Battleground (1949)

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April 14, 2014 by smumcounty

BattlegroundTitle“This story is about, and dedicated to, those Americans who met General Heinrich von Luttwitz and his 47 Panzer Corps and won for themselves the honored and immortal name ‘The Battered Bastards of Bastogne.’” Thus begins “Battleground” (1949) and you can bet that audiences of 1949 knew exactly what that meant. For you Millenials out there, that’s the Battle of the Bulge during World War II in which a successful German counterattack in the Ardennes managed to surround the city of Bastogne, Belgium. This is the story of the 101st Airborne division under the command of General McAuliffe which managed to hold off the Germans until the fog could lift and the Allied air forces could resupply the town. Unlike other films that cover this same territory and other films about World War II, this film tells the story strictly from the point of view of a single platoon during the battle.

We first meet the platoon as they are getting set for some much needed R and R in Paris. Pop Stazak (George Murphy) has just received word that he’ll be granted a special “dependency discharge” that will send him home. He just has to wait for the paperwork. That’s all called off, however, as orders come through for them to move out and reinforce the front where a German counterattack has produced a bulge in the allied line. Hours later they arrive in Bastogne in the dead of night and find shelter with some of the locals. The next morning they’re ordered into the woods in the outskirts of town and told to dig in.

The 101st Airborne arrive in Bastogne.

The 101st Airborne arrive in Bastogne.

That evening Holley (Van Johnson), Layton (Marshall Thompson), and Kippton (Douglas Fowley) are ordered to stand guard at a roadblock. A squad of American soldiers comes by and asks for directions to a bridge. Holley comments that the Lieutenant must be a new recruit since he’s clearly showing his bars on his helmet and is thus a target for snipers. The next morning the squad wake up in their foxholes and find it’s snowing. Roderigues (Ricardo Montalban) is excited by this since he grew up in Los Angeles and has only seen snow from a distance, in the mountains. Platoon Sgt. Kinnie (James Whitmore) informs the squad that there was an infiltration of their position the previous night by German soldiers dressed as Americans that blew up a bridge. Layton asks if one of the Germans was wearing lieutenant bars. “Yeah, how did you know?” asks Kinnie. “We get all the latest rumors,” Holley interjects.

BattlegroundSickThis is an interesting scene because it clearly demonstrates that these are no gung-ho heroes ready to charge stark naked at Jerry. These are average men who are there to do a job that’s got to be done but they’re not happy about it. Staniferd (Don Taylor) is sick with the flu and happy to be so. “I’ve never felt so sick in my life. Maybe, maybe I’ve even got pneumonia,” he says laughing. Bettis (Richard Jaeckal) comments, “…he’s a cinch to go back to the field hospital, maybe even to Paris.” “I don’t know. With that penicillin, he’s liable to be back in a day,” Holley responds. “Yeah, a good, clean flesh wound is better. Then they gotta send you back,” Bettis replies. Kippton joins the conversation saying he wished something would happen to him so he could be sent back. Bettis reminds him of the time he broke his false teeth so he could get off the line and spend two weeks in Paris while a replacement set was made. Kippton denies that he broke his dentures on purpose, “I ran into a tree trunk in the dark.” Their conversation is interrupted by a German bombardment. As they hunker down in their foxholes Holley sarcastically quips, “We’ve had good deals before, but this is the best one yet. This is great. I don’t ever wanna go back. I found a home in the army!” In the middle of the bombardment, Bettis loses his nerve and runs out of his foxhole convinced that this time the Germans have them zeroed in. “I hope he makes it. They should never have sent him back on the line. Some guys just can’t take it,” Wolowicz (Bruce Cowling) says.

Later Holley, Roderigues, and Jarvess (John Hodiak) are sent out to clear the patch of woods the Germans had infiltrated the night before. They wander into the area knowing that three GI’s are no match for whatever might be out there. First they consider goofing off. But then a jeep rolls up on their position carrying four apparently American soldiers. They know the correct sign and counter-sign but so did the Germans Holley had encountered last night. Holley waves his gun in the commanding officer’s face “Was ist dein name?” Both groups of soldiers are worried the other group might really be Germans and they start brandishing their rifles. The scene is tense until they start exchanging pop-culture references to prove they’re really Americans.

Hello Joe whaddya know?

Hello Joe whaddya know?

Driver: You. Who’s Betty Grable going with?
Roderiques: Cesar Romero.
Driver: Shut up. Who’s the Dragon Lady?
Jarvess: She’s in Terry and the Pirates.
Driver: What’s a hotrod?
Holley: A hopped-up jalopy.
Driver: Hello Joe whaddya know?
Holley: Just got back from a vaudeville show! (laughs) I guess they’re okay!

Later while Roderigues is warming up his pitching arm with some snowballs, another group of American soldiers wanders through the woods. This time Holley recognizes the German with the Lieutenant bars he’d seen earlier. The German GI’s assure Holley and company that the woods have been cleared of Germans. Holley makes like there’s nothing for them to do then but return to their foxholes. As soon as they’re out of sight they make for it double time but run into another band of Germans. The brief skirmish in this scene seems very realistic for the time with hand to hand combat. Roderigues is wounded and they have to leave him behind, safely hidden in the snow under a wrecked jeep while Holley and Jarvess make it back to base.

Van Johnson and Ricardo Montalban

Van Johnson and Ricardo Montalban

This is the last we see of Roderigues. Because of covering fire being laid down to take care of some German tanks, they’re not able to send anyone back for him in time and he freezes to death. Let that bit of irony sink in for a moment. The first day Roderigues sees snow “up close” he freezes to death. This is a real shame since seeing a young Ricardo Montalban is almost reason enough to catch this film.

George Murphy

George Murphy

At this time, Pop finally gets the letter he’s been expecting with orders sending him back home. Unfortunately, at this same time, they get word from Kippton that no one’s going anywhere because Bastogne has been surrounded. The platoon gets orders to dig in next to a railroad track embankment for the night while the rest of the company falls back. The next morning the squad is fired upon while they’re sleeping in their foxholes and they return fire. The fighting is intense. This is a great scene where the battle seems to be taking place within a few square yards. The heavy fog and snow add to the claustrophobia of the scene where you seem to be in a battle completely cut off from the world. The fact that all these close battle scenes were shot on a sound stage adds to this feeling and turns a possible detriment into an advantage.

During this battle, Spudler (Jerome Courtland) is shot and killed while trying to retrieve his boots from outside his foxhole. His last words are “Momma. Momma.” Holley seems to lose his nerve and runs out of his foxhole followed closely by Layton. Seeing the younger Layton following him gives Holley enough nerve to turn and fight and he leads a counterattack with the other men that flanks the Germans and manages to win the day. Later Layton comments on what just happened:

Layton: I thought Holley was running away. That’s why I ran after him.
Jarvess: How do you know what Holley was thinking? How do you know if he was thinking at all? Things just happen, then afterwards you try to figure out why you acted the way you did.
Layton: I know why I ran. I was scared to death.
Jarvess: You just joined the biggest club in the army. Everybody belongs.

This is a great exchange and it’s one of the things that make the film seem so real. It’s not something you would have seen a few years earlier while the war was still on.

Later when the platoon is standing guard on the outskirts of the city, they’re approached by a group of Germans carrying a white flag who ask to be taken to General McAuliffe. While a jeep takes the German officers into the city, Jarvess , Pop, and Kippton watch over the German enlisted men left behind. Anxious to know what’s going on, they finally convince the Germans to exchange some information for a pack of smokes. Turns out the Germans are hoping to negotiate the Americans’ surrender. At this point, the jeep returns with the German officers and thanks to their confusion as to the meaning of McAuliffe’s response to their request for surrender, we’re privy to McAuliffe’s response.

BattlegroundNuts

George Murphy, John Hodiak, and Douglas Fowley

German Lieutenant: The major thinks General McAuliffe must have misunderstood. We have appealed to the well-known American humanity to save the people of Bastogne from further suffering. We have given you two hours to consider before raining destruction upon you. We do not understand General McAuliffe’s answer.
American Colonel: I’d be glad to repeat it. The answer is “nuts”.
German Lieutenant: Is that a negative or an affirmative reply?
American Colonel: Nuts is strictly negative.

That’s such an inspiring moment from the war that you couldn’t expect any film about the Battle of the Bulge to go without recounting it. What I find interesting is the film’s dedication to keeping to a strictly GI grunt’s point of view and yet it’s ability to cleverly include this moment.

BattlegroundChaplainLater the men attend religious services given by an Army Chaplain (Leon Ames). It’s a multi-culti crowd in attendance. The camera clearly shows a black soldier standing in the crowd and when the Chaplain explains that he performs services for all denominations he mentions a Hanukkah service, which one of the soldiers, Private Levinstein attended. I’m sure if the film were made today there would be a Muslim soldier in the crowd. Before they get down to the business of prayer, the Chaplain explains his view of the greater conflict:

The Chaplain: Now it’s nearly Christmas… and here we are in beautiful Bastogne enjoying the winter sports. And the $64 question is: “Was this trip necessary?” I’ll try to answer that. But my sermons, like everything else in the army… depend on the situation and the terrain. So I assure you this is going to be a quickie. Was this trip necessary? Let’s look at the facts. Nobody wanted this war but the Nazis. A great many people tried to deal with them, and a lot of them are dead. Millions have died… for no other reason except that the Nazis wanted them dead. So, in the final showdown, there was nothing left to do except fight. There’s a great lesson in this. Those of us who’ve learned it the hard way aren’t going to forget it. We must never again let any force dedicated to a super-race… or a super-idea, or super-anything… become strong enough to impose itself upon a free world. We must be smart enough and tough enough in the beginning… to put out the fire before it starts spreading. 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.

This is the kind of scene that was typical of war movies made during the war where one of the goals was to encourage the public to dedicate themselves to the war effort but it’s unusual for a movie made after the war. I think this is the film’s way of wearing its heart on its sleeve to counter possible criticism that this is an anti-war film in its depiction of the hell of war. Yes, this was a terrible hardship thrust upon you, the film is saying, but it was all worth it in the end. Hopefully there weren’t actually people at the time telling the Greatest Generation that they were suckers for defeating fascism.

That night, the platoon watches from the outskirts of the city as the German bombers decimate Bastogne. Bettis, who deserted the front lines had found work as a cook in town feeding the troops. Now we see him killed during the bombing. Even off the front lines he wasn’t safe. The following day the town gets set for the imminent invasion of German troops. The walking wounded are called upon to fall out and draw arms. The men on the front lines are told to pull back closer to town. From their foxholes, the men can see the German troops advancing over the snow-covered plains below. Layton takes the safety off his weapon and draws a bead on the advancing troops. “Save it, Layton. They’ll be gettin’ a lot closer and we’ll still be here.” Kinnie says. It all looks pretty bleak until Kinnie sees his shadow in the snow. “It’s shining! It’s shining!” he yells.

BattlegroundSpamThe fog has finally lifted and C-47 planes are able to airlift supplies to the troops: ammunition, gasoline, tank shells, K-rations, everything they’ll need to repel the German advance. The film doesn’t concentrate on the final battle, spending only about a minute of screen time to show it in montage, making use of a lot of newsreel battle footage. After the battle, we see the platoon resting, sprawled alongside the road as fresh troops and tanks enter the city. The final scene shows the platoon getting orders to redeploy off the front lines, finally getting that R and R they were promised before they were sent to Bastogne. As they shamble down the road, Holley sees some new recruits coming the other way. Not wanting these guys to think that Bastogne has broken them, he asks Kinnie to start calling Jody cadence, which causes the exhausted men to pull themselves together as they march proudly past the fresh troops:

BattlegroundJodyHolley: Hey, Kinney. Whatever happened to Jody?
Kinnie: All right, come on! Come on! What do you want these guys to think, you’re a bunch of WACs? Alright, alright pick it up now. Hut, two, three. Hut, two, three, four. You had a good home but you left…
I Company: You’re right!
Kinnie: Jody was there when you left…
I Company: You’re right!
Kinnie: Your Baby was there when you left…
I Company: You’re right!
Kinnie: Sound off!
I Company: One, two
Kinnie: Sound off!
I Company: Three, four.
Kinnie: Cadence Count
I Company: One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four!
Kinnie: Your baby was lonely – as lonely as could be…
I Company: Until Jody provided company!
Kinnie: Ain’t it great to have a pal…
I Company: Who works so hard to keep up morale!
Kinnie: You ain’t got nothing to worry about…
I Company: He’ll keep her happy till I get out!
Kinnie: You won’t get out until the end of the war…
I Company: In nineteen hundred and seventy-four!
Kinnie: Sound off!
I Company: One, two.
Kinnie: Sound off!
I Company: Three, four…

“Battleground” was based on a screenplay by screenwriter Robert Pirosh who drew from his experiences during the war so details like the soldier losing his false teeth and the soldier who’d never seen snow up close before are true. Twenty veterans of the 101st Airborne were hired to train the cast and appear as extras in the film. Lt. Col. Harry W. O. Kinnard who served as an intelligence officer at the Battle of the Bulge was hired as technical advisor to the film. Though a fictional account of the battle, the film is quite faithful to the actual events depicted with one exception: although German soldiers masquerading as American forces were used during the Battle of the Bulge they were not used around Bastogne. Still, you’ve gotta love that “Hello Joe whaddya know?” scene. Additionally, one other small detail is not accurate. There was no I company in the 101st Airborne which the platoon in the film were supposed to have been part of. The producers of the film did this intentionally because they didn’t want a veteran coming to them later and saying, “I was in I company and that’s not the way it happened.”

James Whitmore

James Whitmore

Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM who produced the film, was against the making of the film. He thought it was box office poison, figuring that audiences at the time were sick of war movies. He turned out to be wrong. Made for about two million dollars, the film grossed over five million dollars worldwide, making it the most successful MGM production in five years. It was also a critical success, winning Oscars for Best Black-and-White Cinematography (Paul C. Vogel) and Best Writing, Story, and Screenplay (Robert Pirosh). It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (William A. Wellman), Best Film Editing (John D. Dunning) and Best Supporting Actor (James Whitmore).

I’m not a big fan of war films but I really admire this film. The soldiers in this film act like I imagine actual soldiers during the war must have acted and I especially like the focus on the average soldier. This film narrows the war down to small events like completing a foxhole and then getting orders to move to another location or stealing a bunch of eggs and trying to figure out how you can cook them up. There are small acts of heroism but also a lot of just trying to keep your feet from freezing. These guys aren’t heroes in the conventional sense. They don’t want to be fighting in this war but, as the Chaplain points out, it’s got to be done. Give me “Battleground” any day over “Lawrence of Arabia” or “The Longest Day”. This film feels real in comparison to those epic spectacles.

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