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Film Friday: "Battleground" (1949)

In honor of Van Johnson's 99th birthday, which was on Tuesday, this week on "Film Friday" I thought I'd tell you a little bit about what I think is one of his greatest films, one that also happens to show "the guts, gags and glory of a lot of wonderful guys."

Theatrical release poster
Directed by William A. Wellman, Battleground (1949) opens in France in mid-December 1944, as battle-weary soldiers of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division await their long-promised leave in Paris. The pass is cancelled, however, when they are called back to the frontline to stop a surprise German breakthrough in Bastogne. Among those sent to plug the breach are Pfc. Holley (Van Johnson), a girl crazy soldier; Pvt. Jarvess (John Hodiak), a small town newspaper columnist; Pfc. Roderigues (Ricardo Montalbán), a Mexican-American enlistee; Pvt. "Pop" Stazak (George Murphy), an older serviceman awaiting a "dependency discharge"; Pvt. Layton (Marshall Thompson), a new recruit; and Sgt. Kinnie (James Whitmore), the platoon leader.

After a heavy winter storm, Kinnie informs the squad that a group of German soldiers disguised as American G.I.s have infiltrated their position and sends out Holley, Jarvess and Roderigues to patrol the fog-shrouded Ardennes woods. Just before they start out, the platoon experiences its first action in the Battle of the Bulge, being shelled by German artillery that is behind cover. Roderigues is wounded by machine-gun fire from an enemy tank and eventually freezes to death. A short time later, while on guard duty, they encounter a party of Germans who have come to negotiate the American surrender, but Brig. Gen. McAuliffe, the highest ranking officer in charge of the operation, responds with just a single word: "Nuts!" On Christmas Day, the Lutheran chaplain (Leon Ames) helds a moving service in the field, before being interrupted by the sounds of the Luftwaffe bombing Bastogne. As the squad is down to its last few rounds of ammunition, the weather clears and Allied relief planes are finally able to drop supplies, enabling the 101st to quickly defeat the Germans. With the siege of Bastogne lifted, Kinnie leads the survivors of the platoon toward the rear for a well-earned rest.

Chaplain: Was this trip necessary? My answer to the sixty-four dollar question is yes, this trip was necessary. As the years go by, a lot of people are going to forget. But you won't. And don't ever let anybody tell you you were a sucker to fight in the war against fascism.

When World War II ended in September1945, so ended the American public's interest in war films in general and combat films in particular. Now that battlefield successes in Europe and in the Pacific had assured Allied victory, people wanted to get on with their lives and not think about the recents horrors of the conflict. Hollywood had long anticipated the country's desire to return to normalcy and war film production stalled for several years after V-J Day in favor of "a steady peacetime diet of noir thrillers, madcap comedies and adventure films." In the late 1940s, however, three first-rate combat dramas  Twelve O'Clock High (1949), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), and especially Battleground initiated a cycle of war films that "would continue almost unabated until the dark era of the Vietnam War."

Producer Dore Schary first conceived Battleground in early 1947, while he was still head of production at RKO Pictures. Although studio executives felt the trend of war pictures had passed, Schary believed "it was imperative to do a film about World War II that would say that war was worth fighting despite the terrible losses," so as to prevent Americans from experiencing the same kind of disillusionment that had swept the country after the First World War. To emphasize both the sense of sacrifice and the threat of a Nazi takeover, Schary looked for a specific situation in which the Allied cause had been close to failure and found just that in the decisive siege of the Belgium town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States during World War II. Aware that veteran screenwriter Robert Pirosh had served in Europe, Schary immediately arranged a meeting with him and asked if he knew anything about Bastogne. "Know anything?" Pirosh replied, "I was there!"

Pirosh and William A. Wellman on the set
Pirosh had been a Master Sergeant with the 320th Regiment, 35th Infantry Division, crucial in relieving the encircled 101st Airborne struggling to survive in the freezing cold of the Ardennes forest. He kept a wartime diary in which he recorded his experiences as a combat infantryman, as well as little incidents and anecdotic episodes he witness while fighting alongside the 101st in the Bulge. "It was not a daily diary, but my mind was always on a possible picture to be written after the war," he later explained. Schary realized that Pirosh was "uniquely qualified" to write the script for his proposed war film and hired him right after their meeting.

Worried that another studio would beat RKO to the theaters with a rival war picture, Schary kept a close wrap of secrecy around the pre-production stage of the project and even gave Pirosh's story a cover title, Prelude to Love, as a way to disguise its subject. After returning to the battlefields of Bastogne in April 1947 and reliving the "horror of times past," Pirosh knew exactly the kind of story he wanted to tell. He wanted to focus on one single squad of riflemen, "without heroics, without fancy speeches, without a phony romance," and avoid at least three clichés that were frequent in war films at the time: "there is no character from Brooklyn in the story. Nobody gets a letter from his wife or girl saying she has found a new love, and nobody sweats out the news of the arrival of a new born baby back home." The most important thing for Pirosh was to write "a picture which would ring true to the men [who had fought in the Bulge] and which would not be an insult to the memory of those we left there."

The company arrives in Bastogne
Although Pirosh "had slept in the same mud, picked at the same frozen K-rations, faced the same German soldiers" as the 'Battered Basterds of Bastogne,' the nickname given to the members of the 101st Airborne who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, he feared he might not be able to develop an accurate script. To be as true-to-life as possible, he sought advice from Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, who had commanded the division during the siege of Bastogne and whose succint reply of "Nuts!" to the German demand of surrender had become the symbol of American determination during the war. McAuliffe enthusiastically approved of the project and encouraged Pirosh to "go ahead and write it the way you feel it." Like Pirosh, McAuliffe believed it was time the public was shown a new side of the war and later served as technical adviser on the writing phase of Battleground, personally annotating and approving every line of dialogue.

In early spring of 1948, shortly after Pirosh handed in his first draft of the screenplay, Schary signed Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan and Bill Williams to starring roles, with Fred Zinnemann in mind for director. At that point, eccentric aviation tycoon and occasional film producer Howard Hughes suddenly bought RKO and told Schary to take Battleground off the studio's production schedule, feeling that the story was "too grim and lacked key entertainment values." Hughes was firmly convinced that an infantry picture would be a disaster, but Schary strongly believed Battleground was a winner. Exasperated at Hughes's intransigence, Schary resigned from RKO and was immediately signed by Louis B. Mayer to head of production at MGM, the studio he had left years earlier over creative conflicts.

Wellman directing a scene in Battleground
Schary wanted Battleground to be his first project back at MGM, but Mayer was skeptical and uneasy about its commercial prospects. Since he didn't want to oppose Schary so soon after his return to the studio, Mayer allow him to make the film and the producer immediately purchased the screenplay of Battleground from Hughes. Schary also brought Pirosh to MGM to complete the script and arranged with General McAuliffe and the Army to provide 20 veterans of the 101st Division who had fought at Bastogne to serve as extras on the film, as well as tanks, trucks and other needed equipment.

To direct Battleground, Schary chose the legendary William A. Wellman, an acknowledged expert at handling action sequences who had recently delivered a successful portrayal of infantrymen in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), starring Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum. Known as "Wild Bill," Wellman was a decorated veteran of World War I, having served as a Lieutenant with the Lafayette Flying Corps stationed at Lunéville in the Alsace-Lorraine territory. Although Wellman disliked Schary and disagreed with his desire to put messages in films, he liked Pirosh's script and agreed to direct Battleground, especially since the studio had offered him "an awful lot of money to do it." Nevertheless, he told Schary, "Look, I can't make a G.I. Joe out of this thing. I'll make a film about a very tired group of guys."

Van Johnson on a lunch break
Casting of Battleground was somewhat problematic at first, as Robert Taylor, Bill Williams, Robert Ryan and Keenan Wynn all departed the project due to contractual conflicts. To replace Taylor in the part of the fun-loving Holley, Schary signed Van Johnson, one of the studio's most profitable stars during the war years, often playing military roles in films like A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). Johnson's popularity had declined in the late 1940s and he trusted Battleground would  not only restore his status as one of the nation's biggest box-office draws, but also bring out the best of his talent.

The other members of Wellman's stellar cast included popular song-and-dance man and future senator George Murphy, who played "Pop" Stazak, a 35-year-old soldier given his discharge papers right before Bastogne is surrounded; newcomer Marshall Thompson, assigned to the crucial role of Jim Layton, the inexperienced replacement who slowly learns the value of true comradeship; Air Force veteran and future director Don Taylor, who played Corporal Standiferd; Ricardo Montalbán, a newcomer from the Mexican film industry assigned to the role of Roderigues; John Hodiak, who played Jarvess the ex-newspaperman; Jerome Courtland, a veteran of the Pacific Theater of war who shone as the ill-fated hillbilly Abner Spudler; Bruce Cowling, as no-nonsense squad leader Sergeant Wolowicz; highly respected character actor Richard Jaeckle, the perpetual "kid" in countless war films, who played Private Bettis; Navy veteran Douglas Fowley, who had lost its teeth in an aircraft carrier explosion in the South Pacific, assigned to the role of Private Kippton; and James Whitmore, a veteran of the Marine Corps who played the cigar-chewing, frostbitten Sergeant Kinnie.

Darcel and Murphy between takes
While Battleground was essentially an all-male production, Pirosh's script did include a female character, a French farm girl who feeds some of the soldiers during a lull in the battle and whom Holley tries to romance. For that part, Schary hired Denise Darcel, described by him as "a buxom, juicy French girl [...] with ample round buttocks and breasts that, as she walked, presented a movable feast." Wellman did not think a war picture should have included "that kind of stuff," especially since the studio had Darcel wear a tight black sweater throughout the film, but he conceded that cinematically her breasts proved "wonderful to play with."

Although Wellman had a facility for getting the best out of his actors, he ranted and swore a lot on the set and did not welcome suggestions. In one memorable sequence in Battleground, while German planes drop leaflets urging the American soldiers to surrender, infantrymen make depreciative comments about the pamphlets, then crumple them up and throw them away. As Wellman was preparing to shoot the scene, George Murphy approached him and timidly asked if he could make a suggestion. When the irritable director agreed, Murphy demonstrated what he had in mind to do on camera: he started picking up the leaflets and walked into the woods, obviously with the intention of using them as toilet paper. Suprisingly enough, Wellman approved of Murphy's suggestion, saying, "I finally got a good idea from an actor!" 

Both MGM and the military did their best to help Wellman make Battleground as realistic as possible. The Army provided the director with tanks, trucks and other needed equipment, while the studio recreated the winterlike atmosphere of the Battle of the Bulge by taking out a wall between two soundstages and constructing a huge indoor battlefield that gave the director a completely controlled environment in which to work. Apart from the obvious benefit of not having to worry about melting snow, the detailed setting facilitated lighting as well as filming. The opening and closing scenes, however, were filmed outdoors, with the military facility of Fort Lewis, Washington serving as the background for the tank sequence depicting the relief of Bastogne. Additionally, as he had done with the cast of The Story of G.I. Joe, Wellman had his actors train with real soldiers so that they would perform in proper military fashion.

John Hodiak and Jerome Courtland
In post-production, film editor John Dunning matched staged action with a limited amount of real combat footage as a way to increase authenticity. Unlike Ken Annakin's widescreen epic The Battle of the Bulge (1965), shot entirely on location in Spain, in which snow-capped mountains and palm trees appeared in the background and dust replaced snow as the tanks roar into combat, Battleground had carefully dressed exteriors that matched both the interior shots captured by Wellman and the combat footage added by Dunning.

During production, Schary instituted an effective system of cutting and dubbing which made it possible to preview Battleground within 48 hours of the scenes being filmed. Each day's film was processed as it was shot, reducing the average time between completion and preview by several weeks. As a result, filming wrapped up twenty days under its original schedule and almost $100,000 under budget. Upon its premiere at the Astor Theatre in New York in December 1949, Battleground became the biggest moneymaker of the year and received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, just like Schary had predicted. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it the best of the World War II pictures that have yet been made in Hollywood" endorsing the current view that it was as important a post-war epic as King Vidor's The Big Parade (1925) had been in the aftermath of World War I.

At the 22nd Academy Awards ceremony held in March 1950 at the RKO Pantages Theater in Hollywood, Robert Pirosh received the Oscar for Best Story and Screenplay and Paul C. Vogel was given the statuette for Best Cinematograhy (Black and White). In addition, William A. Wellman earned his third nomination for Best Director, James Whitmore was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, John Dunning for Best Editing and the film itself was one of five nominated for the coveted Oscar for Best Picture, losing to Robert Rossen's All the King's Men (1949).

Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalbán and Georgy Murphy in a publicity still

Being fascinated by anything even slightly related to World War II, I have watched countless films set during that period of time and Battleground comes across as one of the very best. First of all, it is highly accurate, which is obviously very important for a film that portrays real historic events. Secondly, I love how Pirosh incorporated agony and humor in his script and appreciate the fact that he did not attempt to glorify these soldiers, as most war films of the time did. Part of the reason why I love Battleground so much is because it actually reminds me of Band of Brothers (2001), especially episodes six and seven, both of which depict the Battle of the Bulge. In fact, George Murphy's character in Battleground reminds me a lot of Donnie Walhberg's character in  Band of Brothers, even though one is completely fictional and the other is based on a real person. In conclusion, Battleground stands as one of the finest films ever made World War II, as it does not romanticize war and portrays the soldiers as vulnerable and human, rather than heroic.

Boom and Dust: American Cinema of the 1940s by Thomas Schatz (1999) | Combat Films: American Realism, 1945-2010, 2nd Edition by Steven Jay Rubin (2011) | Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film by Lawrence H. Suid (2002) | Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy by Ronald L. Davis (2001) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times contemporary review by Bosley Crowther


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