Dec. 25, 2009
Battleground (1949)
Grade: 67/100

Director: William A. Wellman
Stars: Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban

What it's about. A depiction of the December 1944 Battle of the Bulge, which took place near Bastogne, Luxembourg, between the United States and Germany. The depiction is from the point of view of the 101st Airborne Division, which took heavy casualties but withstood the German offensive.

The star here is Van Johnson, who plays gregarious Private First Class Holley. Tobacco-chewing drill sergeant Kennie (James Whitmore), whose disposition favors the war more than most, has a memorable supporting role. Douglas Fowley is a private who has bashed out his teeth in the vain hope of getting sent home (in real life, he lost his teeth in an explosion during his World War II service).

Older guy Stazak (George Murphy) is expecting to receive his discharge, but begrudgingly continues to serve. Private Hansan (Herbert Anderson) continues to keep his watch set to the time in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Private Roderigues (Ricardo Montalban) has never seen snow before, and in typical bitter irony, dies in it. Don Taylor plays a Gomer Pyle type who annoys his regiment with his frequent comment "That's for sure! That's for dang sure!" Private Jarvess (John Hodiak) was a publisher for his small town newspaper. Private Layton (Marshall Thompson) is a fresh recruit who panics in combat, as does Private Bettis (Richard Jaeckel), who wrongly thinks he'll be safer in Bastogne kitchen duty. Leon Ames has a poignant cameo as a chaplain.

How others will see it. Allegedly, top MGM brass had a battleground of their own over the making of this movie. Longtime MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer opposed it on the grounds that the public was tired of war movies. Producer Dore Schary, a new arrival to the studio, successfully pushed for it. He proved correct, since the film was a box office success.

It also was well received by critics, who appreciated the novelty of soldiers acting like imperfect human beings instead of exaggerated Sergeant York-style heroes. The movie received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, winning in the categories of Black & White Cinematography and Best Screenplay.

The movie is particularly beloved by those over 45, although the film has generally high user ratings, with the exception of young women, who presumably don't see the entertainment value in watching soldiers die while wearing heavy winter gear.

How I felt about it. Three of the leads of this film recently died in consecutive months: Van Johnson in December 2008, Ricardo Montalban in January 2009, and James Whitmore (who received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work here, and was a Marine during World War II) in February 2009.

However, James Arness, who plays Private Garby, and Jerome Courtland, who plays the soldier who won't wear his wet boots, are both still with us (as of Christmas 2009). Arness, better known as Marshall Dillon of the long-running television western "Gunsmoke", earned a Purple Heart during his World War II service.

Battleground is closer to reality than perhaps any war film of its era. The soldiers, of course, generally show heroism and courage under fire. But some of them run when the going gets tough, and some, such as Bettis and Kipp, perform dishonorable actions in attempt to survive the war.

Even the lead, Van Johnson, often seems more concerned about scoring with Denise Darcel, or having a scrambled eggs dinner, than in defeating the Germans at battle. There is also a hint of racism directed toward the sole Hispanic member of the outfit, Ricardo Montalban, by then a bona fide MGM moviestar. And there is plenty of disgruntled sarcasm, and not all of it is directed at such safe targets as KP rations and German propaganda leaflets.

Inevitably, some members of the unit die. Yet at film's end, with the Germans beaten back, the survivors of the 101st seem as enthusiastic about sounding off in cadence as they were in the opening scenes. Another Hollywood moment has the fog lifting and aerial support moving in to wipe out the Nazis, just when it appears that the 101st will have to make a last stand fighting hand to hand against much larger German forces.

Overall, though, Battleground appears authentic. Director William Wellman was a World War I veteran. Some of the cast actually fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and several veterans of the 101st were brought in to further improve the accuracy. The message is that men are capable of remarkable courage when called upon to risk their lives for their country. And here, that message is actually believable.