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Warner DVD
1949 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 118 min. / Street Date May 4, 2004 / 19.97
Starring Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Marshall Thompson, Don Taylor, James Whitmore, Douglas Fowley, Leon Ames, Guy Anderson, Denise Darcel, Richard Jaeckel, James Arness
Cinematography Paul Vogel
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters
Film Editor John D. Dunning
Original Music Lennie Hayton
Written by Robert Pirosh
Produced by Dore Schary
Directed by William A. Wellman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Battleground is the best of the generic "GIs in the Mud" genre of war film. Combat pictures tapered off quickly with the cessation of hostilities in 1945, and only around 1949 did Hollywood revisit the subject matter. Veteran director William A. Wellman and producer Dore Schary used MGM production values to create a convincing Ardennes forest on indoor sound stages. MGM's offices were a battlefield too, as Dore Schary would soon outflank Louis B. Mayer for control of the studio. Battleground is a perfect example of Schary's more realistic approach to popular moviemaking.


The 101st Airborne thinks they're getting Paris leave, but instead are sent back into the fray to plug up a German winter advance at Bastogne. The engagement turns into The Battle of the Bulge, with the Americans surrounded and cut off from aerial reinforcement by bad weather.

Battleground plays the plight of the ordinary infantryman for its simple truth. There had been realistic movies on the subject made during the war (notably The Story of G.I. Joe) but this snow 'n slush tale concentrates on the mundane problems of combat survival in a winter campaign, with whole battalions of Americans surrounded by a German Panzer division. Instead of weepy letters home or chivalrous gestures of sacrifice, we focus on things like feet - when they freeze up, gangrene might set in, but before a soldier can go on sick leave, his toes have to start changing color.

The key image of Battleground that has persisted to this day is the sight of James Whitmore hobbling painfully through the snow with his feet wrapped in torn blankets. Whitmore personifies the average "dogfaced" GI fighting away from home - a dirty, unshaven loveable mess.

Robert Pirosh's script avoids most wartime clichés that dogged movies like Guadalcanal Diary. Free of the need to boost morale, soldiers no longer gather like happy campers to sing songs, and nobody talks about their girl or dog back home. Talking about food is discouraged - the subject is too depressing. The soldiers complain bitterly and are understandably selfish. "Nobody cares" is the first thing heard when they feel they've been abandoned. An older footsoldier played by George Murphy is awaiting papers excusing him from duty, and is miserable when he's moved up to the line instead. By the time his discharge orders come, he's cut off in the woods with everyone else.

There's a democratic slant to the way the cast is used. Pretty boy Van Johnson gets top billing but is not a gallant hero. At one point he panics and starts to run away, until green recruit Marshall Thompson appears. Then he's too proud to flee and they decide to attack together. The most "heroic" soldier in the outfit is a lanky, bookish private played by no-billing Guy Anderson. His big act is to initiate return fire when the rest of his patrol is shivering in their foxholes.

The casting in Battleground plays better now, 55 years later. In 1949 it was all too obvious that the first priority was to keep all of MGM's contract players busy; the bottom was falling out of the studio system. Half the cast are refugees from musicals (George Murphy, Ricardo Montalban, Van Johnson) trying to make a dramatic mark in post-war Hollywood. Wellman's no-nonsense direction serves them all well. Besides providing early peeks at talent like James Arness, we see Dewey Martin, Tommy Noonan, Jerry Paris and William Self in tiny bits. The presence of Richard Jaeckel doesn't count as he was already firmly established as a tough teenaged soldier back in wartime combat films. Denise Darcel is the only female glimpsed during the film. Douglas Fowley (Singin' in the Rain's movie director) is excellent as a cranky soldier with false teeth.

Those War Bond-selling movies usually had a religious angle too, often proclaiming that there are no aethiests in foxholes or that God is on our side. Battleground is downright socialistic in this regard, as its Lutheran chaplain talks of holding Jewish services too when needed. The prayer scene is subdued and simple, and young Marshall Thompson is shown ignoring the whole ritual.

The film doesn't try to be a document of The Battle of the Bulge. John Hodiak's newspaperman-soldier complains that his wife back in the states probably has a bigger picture of the fighting than he does, and we share the group's general lack of information. The shivering soldiers don't know what's going on more than a few feet away from their foxholes. The script does sneak in an historical highlights, the "Nuts" response to the German demand for surrender. The film captures the obstinate stubbornness of the American fighter to the nth degree, and is a respectful portrait of a generation of citizen-soldiers.

With popular hits like these, producer Dore Schary gained ground at MGM against big man Louis B. Mayer. By this time they were co-production heads, a conflict documented in Lillian Ross's book Picture. Mayer preferred musicals and sappy nostalgia and thought that downbeat realism was unfit for audiences. It's too bad that John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage was produced under Mayer instead of Schary; without studio interference it might have been the most artistic and satisfying of the MGM war-themed movies of the time.

Warners' DVD of Battleground looks fine in restored B&W, with the carefully-photographed interior sets with their fog and snow looking very good - it can't have been easy to get these visual effects on a soundstage. The soundtrack is limited to a few martial themes but the song "Jody" comes across clearly, especially in the upbeat ending. Seeing the grinning soldiers marchand sing sent audiences out of the theater a lot happier than the real Bastogne defenders were back in that frozen forest.

Warners has tossed on two short subjects from 1949, a Pete Smith specialty that's pretty lame, and the choice Tex Avery cartoon Little Rural Riding Hood, the followup to Red Hot Riding Hood that recycles a sexy dance and stresses a city Wolf/country Wolf theme. It echoes nicely a thread in Battleground where erudite John Hodiak resents a southern hick's sloppy speech habits, but has time to think twice after the man is killed.

The excellent cover art uses the iconic image of James Whitmore shouting. Playing tough soldiers would sustain Whitmore's career for at least a decade. Producer Schary tagged him as "an ordinary Joe" for his next year's fantasy The Next Voice You Hear, also directed by Wellman. Interestingly, the film that best uses James Whitmore's proletarian integrity is a science fiction movie, 1954's Them!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Battleground rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Pete Smith Specialty, Little Rural Riding Hood cartoon
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: June 5, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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