Sunday 3 October 2021

Movie Review: Battleground (1949)

A squadron level view of World War Two, Battleground joins a group of soldiers on the messy front lines of a seminal battle.

It's December 1944, and men from the 101st Airborne Division including Holley (Van Johnson), Roderigues (Ricardo Montalban), and Jarvess (John Hodiak) are eagerly anticipating some downtime in Paris. Private Layton (Marshall Thompson) is brand new to the unit, while the older "Pop" (George Murphy) is about to receive a release allowing him to return home.

But instead of getting a break, they are ordered to deploy to the front lines in a hurry: the Germans have mounted a surprise offensive (later known as the Battle of the Bulge), and the American soldiers find themselves defending the strategically important town of Bastogne. Outgunned and outnumbered, they are soon surrounded, but despite taking losses they refuse to yield.

Just four years after the war's end, Battleground provides a gritty ground-level perspective, and a good companion piece to director William A. Wellman's The Story Of G.I. Joe (1945). With the propaganda aspects of the in-war years stripped away and the overconfident and more uniformly stoic cinematic attitude of later post-war years not yet taking hold, writer Robert Pirosh adopts a perceptive tone, embracing realism. 

Hastily dropped into the front lines to plug holes exposed by the German offensive, here the fighting men are even unsure which country they are in (France, Belgium or Luxembourg are the candidates). They lack any oversight of the unfolding strategy, and beyond the immediate command to dig foxholes (and then more foxholes), defend their turf, survive artillery barrages, and scout a patch of forest, they have no idea what is going on or why.

And their humanity shines through. Doubt, fear, and complaints are constant companions, and far outweigh moments of heroism. Fundamental mistakes are made, including allowing Germans disguised as Americans to slip through the lines. Subjected to enemy propaganda leaflets and broadcasts, several men attempt to weasel away from the front lines. Enemy encounters are brief, but the battle against the elements is a constant. Cold and wet terrain drains away physical strength, while the ever-present Ardennes fog saps morale by preventing intervention by the vastly superior Allied air force.

Working with a limited budget and on confined sets, Wellman squeezes the most out of his cast. The first act is slow as the men are rather clumsily introduced then trundle their way to Bastogne and the hospitality of local woman Denise (Denise Darcel). The pace picks up once they deploy to the forest, with Van Johnson's jaunty Holley nominally the lead character. But Marshall Thompson's Layton slowly emerges as the most interesting soldier, learning-by-doing and tracing the arc of America's involvement in the war from hesitancy to leadership.

The men of the 101st who held their ground became known as the Battered Bastards of Bastogne (and it is in Belgium). Battleground is an honest salute to genuine individual behaviour coalescing into group courage.

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  1. You forgot Richard Jaeckel, James Arness, Herb Anderson, Leon Ames and James Whitmore, who all put forth outstanding performances.

    1. True, the cast is deep in talent - robust and reliable guys doing their part.


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