if to answer all their prayers, the Allied Air Corps sweeps into action, flying sorties over the enemy and dropping supplies. As the men deliriously gather up the food and ammunition, Holley starts handing out bandoliers of M1 clips and bumps into, and happily reunites with Hanson.

With the tide of battle now turned, the German's are soon on the run. Along with the air support, Patton's tanks finally managed to break through to relieve the beleaguered defenders of Bastogne. And as Holley and the other battered survivors watch those tanks roll in, what's left of the Third Platoon is formed up. Tired, battle worn and most of them injured, Kinnie gets them moving but this rabble is a far cry from what we saw at the beginning of the film. Spotting a relief column marching toward them, Kinnie starts barking at them to shape up. They do, and despite their appearance, the men march proudly off to parts unknown.

This battle may be over, but the war is yet to be won.

The End

Now before we go any further, I'd like to clear something up. Though the 101st Airborne Division deservedly gets the lion's share of credit for the defense of Bastogne -- and this in no way should be construed as any kind of knock, but, they weren't the only ones there. The 10th Armored, elements of the 609th and 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and the 969th Field Artillery Battalion, a colored unit, provided much needed support. And before the battle was even over, and the outcome far from decided, these surrounded defenders were dubbed "The Battle Battered Bastards of Bastogne" (-- joining their Pacific brethren "The Battling Bastards of Bataan"), a name that is still associated with the 101st Airborne today. And Battleground was made as a tribute for, and a dedication to, their heroic efforts.

Screenwriter Robert Pirosh broke into the film industry writing comedies for The Marx Brother's (A Day at the Races) and vehicles for Veronica Lake (I Married a Witch). When World War II broke out, Pirosh enlisted and wound up in 35th Infantry Division. Rising to the rank of Master Sergeant, he saw action in the Ardennes during The Bulge and Pirosh was part of a patrol that made its way into Bastogne to help relieve the 101st and the others who were under siege there. After the war ended, he returned to his former profession and it appears that the rest of his filmmaking career was dedicated to truthfully portraying the common infantry soldier with no Hollywood phony-baloney. His time in the service would greatly affect and influence him, and it would translate to his screenplays. One of which, Battleground, was based on his experiences fighting in and around Bastogne.

Meanwhile, producer Dore Schary was best known for a string of Cary Grant comedies, including Mr. Blandings Builds his Dreamhouse and The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer. Pirosh and Schary worked together at RKO Pictures, which was run by Howard Hughes at the time. Schary fell in love with Pirosh's script and began developing it for production. Not wanting anyone to copy their ideas, they hid the production under the false title Prelude to Love. Unfortunatey, Hughes was convinced that since the war was over there was no market for this type of movie anymore. Schary fought hard for it but lost, and the production was cancelled. Later, when Schary left RKO for MGM, he took the Battleground script with him. But just like with Hughes, he had a hell of a time convincing Louis B. Mayer of the films merits. Eventually, Mayer begrudgingly caved in and green-lighted the project. But Mayer, and everyone else in the industry, thought Schary was crazy -- so while it was in production, Battleground became known as Schary's Folly.

The production picked up some much needed steam when William Wellman signed on as director. 'Wild Bill" Wellman, a veteran himself of the first World War, was a Hollywood maverick. He was demanding but well respected craftsmen, and actors wanted to work with him but were wary of his infamous temper. Known for his own stark and brooding style in films like The Oxbow Incident and The Public Enemy, he could also handle action and adventure with the likes of his version of Beau Geste starring Gary Cooper. Wellman had already made one great war film, The Story of GI Joe, based on the novel "Brave Men" by correspondent Ernie Pyle. GI Joe was a different kind of war film in that the focus was starting to shift from the abstractions of why we fight to the realism of who was fighting and the effects combat had on them. Wellman's camera got right in the middle of the action; the fight scenes were intense, with no time for patriotic speeches, and the audience found themselves ducking the bullets, shells and grenades, too. After the cast for the new film was assembled -- mostly MGM contract players, including Johnson, Montalban and Thompson -- Wellman sent them all to boot camp for some basic training. After that, they brought in 20 paratroopers who served in Bastogne as technical advisers who also appear as extras in the film.

Plugging this cast in, Wellman and Pirosh put them through their paces, trying to accurately portray life in the "foot-slogging" infantry: the hurrying up and waiting; the digging in and then instantly moving again; the constant complaining about the brass; the lack of information as you head down in rank as to where you are and where you're going. Except for Sgt. Kinnie and the Platoon Lieutenant, officers are amazingly absent from the film. I also believe this is the first film where men of rank, when going into combat, hastily remove all forms of insignia from their uniforms as not to draw German fire. When the men poke fun at Holley after he takes over the squad and starts giving orders, he quips back "Yup, strictly chicken, that's me." Every veteran knew that what he really meant to say, but couldn't, was "Yup, strictly chicken-shit, that's me." Chicken-shit is what the GI generally used in reference to Army rules and regs on privileges of rank, appearance, conduct and almost everything else. And just like Layton, replacements were given the cold shoulder; not necessarily because they hadn't proven themselves yet, but because the veterans hesitated to make new friends when in all likelihood they might be dead by the next day.

Pirosh made his fictitious squad part of the 327th Glider Regiment -- you can tell by the Club symbol on their helmets, and they were the ones who met the German envoy asking for Gen. McAuliffe's famous surrender reply. (Though history now says he might not have said "nuts" at all and dropped an F-Bomb instead.) Now, I won't say Battleground is completely and historically accurate as most of the German/American infiltrators weren't around Bastogne but further north, but beyond that, aside from a few other dramatic liberties, it commits no great sin against history. The action sequences were staged as authentically as possible from the weapons to the tactics used. The special-effects and pyrotechnics were spot-on, right down to the pitch and whine of the mortars to the phlegmatic gurgle of incoming German 88mm shells. Most of the action takes place on sound-stages, but to the film's credit, it's never a distraction. And as the rushes came in, the studio saw what they were getting and all the talk of Schary's Folly quickly died out. To top it off, Wellman brought the production in twenty days early and under budget by almost $100000. And before the film was released to the public, a private screening was arranged for President Truman and he made it official: they had a bona fide hit on their hands.

Battleground did hit and it hit big at the box office in 1950. Critics loved it, audiences loved it, and probably most important of all, veterans of the war liked and appreciated it, giving it the ultimate seal of approval. The film would be nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Screenwriter, Cinematography and Supporting Actor for Whitmore. It went on to win two awards: Pirosh for his screenplay, and Paul Vogel for his work behind the camera; losing out to All the King's Men -- the tale of a fictionalized crooked southern politician (but it didn't take a genius to see they were talking about The Kingfish, Huey Long) for best picture. It wasn't a big a crime as Saving Private Ryan losing to Shakespeare in Love but, dammit, they was robbed, too.

Like Wellman's GI Joe, Battleground was a new and different kind of war film. Sure, it was hampered by the censors of the day so it couldn't get too vulgar or violent. (Though I did love the scene where it's only implied what Kipp is going to do with the German leaflets.) Sure, it gets hung up a bit when stock-footage is spliced in. And sure, there's that idiotic romantic subplot with Darcel *sigh*. Yet people tend to get hung up on these points and write it off as another typical war flick of that period. But Battleground is anything but typical. Before it, war films were either propaganda pieces for why we're fighting (The Purple Heart), Hollywoodized history lessons (Guadalcanal Diary), tributes to service branches (The Fighting Seabees) or straight out fantasy yarns to boost morale (Sahara). And combat films always seem to have the same cast of players, but Battleground had no good old boy from Texas; no Brooklynite wondering how 'dem Bums were making out; no farmers; and no hot-blooded Italian lovers; no expectant fathers; no cowardly Privates with axes to grind, or past history with their Sergeants as we wait, patiently, for the golly, you were right and I was wrong speech -- now let's go get those Krauts or Japs. In Battleground we have an older paratrooper that everyone calls Pop; a Latino from Los Angeles; an idealistic newsman who bought in to why we should be fighting but is now having second thoughts; a drawling country bumpkin from Appalachia; the new guy; the malcontent; the gold brick and the paranoid one who thinks every bullet has his name on it. Sound familiar? Sure, but here, though, they are characters not caricatures and believe me, there's a big difference. Yes, this cast of characters is big but it's nothing you can't keep track of if you're paying attention. What amazes me most is that the majority of these characters aren't very likeable. Most of them are devious, cowardly and rude. I mean, Kipp is a turd, Jarvess is stuck-up asshole and Bettis seems very, very preoccupied with getting himself wounded to get off the line. Why these guys aren't fighting each other and not the enemy is a testament to military training.

And that's what makes the movie so great. Battleground was also one of the first films to look at the horror and stress of combat physically and emotionally on an individual level. The film is subtle with this, most overtly in the scene when Holley and Layton talk about why they're fighting for Mom's blueberry pie, but it rings true loud and clear. When Jarvess reads about "the heroic stand" they're making, Holley tells him to "skip the commercial." Even the Chaplain's Christmas speech is interrupted by a German bombardment. These men weren't fighting for the cause. They were fighting to stay alive until they could finally go home. If accomplishing this means fighting and subduing the enemy, then that's what they did. The transformation of these characters from the clean-cut, snap-to drilling sequence at the beginning of the film, to the frozen, battle weary, starving, dirty and exhausted shells of their former selves at the end is shocking and startling. With the battle finally over, as they line up to march out, we finally notice how much smaller the platoon is. Over half the men are gone. And as they start to shuffle off, haphazardly, until Kinnie snaps them back together. They form up in cadence, despite all they've been through and endured, and march off into the sunset, tall and proud, and I tell ya, it brings a tear to my eye and a rush of endorphins down my spine every time I see it.

Blessed with a great ensemble cast to take up those parts, the stars of the film were Johnson, Hodiak and Montalban but they're balanced out equally with Fowley's false teeth, Courtland's yodeling and big feet, Anderson's coveted watch and Murphy's arthritis, much to the film's benefit. But if anybody steals the show it is Whitmore. His portrayal of Sgt. Kinnie appears to be a Bill Mauldin cartoon that crawled right of the pages of "Stars and Stripes" and come to life. He only has about twenty lines in the whole picture, but that scene when the fog finally lifts, and he can hardly contain himself on his frozen feet, one ponders how he ever lost the Oscar to Dean Jaegger, who won for another war film 12 O'clock High. Sadly, one of the biggest complaints people have about this film is Van Johnson's portrayal of Holley. A comedic song and dance man by trade, people tire of his mugging for the camera or his mincing over his stolen eggs.

Just hold the damn phone right there.

Folks, without that stuff, the scene where his character freezes under fire and runs away, until Layton unwittingly stops him, wouldn't have near the impact that it has. The happy-go-lucky squad clown has reached his breaking point. He runs, and might have kept on running if Layton hadn't stopped him, but Holley recovers and leads the counter-attack. To me, this is the turning point of the film, not the fog lifting and the air-drop. Holley, and the rest of the squad, bent but did not break, and the outcome of the Battle for Bastogne (in the movie anyways) was never in doubt after that.

All this stuff is old hat for combat films now but you have to remember that Battleground did it first. Okay, The Story of GI Joe may have started the change, but Battleground broke the mold and the war film hasn't been the same since. Schary's Folly also proved the beginning of the end for Louis B. Mayer, and sounded the death knell for the old studio system. Pirosh continued making war films like Go For Broke -- the story of the all Nisei (Japanese-American) 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He also started Hell is for Heroes but when a conflict arose with star Steve McQueen, he left the production. He then teamed up with Lemur Productions and brought the war to us weekly with Combat! on the small screen.

Unfortunately, for some unfathomable reason, over the subsequent years Battleground hasn't sustained it's massive popularity from '50. Critics tend to champion Wellman's The Story of GI Joe more, and say it is a better film, but I disagree. In fact, I will go one step further and say that I think Battleground, for the reasons I've stated here, is the greatest war film ever made. Period. Yeah, if you couldn't tell, I really do love everything about this movie -- the characters, the story, the action and it's beautiful craftsmanship. And hopefully, now that I'm finally done yapping about it -- sorry I tend to get a little long winded when talking about films I truly care about, even if you don't like war movies, you'll give Battleground a shot for yourselves.


Battleground (1949) Loew's Incorporated :: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / P: Dore Schary / AP: Robert Pirosh / D: William A. Wellman / W: Robert Pirosh / C: Paul Vogel / E: John D. Dunning / M: Lennie Hayton / S: Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Marshall Thompson, Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Jerome Courtland, Don Taylor, Bruce Cowling, Richard Jaeckel, Douglas Fowley, James Whitmore, Denise Darcel

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