Sunday, June 24, 2012

#36 - Battleground

BACK-STORY:  “Battleground” was the first significant WWII movie to come out after the war and it proved there was still an audience for war films provided they were excellent and realistic.  The film wisely avoided the flag-waving of pictures made during the war.  Because of the timing and the grittiness, the studio was skeptical about its potential and it almost was not made.  The suits proved wrong as the movie was a huge hit and is now considered a classic.  It was released in 1949 and directed by William Wellman (“Wings”, “The Story of G.I. Joe”).  Robert Pirosh based the script on his own experiences in the Battle of the Bulge.  Twenty members of the 101st Airborne were used as extras. They were put through acting boot camp.  The film won Oscars for Cinematography and Original Screenplay (Pirosh).  It was nominated for Picture, Director, Editing, and Supporting Actor (James Whitmore).
OPENING:  A crawl quotes a German general in stating that Bastogne has to be taken for the German offensive to proceed.  This is the story of the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne”.  That story begins in an Army camp somewhere in France in December, 1944.  A replacement named Layton (Marshall Thompson) is thrust into a tent full of veterans.  This will be a small unit movie.  The unit is the typical mix of heterogeneous Hollywood soldiers:  the intellectual (Jarvess), the ladies’ man (Holley), the hick (Abner), the old dude (Pop), the Hispanic (Rodrigues), the malingerer (Kippton), the newbie (Layton), and the gruff sergeant (Kinnie).  Surprisingly, no one is from Brooklyn.
SUMMARY:  The members of I Company are looking forward to leave in Paris.  They are just as surprised as Eisenhower when the party-pooping Germans launch their offensive in the Ardennes Forest.  They pile into a trucks grumbling.  “We get all the dirty details”.  It really sucks for Pop (George Murphy) who is scheduled to go home.  He is joined in dead meat land by the guy who showed the picture of his wife and kids (Hanson).  On the way to Bastogne, they spent the night in the home of a buxom Belgium named Denise (Denise Darcel).  “Hubba, hubba” resounds through the theater.  Holley hits on her, naturally.  Will the movie overcome this forced attempt at sex appeal?
                Before leaving the town, the paratroopers have their obligatory encounter with demoralized retreating Americans.  The movie now adds “who will survive?” as a theme.  When they reach the outskirts of Bastogne, they are ordered to dig in.  Before finishing their fox holes, they are ordered to move and dig in again.  This is the Army, after all.  Soon the snow comes.  Rodrigues (Ricardo Montalban) is from California and is thrilled to see his first snowfall.  There is a brief, but realistic bombardment.  You can compare this to the effects in the “Band of Brothers” Battle of the Bulge episodes to see how far effects have come.  People sitting in a 1949 theater would have crapped in their pants.  One of the group, Bettis (Richard Jaekel), runs away and gets a cushy job in Bastogne slinging hash.  By now Layton has taken up smoking – Hollywood’s symbol of coming of age.
                A patrol is sent out and Rodrigues is wounded.  They are forced to leave him hidden in a snow fort under a wrecked jeep.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if he freezes to death in the wonderful snow?  The surviving members of the unit are now guarding a railroad line when they come under attack.  Holley, who is now in command, panics and runs but comes to his senses and sets up a flanking attack that gets pay back for the whittling down of the unit.  The fire fight is intense, but brief and the Germans give up too easily.
                The next scene is in the appropriately rubbleized Bastogne.  There is a ridiculous (but mercifully short) reunion with Chesty McBelgian that is used to show that Layton is not only a smoking veteran, but a “playa” as well.  If you’ve seen the “Bastogne” episode of “Band of Brothers”, you can guess what happens to the only female character.
                This being a movie about the Battle of the Bulge, the “Nuts” Reenactment Requirement Act of 1945 comes into play as the required reenactment of McAuliffe’s famous quote is thrown in.  The producers also complied with the amendment to the act which requires appearance of the Germans disguised as Americans causing trouble behind the lines.  The Germans drop propaganda leaflets similar to those dropped in “Pork Chop Hill”.  Give up and get hot chow!  Alas, no appearance by "Axis Sally". 
A chaplain conducts a mass for a group of soldiers (including a black!).  You may have heard there are no atheists in fox holes.  The theme of the sermon is “was this trip necessary?”  Answer:  yes.  Reason:  the Nazis started this war and thus we had to fight it to stop fascism.  By the way, it would be better to stand up to them earlier next time.  Do you hear me, Cold War America?  Amen.
Things are getting desperate.  Bastogne is bombed to rearrange the rubble and bring the ironic death of Bettis.  The men are down to their last bullets.  It’s beginning to have a Custer feel when suddenly the sun comes out, immediately followed by the air force.  C-47s air drop supplies.  Spam – are you f****** kidding me!  Oh, here’s some ammo, too.  Now we can counterattack through a montage using actual footage of Americans kicking ass.
CLOSING:  Spoiler alert:  we win the Battle of the Bulge.  Our surviving heroes (including the two dead meat candidates) wearily watch the reinforcements marching eastward.  They march westward singing about Jody (WWII soldier slang for home front Don Juans) stealing their girlfriends.  This brings the movie full circle from an earlier scene that seems to have inspired “Stripes”.
Acting -  8
Action -  5
Accuracy -  6
Plot -  8
Realism -  7
Overall -  7
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  It is a good, old-fashioned war movie.  That might appeal to some females, but probably they need to be over 50 years old.  There is nothing offensive in it, unless you consider the inclusion of a big-breasted blonde for obvious reasons to be offensive.  The cast is appealing.  Thompson and Johnson were the Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp of that time.  Okay, perhaps that is an exaggeration, but they were leading men and cute.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is not meant to be about the Battle of the Bulge.  It is instead the story of the soldiers who fought in that battle.  In that respect it is accurate.  The soldier talk and grumbling is PG-13 authentic.  The little touches like digging a fox hole and then having to move and dig another one are realistic (but certainly not unique to the Battle of the Bulge).
                The movie is accurate in the general aspects of the unit's experience in the battle.  The 327 Gliderborne Infantry was rushed by truck to Bastogne.  It was stationed along the southern perimeter.  The German surrender ultimatum did come through its lines and it was a 327th officer who interpreted "Nuts!" to mean "Go to hell!" for the Germans. 
                The movie fails as a history lesson when it comes to the battle.  The Germans are too passive which results in a dearth of action.  The rare action scenes are too brief and too pat.  In reality the 327th had numerous intense fire fights and serious fighting defending the village of Marvie.  They sometimes confronted German tanks, a fact that the movie chooses to overlook.  The movie gives the impression that what the soldiers went through was not nearly as bad as it actually was.  The movie does accurately reflect the snow and the fear, but not the combat.  The movie implies that it was the sun and the spam drop that caused the Germans to give up.  There is no reference to Patton’s army cutting its way through to the town.  Lastly, contrary to the much deserved relief the survivors get at the end, the 327th was sent eastward as part of the American counterattack.
                The appearance of the German commandoes was obligatory because they were a fixture of the battle,  but inaccurate because they were nowhere near Bastogne.  The “Nuts!” incident is faithfully rendered, however.
                A minor quibble would be with the scene where the men throw away their gas masks as they enter the battle.  That would have occurred long before.
CRITIQUE:  The movie is very entertaining.  It achieves its objective of humanizing the soldiers.  The soldier interaction and talk are the best thing about the movie.  What they say and how they react are realistic given the restraints of 1940s movies.  None of the main characters are gung-ho.  They complain a lot.  They have a stock phrase – “I’ve found a home in the Army”.  They all have their moments of human weakness.  Several run away or think about running away at various moments.  As Jarvess (John Hodiak) says, “things just happen and then afterwards you try to figure out why you acted the way you did.”  The unit is slightly dysfunctional, but they are comrades.  This is not "Platoon".  It is much closer to "A Walk in the Sun".
                The movie has some themes.  One is the fog of war.  Jarvess sums up their involvement in the biggest battle in American History thusly:  “I guarantee my wife knows what’s going on in the battle.  All I know is what’s going on in the 2nd Squad of the 3rd Platoon of I Company." Veterans watching this movie in the theater must have nodded their heads in agreement. Another theme is the veteranization of Layton, but his taking up smoking and womanizing is too quick (compare this to the more realistic arc of Paul Baumer in "All Quiet on the Western Front").
                The greatest strength of the movie is the actors.  The ensemble is very likeable.  Several of the main characters have a trait that is endearing.  Abner sleeps with his boots off.  Kippton clicks his false teeth.  (Douglas Fawley lost his teeth to an explosion on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)
                The dialogue stands out as well.  Pirosh, being a veteran, knew how soldiers talked.  He obviously had to clean up the language, but he gets the complaining and humor down pat.  There is a cute running gag involving Holley and some eggs that taps into the futility of trying to live a normal life in war. These guys say some funny things which is appropriate because American soldiers have a reputation of maintaining their sense of humor in the most trying circumstances.  Here is an example:
Holley:  Yeah, they really shoulda sent out a bigger patrol.
Rodrigues: Do you want to goof off?
Holley: Who said anything about goofing off?
Rodrigues: Nobody. I'm just saying, the best way is to tell them you heard voices talking in German.
Jarvis: Let's say we heard voices talking in Japanese and let G-2 figure that out.
By the way, I just watched “MASH”.  It also won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.  However, much of the dialogue in that comedy was improvised by the actors.  Although the movie is funny, the funniest lines are coming from actors trying to be funny.  Army doctors in Korea were not that funny.  The “Battleground” actors are reciting dialogue from a veteran and it sounds more authentic.  It's not forced.
            The cinematography also won an Oscar, but the blending in of archival footage is not seamless.  Some of the real footage is mundane.  The producers made the decision to shoot the movie on a soundstage which is remarkably lifelike, but still obvious.  There is little sound track which is unusual, but refreshing.
CONCLUSION:  “Battleground” is fondly remembered by many war movie lovers.  Some have it in their top 10.  Some go so far as to call it superior to “Saving Private Ryan”.  When it came out in 1949, it certainly deserved the acclaim it received.  It’s now sixty years later and I have to say it is overrated.  The action is lacking and is unrealistic.  It has its charms and is a must see, but does not belong at #36.

POSTER:  I am trying out this new feature.  I have noticed that with many war movies you can't judge a film by its poster.  As a service to my public I will tell you how close the poster is to the actual movie.  This one is a howler.  First, Denise gets prominent placement in spite of her limited screen time.  Also, why is she wearing a ballroom dress?  Second, there are no helmet waving charges in the movie.  Third, are those two upper guys dancing a jig?  Lastly, the tag line of "the guts, gags, and glory of a lot of wonderful guys" is completely off message and must have caused Wellman to vomit.  Grade:  D

the Chaplain answers "what are we doing here?"


  1. The poster makes it look like a musical. But it is not quite as bad as the one for "Halls of Montezuma" where a huge female face looms overhead (even though there are no women in the movie). Or "Command Decision" with floating heads grinning blandly (although nobody in that movie had anything to smile about).

  2. I agree it is not the most ridiculous and you mention two other good examples of the poster does not fit the movie. I find it is common to exaggerate the prominence of women in war movies.

  3. The movie seems too mild by today's standards, but it was probably as gritty and realistic as 1940's mores (and the production code) would allow. A movie made during the war would not have had the main characters grumbling, or even considering surrendering or deserting. (Some movies made during WWII had cowards or cynics in them, but usually as secondary characters, and they usually redeemed themselves in the end, often by sacrificing themselves in combat.) The movie does fail as a history lesson, but that is because it is told from the point of view of the men in one unit. As Jarvess gripes, all these men know is what is going on in their own squad or platoon. The movie doesn't show us what the 3rd Army or 82nd Airborne Division were doing, because Holley, Layton, and the others wouldn't know about it. The story is about the members of one small unit, not the big picture.

    1. Agree. Good point about the redemption theme common in old school movies.

  4. "Battleground" does gloss over the battle, but then, a lot of war movies devote a lot of time to the combat scenes, and gloss over the periods in between the battles. I was never in combat, but most of my drill sergeants in basic training were Vietnam veterans, and they said that war is long hours of drudgery and monotony occasionally interrupted by brief periods of stark terror. This movie didn't capture the terror, but it is one of the relatively few to accurately portray the drudgery.

  5. I agree with your comments about the ratio of combat to boredom, but the Battle of the Bulge was not Vietnam. No offense to Vietnam veterans, but other than the siege of Khe Sanh there is no equivalency here. Bastogne was surrounded by larger forces who desperately had to take the crossroads. I don't belive there were long hours of drudgery and I don't know if freezing in the snow could be boring.

  6. I'll keep it in mind if I run out of other movies but just right now I'm only moderately tempted.
    Better than Saving Private Ryan... Tsts

  7. The movie does a good job of portraying danger. Many war movies lack this, so that even in action scenes there seems to be an invisible shield protecting the main characters at all times. Here the soldiers are vulnerable and they know it, and this knowledge makes the scenes of courage and cowardice compelling to watch.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.