Warner Bros. // 1949 // 118 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge George Hatch (Retired) // July 26th, 2004
"The Major thinks your General McAuliffe must have misunderstood. We have appealed to the well-known humanity of Americans to save the people of Bastogne from further suffering. We have given you two hours to consider surrender before we rain destruction upon you. We do not understand General McAuliffe's answer"
"I'll be glad to repeat it. The answer is 'Nuts!'"
"Is that a negative or an affirmative reply?"
"'Nuts!' is strictly negative, pal."
The Ardennes Offensive and the ultimate siege of Bastogne were the initial confrontations that led to The Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle of WWII, and the one sustaining the most causalities. It has since become source material for almost a dozen films including Steven Spielberg's television mini-series, Band of Brothers. What sets Battleground apart and makes it so extraordinary are Robert Pirosh's realistic screenplay -- focusing on the day-to-day hardships of B Platoon's struggle to cope and stay alive in a hostile environment -- and Paul Vogel's sensational cinematography -- capturing in close-up the essence of men in war. Both earned Oscars for their contributions, with the film also receiving nominations for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, and Editing.
Battleground is a grim realistic war film, chronicling the valiant efforts of soldiers in I Company B Platoon of the 101st Airborne Division who came to be known as "the battered bastards of Bastogne." Anticipating a three-day Christmas furlough in Paris, these infantrymen were instead dispatched to a pocket of resistance in the Ardennes Forest area of southern Belgium and Luxembourg, to prevent Hitler's army from commandeering the strategic port of Antwerp. The harsh terrain and winter climate of The Ardennes kept them in a literal "fog of war" in which they were cut off from aerial reinforcements of food, ammunition, and precious military information. As one soldier laments, "My wife at home knows more about where I am than I do." Confused and despairing that the military brass has forgotten or given up on them, these GIs soon found themselves surrounded by Germans who had infiltrated American security and even knew the latest localized passwords which they could fire back in perfect English. Guilt compounds their frustration when they learn that a covert group of Nazis, passing themselves off as equally bewildered American reinforcements, manage to pass their checkpoint and destroy a bridge critical to Hitler's campaign.
Based upon his own experiences, Pirosh recounts the fear, resolve, questionable conduct, heroism, and most of all the comradeship that developed between these homesick and stressed-out GIs. It's Pirosh's dialogue that emphasizes the everyday details of the adverse conditions through which these soldiers suffered.
"The aid station won't take frozen feet unless they're changing color. No combat fatigue and no fever. You have to be bleeding from a wound and all they have is aspirin and iodine."
"Keep your gloves off for two minutes and you have Popsicles instead of fingers."
The "bombshells" dropped in Battleground are often more emotional than physical, but just as devastating. When Pvt. Layton (Marshall Thompson) learns another platoon has broken through, he tries to find his close friend, Pvt. Hooper (Scotty Beckett).
Layton: "Where's Bill Hooper? I know he's in K Company."
C.P. "Never heard of him. He's not in this platoon."
Layton: "William J. Hooper. He came in with the replacements, just the other day."
C.P. "Hey, Sarge. The kid that got it last night. His name was William J. Hooper.
Sgt: "Well, now I can finish making out my morning report. Thanks!"
C.P. "Direct hit on his foxhole. A mortar. You don't hear them coming. You don't know what hit you. We didn't even find his dog-tags."
Layton: "You didn't even know his name..."
The look of realization on Layton's face during this exchange is heartbreaking. When he turns away, his head drops and shoulders slump, creating a powerful and poignant punch to the gut.
There are a few laughs early in the film: typical barracks banter and soldiers slamming each other. Midway, there's a very funny, fast-paced "password" scene in which two suspicious groups of GIs challenge each other with American cultural minutia about "Texas Leaguers," Betty Grable, Dragon Lady, and hotrods. The dialogue gets grimmer as the men contemplate being captured and executed. Towards the end, as the Germans approach their foxholes, Layton aims to take a shot at one and Kinnie tells him, "Save it. They'll be getting even closer and we'll still be here." This is followed by shots of the surviving soldiers lodging their rifles with bayonets for deadly -- and more intimate -- hand-to-hand combat.
There are also scenes in which no dialogue is necessary. Pvt. Abner (Jerome Courtland), a "dang" hillbilly whose accent and mannerisms have been a constant source of irritation to Jarvess (John Hodiak), can't find boots or "goo-lashes" big enough to fit comfortably so he sleeps wearing only his socks. After a sniper attack forces the platoon to race for cover behind trees, Jarvess returns to check for casualties and sees Abner's ill-fitting boots beside his foxhole and the imprints of his fingers clawed into the snow. He's immediately conscience-stricken over a fellow soldier he resented and verbally abused, but one who took a fatal bullet for their squad.
Pirosh co-authored the story for The Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races (1937), has screenplay credit for René Clair's I Married a Witch (1942), and helped adapt Up in Arms (1944), a military comedy starring Danny Kaye. He wrote and directed five films in the 1950s, including Go for Broke! concerning racism and bigotry toward the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, comprised of Japanese-Americans. In the 1960s, he moved into television, writing for such series as The Fugitive, Mannix, and (as might be expected) Combat!
Paul Vogel's striking black-and-white cinematography is all the more remarkable, since the film was shot entirely on a fogged-over Hollywood soundstage. Director Wellman turned this to his advantage, using the claustrophobic atmosphere to add a sense of snowed-in paranoia. One of the most impressive scenes -- and probably the most difficult for Vogel to capture -- shows the B Platoon watching German soldiers dressed in white camouflage moving through the snow and fog; amazingly every detail stands out! As Lt. Paul C. Vogel, he filmed the 45-minute short, The Negro Soldier in 1944, perhaps enabling him to visualize the military images in Battleground. Vogel was recognized for his 1965 color cinematography on George Pal's Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and has been cited for his risky subjective camerawork in Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1947).
I don't think the film would have conveyed such realism without the art direction of Cedric Gibbons and Hans Peters, or the meticulously constructed sets of designers Alfred E. Spencer and Edwin B. Willis. Their recreation of the snow-banked Ardennes Forest and the bombed-out skeletal remains of the besieged town of Bastogne are truly astonishing. Oscar-nominated editor John Dunning (Showboat (1951) and Wyler's Ben Hur) sleekly incorporated actual military footage in the closing montaged battle sequences (coordinated with Peter Ballbusch). Throughout the film, however, Dunning ingeniously linked genuine period long shots of soldiers plodding through snow with tight close-ups of the actors' feet, neatly segueing the audience back into Pirosh's story.
William A. Wellman directed over 80 films but was nominated only twice, for Battleground and The High and the Mighty. He was flexible enough to successfully cross genres and is noted for the pre-code gangster classic Public Enemy (1931), his ultra-realistic Depression-era drama Wild Boys of the Road (1933), the hilariously satiric Roxie Hart (1942) -- the basis for Chicago, and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) which tackled the mob rule mentality in a western setting.
There is a generic element to the first half-hour of the film when we are introduced to some stereotypes: ladies' man, Holly (Van Johnson, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Command Decision), football jock Walowicz (Bruce Cowling, The Stratton Story, Ambush), cynical newspaper columnist Jarvess (John Hodiak, Lifeboat, Battle Zone), hick Abner (Jerome Courtland, The Walking Hills) and mamma's boy, Layton (Marshall Thompson, Fiend Without a Face, Cult of the Cobra); along with "Pop" Stazak (George Murphy, Bataan, For Me and My Gal) awaiting a last-minute hardship discharge and the toothless Kipp Kippton (Douglas Fowley, Dodge City, Mighty Joe Young) always rattling his dentures. Commanding this platoon is the gruff, tobacco-chewing Sgt. Kinnie played by James Whitmore (The Asphalt Jungle, Them!) who looks and acts like he was actually recruited off a battlefield for this Oscar-nominated performance. As each character develops more emotional context (in terms of the war and their interpersonal relationships), Battleground delivers one of the finest ensemble casts you're going to see.
Pirosh included a Spanish-American soldier, Pvt. Rodrigues, in one of the lead roles, subtly acknowledging the ethnic diversity in the American military at that time. He was played by Ricardo Montalban, who starred in Anthony Mann's Border Incident that same year and is best known as Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island. Denise Darcel (Aldich's Vera Cruz and Wellman's Westward the Women) is the only woman in the cast and was given equal billing for what amounts to a cameo role as a hotel keeper caring for two children. Dressed in a tight black sweater and skirt, it must have been considered racy in 1949 to have Van Johnson constantly ogling her curves, especially when she cuts a loaf of bread too close to her breasts.
Warner's transfer is just about perfect, with sharp and balanced contrast. The Dolby Digital Mono is crisp and consistent throughout. The bonus features totaling about 12 minutes are period shorts that basically cancel each other out. "Little Rural Riding Hood" is a terrific and typically surreal Tex Avery cartoon in which the Big Bad Wolf heads to the city for a musical number sung by a Betty Grable version of Jessica Rabbit. "Let's Cogitate" is introduced as "A Pete Smith Specialty" (?) full of lame jokes and slapstick pratfalls about amateur photographers, snoring, elevators, and (of all things) boomerangs. I assume it was included because the photography was also by Vogel, but sometimes less is more. I would have given the Extras a slightly higher rating had only the Avery cartoon been included.
While often compared to The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan, I think Battleground is closer in theme, content, and characterization to Keith Gordon's A Midnight Clear (1992), based on William Wharton's novel; in which he condensed his own wartime experiences in the Ardennes to Christmas Eve, 1944.
Along with Command Decision, however, Battleground is one of the best films about Americans in the European Theater during WWII.
Review content copyright © 2004 George Hatch; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 1949
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Vintage Cartoon: "Little Rural Riding Hood"
* Vintage Featurette: "Let's Cogitate"
* The Ardennes and The Battle of the Bulge