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Military March: Battleground (1949)

We’re off to war this month. Every Friday in March we will look at a classic World War II film. This week Adam and Rodney look at William Wellman’s Battleground.

ADAM: By beginning and ending with scenes of masses of troops performing drill commands, Battleground makes a statement: this movie is about a band of brothers; a unified group more than individuals. The film concerns the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, as they fend off the Germans in the Siege of Bastogne, a battle that took place in the blustery Winter of 1944. We witness the drudgery, griping, and ultimately camaraderie and valor within this group of lowly infantrymen.

Newspaper ad from the Palace in Marion, Ohio.

RODNEY: What’s striking to me, and this is no doubt a point that I’m going to come back to several times here, is that this film was inexplicably billed as a comedy. Contemporary ads refer to the film as “a world of fun,” yet it’s obvious from the outset that Great Guns or Buck Privates this isn’t. The early moments of levity have a heavy somber tone to them, at least when viewed by modern eyes.

A: How else do you get couples to choose Battleground for their date night? You’ve just got to lie.

Hollywood’s years of barnstorming wartime propaganda had come to a temporary halt. Battleground was produced in peacetime. This vantage point is evident in the final product which, although still a film that intends to rouse, has a questioning tone. “Was this trip necessary?” is the central question posed by the military chaplain in a scene in the second half of the film. Although his answer is emphatically affirmative, the fact that it’s being asked is notable in itself. There are several other factors which make the movie a sort of demarcation line between the myth-making war years and the introspective post-war era. The insanity of Apocalypse Now is three decades in the future, but there are hints in Battleground of a fogginess and disorientation overtaking the soldiers. Note the characters persistent confusion as to the time—one soldier from Illinois even purposely keeps his watch set to Central Standard Time. There is also a refrain from the soldiers wondering exactly what country they are even trudging through—is it Belgium or Luxembourg?

R: It seems that the film is more realistic than most from the time period, although there is still a goodly amount of Hollywood sheen overlaying it. During a time when many of our boys had returned home and were looking at their sacrifices and the European situation, I can imagine that many of them were wondering just what they did it all for. Where Battleground succeeds the most to me is as a reminder of not just what we lived through, but why we did it, and as a reminder of those who did not make it home. It’s a message that I found sobering.

Battleground Paul Vogel William Wellman ww2
DP Paul Vogel won an Oscar for his cinematography.

A: For me, this film recalled John Huston’s 1945 documentary, the U.S. Army-produced The Battle of San Pietro. Huston’s film is a combination of action sequences filmed much like a Hollywood feature with heroic closeups of rugged soldiers (several of whom could be matinee idols) along with stark realism. The corpses of soldiers are shown unflinchingly, and the inhabitants of San Pietro are shown with the cavernous eyes of those who had experienced hell firsthand. I hadn’t seen it in many years, so I took another look at the documentary after watching Battleground. Although the scorched Italian terrain makes the film feel markedly different, there are similarities in how this short film is shot versus the multi-million-dollar studio feature. Comparing the sequences of soldiers one-by-one applying their bayonets in each film, leads me to believe that the filmmakers of Battleground had taken note of the controversial Huston work. I surmise that the heavily lauded war films of Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City, Paisan, and Germany, Year Zero) were also influential on this production.

Van Johnson Battleground ww2
Van Johnson redefines the term shell-shocked.

Even if some of the lacquer is stripped away, this is still an MGM film. Accordingly, Van Johnson provides one of the film’s most light-hearted and memorable sequences. He absconds with a half-dozen farm fresh eggs and protects this valuable but delicate food as he faces a long, brutal march against enemy fire. It’s no wonder this stays within the realm of believability, because this was lifted straight from screenwriter Robert Pirosh’s diaries he kept during his time in the war. As he witnessed a hardened veteran cradle the eggs during a face-off with the enemy, the writer thought to himself, “If he can worry about breaking eggs, we’re probably O.K.!”

R: The lighthearted tone of certain scenes seems necessary when compared to the dour tone and near hopelessness of much of the film and reminds me of the fact that many argue that MGM never really did comedy very well. Historians and buffs have debated for decades just why this was the case, but it cannot be argued that in the annals of film, MGM was very good at neutering zany comedians (see Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy’s two 40’s films for examples). Now we’re not talking about anything that severe here, but for a film that was billed and heralded as a comedy in so much advertising, there is little here to create any out-loud laughs. What is billed as humor instead solicits quiet smiles upon the contemplation of the great hardships endured during the time of the film.

Marshall Thompson Battleground ww2
Marshall Thompson as Private Jim Layton.

A: Pirosh did contribute to the screenplay for A Day at the Races, so he did have the comedic chops even if they’re not on full display here. Even though I approached this as a William Wellman film, by the time I viewed it and did some research it became evident that the authorial voice probably belongs more to writer/associate producer Pirosh (who won the Academy Award for the script) and producer Dore Schary, who smuggled both the writer and the story when he transitioned from RKO to MGM. The Los Angeles Times wrote a profile piece on Pirosh at the time of Battleground’s release which gives a good background on the script and Pirosh’s time in the war.

R: I’m of the mindset that this film would probably have fared better under RKO than it did here. That MGM polish and sheen creates a dreamlike quality to the entire film that detracts from the feature as a whole to me. There is a lot of dark and sobering stuff here, but you’re somehow always reminded that it’s JUST a movie. I don’t really think Wellman had much to do with that, as much as it’s just the way MGM movies are. Classic Hollywood at is shiniest and most polished.

A: In an interview with Richard Schickel, Wellman singles out maybe my favorite moment in the whole film and a great example of fine direction. In a respite from battle, Van Johnson and Marshall Thompson take quarter in a cozy country home with their warm host, the curvaceous Denise. As she slices a loaf of bread held up to her body, the knife perilously close to her breast, Van Johnson reflexively jumps up to save her. I laughed out loud, both at the suddenness of his move and because it was exactly what I was thinking. Is this merely a throwaway gag? Or maybe these moments (like the egg sequence before) are the answer to the chaplain’s question about the necessity of this this “trip.” What exactly are the troops fighting to protect anyway? It’s clever messaging from the filmmakers.

Denise Darcel knife Battleground William Wellman ww2
Denise Darcel demonstrates how not to use a knife.

R: This seems like as good a time as any to bring up Denise Darcel, since you mentioned her. The only woman to ever win the titles of both “The Most Beautiful Girl in France” and “Miss Welder of 1952,” I enjoyed a cursory dive into her career after I watched the film and would love to know more. She seems to have done it all, from starring roles in a few important films to striptease in the early ‘60’s. She was a guest at Cinecon in 2009 and I’m sure it would’ve been a real treat to be in the audience with her watching a new print of Flame of Calcutta (which I also now want to see).

A: She’s in Vera Cruz, too—I really need to watch that.

This is a long, at times unpleasant movie. But by the time the end came, I felt some chills. I’ll get tested for a virus later, but I’m pretty sure that was just human emotion. I’m glad I watched this one. Four stars.

R: I’m writing these notes two days after watching the film, and it’s really stuck with me and made me feel quite melancholy, albeit in a pleasant way.I don’t think this is a film that I’m likely to forget any time soon and I’m grateful to have seen it.I was not a fan of the attempts at comic relief however, so I’m going to go with 3 and a half stars for that reason.

Battleground William Wellman James Whitmore ww2
James Whitmore as Platoon Sergeant Kinnie.

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