Seasons greetings to all you loyal War Movie Monday fans out there in The Flickcast universe. In keeping with the theme of war films which happen around the holidays, I am proud to present this week’s pick, the 1949 MGM classic Battleground which salutes the “Battered Bastards” of 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon of Item Company, 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne who were cut off and surrounded by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. To ensure that veterans seeing the film would not criticize the accuracy of certain events, the regiment was a composite of units which had fought the offensive in the Ardennes.
The film stars a troop of Hollywood greats which include Van Johnson (Holley), John Hodiak (Jarvess), Ricardo Montalban (Rodriguez), George Murphy (“Pop” Stazak), Marshall Thompson (Jim Layton), Jerome Courtland (Abner Spudler), Don Taylor (Standiferd), Douglas Fowley (“Kipp” Kippton), James Whitmore (Sgt. Kinnie), and Richard Jaeckel (Bettis).
Battleground was one of the first major hits for MGM in over five years since the war had ended. During the war, many films had shown battlefield conditions, but Battleground was the first to show the audience just how painful it truly was. The film is a fantastic display which shows men in combat as extremely vulnerable and succumbing to battle fatigue or what is referred to today as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
Unlike many films of the time which were filled with gung-ho patriotism, bravado, and told you to purchase war bonds in the theater lobby, the film shows that most of the characters at one point or another in the film are not immune to what is happening to them. Many contemplate running away, they try to get removed off the front lines, they shrug certain responsibilities, or constantly complain about the predicament they’re in.
The one thing that has always stuck with me about the film is that the film makes you very cold while watching it. The production was shot in Northern California, Oregon and Washington state. The terrain is very similar to the Ardennes forest.
The film also shows the viewer the isolation that many new recruits faced when joining a new unit as a replacement. When Jim Layton (Thompson) arrives at camp at the beginning of the film, he introduces himself and is ignored by many of the men who see the replacements as men who were brought in so that they could die and keep other men alive. Holley (Johnson) is one of the men who is guilty of it because of the action he has seen thus far in the war, and has returned from the hospital after treatment for a wound he received and is happy to return to his comrades.
In truth, many front-line soldiers didn’t want to get to know the replacements because they were more than likely to get killed very quickly because they were inexperienced and rushed off to fight. By film’s end, Layton has become a first rate soldier and wins the respect of his fellow soldiers.
Hopping to be home in time for Christmas because they believe that the war is almost over, the men of Item Company relax at their camp in France and daydream about a weekend pass in Paris. When news spreads in the camp that the Germans have launched a winter offensive in the Ardennes forest on the Belgian/German border, the men of Item Company, 101st Airborne are transported by truck to a little town with a series of vital crossroads. When the trucks stop and the men wonder where they are, the camera pans over to a sign which reads Bastogne. They don’t know it yet, but the American troops are about to fight one of the most decisive battles in history.
Platoon Sgt. Kinnie (Whitmore) moves his men out in the morning to establish a defensive perimeter around the outskirts of the town to dig in and wait for the German armor which is threatening to reclaim Belgium, and to possibly divide the ally forces in such a manner as to destroy the progress which had been made since the D-Day landings. The film is superbly directed by William Wellman and the acting in the film is flawless, especially Johnson, Hodiak, Whitmore, Fowley, and Montalban.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is where Holley, Rodriguez, and Jarvess are securing a portion of the woods and are situated by a road junction. The men are uneasy due to reports of English speaking German soldiers disguised as American troops who had infiltrated their lines the previous night and blew up a bridge. A Jeep approaches and Holley tells the men to stay alert and that they may be Krauts. The senior officer in the Jeep issues a very similar order to his men. The two groups begin to question one another about baseball, Hollywood starlets, and typical American phrases as to prove that they are all American servicemen. Unfortunately, the moment of levity is broken when the German disguised troops appear and ambush Holley’s patrol.
My absolute favorite scene in the film is when the men have been fighting not only the enemy, but the extreme harsh winter weather that has bogged down the Air Corp and any allied planes that are trying to air drop much needed supplies to the embattled paratroopers. The men have exhausted their supplies and are down to only a few precious rounds of ammunition. When Sgt. Kinnie pops up over a snow drift to survey the advancing German troops, he stops and sees that after several days of heavy snow and fog, he can see his shadow.
He turns and yells to the rest of his men that the sun has appeared and that fighters begin smashing the German lines and American C-47 cargo planes are beginning to drop supplies. An old fashion dissolve effect shows the American forces getting resupplied and taking the fight to the enemy.
Battleground went on to be an astounding hit for MGM that year and grossed a total of five million dollars. The film cost only two million to make. Writer Robert Pirosh took many of his actual experiences from the battle and incorporated it into the script to give as much authenticity to the film as possible. Battleground went on to win two Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and for Best Writing. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Film Editing, and Best Supporting Actor (James Whitmore).
The film is incredibly accurate but for dramatic purposes, there were no German troops disguised as Americans anywhere close to Bastogne during the fighting. Operation Greif as it was referred to by the Germans, operated well North of the Bastogne area and was limited to sabotage, not to engage enemy units in battle. Despite that one flaw, Battleground is one of the greatest post World War II Hollywood masterpieces.
Battleground is available on DVD through Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented via Netflix.