by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Last night’s movie was the 1949 MGM war epic Battleground, written by Robert Pirosh about the 101st Airborne division in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and shown by TCM as part of their annual festival of war movies for the Memorial Day weekend. The property was developed by Dore Schary during his troubled year as head of production at RKO (he triumphed with the film Crossfire but was forced to read the industry’s statement of capitulation to the Hollywood blacklist and ended up losing his job when Howard Hughes bought the studio) and acquired by him from RKO as part of the negotiations with Hughes to settle his contract. He was hired as vice-president in charge of production at MGM (basically re-creating Irving Thalberg’s old job) and brought Battleground with him as his first personal MGM production in his new job — and the film was a solid hit and got some Academy Award nominations after MGM hadn’t had any major ones for 1947 or 1948 (a major comedown for a studio that was accustomed to dominating the Oscar competition).
Schary went outside the usual MGM personnel for his director and most of his cast: the director was William A. Wellman, whose film Wings (also a war movie) had won the first Academy Award for Best Production in 1927 and who was often referred to as the “Hollywood Maverick” because of his clashes with the studios and penchant for tough-minded movies that pushed both commercial and Production Code envelopes. The cast included only one established MGM star, Van Johnson, who plays Sgt. Holley, who’s left in charge of an isolated unit trapped in Bastogne, Belgium and kept from any relief by a fog that makes it impossible for planes to fly by either to drop them supplies or to fire on the Germans who are besieging them. The rest of the actors were either minor contract players or free-lancers, and the film helped boost the careers of several of them — including future stars James Whitmore, Ricardo Montalban (who transcends the Latino stereotyping of his character and delivers one of the film’s most powerful performances until he’s killed off) and James Arness.
Battleground is a bit slow getting under way — the two-hour film is 45 minutes old before the unit takes any enemy fire and almost half over by the time there’s the first actual battle between the two sides — and the opening reels seem almost a compendium of the silly clichés inserted into a lot of war movies to “humanize” the characters. According to an imdb.com “trivia” commentator, “Screenwriter Robert Pirosh based this story on his experiences as an infantryman during the Battle of the Bulge. Pirosh did not serve with the 101st Airborne and wanted to create a script that was faithful to their experiences. He used his first-hand knowledge of the battle to write the script. This was done with the blessing of General McAuliffe, who was commanding the 101st during Bastogne. Consequently many of the incidents in the film — such as Pvt. Kippton’s habit of always losing his false teeth, or the Mexican soldier from Los Angeles who had never seen snow until he got to Belgium — that have always been derided as ‘typical Hollywood phony baloney’ actually happened.” But they still come off as “typical Hollywood phony baloney” on screen — especially the minor character played by George Murphy (who’d been through the treadmill at both MGM and RKO and was decidedly on the way down) who has just been promised a “dependency discharge” because his wife back home is herself too disabled to raise their kids any longer when he and the entire unit get ordered into battle just when they’ve been looking forward to a leave in Paris and the girls they can date there. (One soldier rattles off a French street address where one particularly available femme resides — and it’s clear that since the days of John Ford’s Born Reckless, in which a Frenchwoman thought the World War I doughboys were propositioning her when they pantomimed the shape of a wine bottle because none of them knew the word vin.)
The first half of Battleground is slow going, but — as with many war movies — the film achieves power and intensity once the battle itself begins. Battleground depicts war as not that different from police work — long stretches of tedium mixed with moments of life-threatening danger and abject fear — and though the soldiers tend to lose their individuality as the battle progresses, the stark performances Wellman gets out of his cast and the deliberate dreariness of the visual setting — the battle took place in December when almost everything was snowed in — powerfully puts forward the dire predicament the unit finds itself in, cut off from relief or supplies and surrounded by enemy they can’t even see. Wellman made one decision that added both to the verisimilitude of his film and to its dramatic punch: though Lennie Hayton is credited with an original music score, it’s heard only at the beginning and the end of the film: the long battle scenes are shown with no music at all, forcing us to supply our own emotional responses to the dreariness and the imminent peril rather than having them guyed for us by a powerful Steineresque score the way they would have been if, say, Warner Bros. had made this film.
Battleground was part of the resurgence of war movies after they had been considered old hat and no longer of interest to audiences once the war ended; the year before MGM had made Command Decision (based on a hit play but a box-office disappointment as a movie even though Clark Gable was cast in the lead) and Republic had made Sands of Iwo Jima (a smash hit and another key step forward in the transformation of John Wayne from star to legend). Louis B. Mayer tried to talk Schary out of making Battleground for the same reasons he’d tried to talk Irving Thalberg out of The Big Parade a quarter-century earlier — the idea that years after the end of a major war there was no longer an audience for movies about it — but Schary made Battleground and, though it’s hardly as great a movie as The Big Parade either from an artistic or commercial standpoint, Battleground was a solid hit (if not the mega-blockbuster The Big Parade had been) and established Schary as a power at MGM (whose president, Nicholas Schenck, actually fired Louis B. Mayer a year later and installed Schary in his place).
As a movie, it’s flawed by its adherence to some of the typical Hollywood formulae — including the insistence on having at least one female in the dramatis personae (Denise, played by Denise Darcel — “whose principal talent was her cup size,” Gary Carey sardonically noted in his book on MGM — a Bastogne farm girl who’s raising two children whose parents were both killed in an air raid) but it’s still a pretty powerful depiction of war and a particularly grinding sort of horror relieved only at the very end of the movie, in which the sun finally comes out, the fog disperses and the planes Our Heroes have been waiting for can fly in supplies at last. (One mistake is the use of a stock clip of paratroopers coming out of a plane — leading one to believe momentarily that the army is sending in not only more ammunition and food but extra soldiers as well.) There’s some pretty silly, almost musical drilling going on early in the movie — the “Sound Off!” routine comes close to becoming a song and one wonders whether the soldiers were taught that drilling routine by Busby Berkeley based on his experiences in the First World War — but it “plants” a moving effect at the end in which the solders start to chant as they pull out of Bastogne, first tremulously and uncertainly but then with snap and vigor as they regain their morale.