12/22/09

Battleground (1949)

Van Johnson (Holley), John Hodiak (Jarvess), Ricardo Montalban (Roderigues), George Murphy ('Pop' Stazak), Marshall Thompson (Jim Layton)

Directed by William A. Wellman (The Ox-Bow Incident)

IMDB Summary: Follow a band of American soldiers as they engage the Germans in a snowy, foggy winter near Bastogne in World War II. They're low on fuel, rations, and ammunition; the Germans are constantly encouraging their surrender via radio and leaflets, and most importantly, the pervasive thick fog makes movement and identification difficult and prevents their relief by Allied air support. This film focuses much more on the psychology and morale of the soldiers than on action footage and heroics.

Can I be entirely shallow and tart with how absolutely hot Ricardo Montalban was? And his accent! Oh, my goodness. I bet many a young woman in the 40s, 50s, and beyond had crushes on him that went entirely against racial norms of the time. No wonder he remained such a massive star through the decades.

OK, girly fluffitude done.

Dad recommended I see this one, because it was one of the first worm's-eye-view portrayals of WWII. My theory is that until Vietnam, movies about war, particularly about WWII, were told from the top -down because the subject matter had a heroic, righteous bent. Generals peered through binoculars from their outposts and knew they were doing good work, and audiences went along with that. Vietnam, however, was such an unpopular war, and the generals and politicians in charge of it so controversial, that it became vital to tell stories from the ground -up--hence Platoon and Apocalypse Now, where the trials and hideous split-second decisions made by soldier after soldier provide a better understanding of war's hell.

As such, Battleground is most unusual, illustrating the Battle of the Bulge as experienced by one squad. A squad in WWII was one third of a platoon, made up of roughly 10-12 men and led by a non-commissioned officer (sergeant). That means it was even more tightly focused that, say, "Band of Brothers," which profiled an entire company (roughly 140 men).

And I must say that the "Band of Brothers" creators must've taken plenty of notes from this older portrayal. Small character traits such as the replacement whose name is forgotten by the new guys, or the non-smoking man who gives in to the habit during times of stress, were both echoed in "Band of Brothers." I also liked the (curse-free) interactions, which showed the men alternately fist-fighting, ribbing, and caring for one another. Despite a few corny moments, this was really well done.

Members of the actual Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne were featured in Battleground during an extended parade march during the opening few minutes. If you didn't know those were the actual soldiers, the five minutes spent on that scene might not make sense. But I think it was meant as a tribute to those men the actors were about to portray.

The film tackles some really disturbing themes, which wouldn't be revisited until decades later. For example, Van Johnson's character, Holley, takes off running during a firefight. The new kid, Layton, follows him. Up until this point, Holley had been a mixed bag. A joker and a cad, he was also the guy who reminded the men to keep their boots on while they slept (in case they needed to run in a hurry) and to keep their rifles free of snow. That advice turned out to save lives--and those who ignored it suffered.

So when Holley takes off running...is it because he was leading an aggressive counter-attack, or because he was scared? Even the men debate the reasons on-screen. A WWII soldier experiencing a moment of cowardice? Really? Fascinating. The men also have to make heartbreaking decisions regarding the fate of a comrade, and that decision is also tainted by fear. I was impressed by the genuine attempt at authenticity from a soldier's point-of-view, especially considering that this was released in 1949. Enough time would've passed to start hazing over the grittiness with nostalgia and patriotism in the face of burgeoning hostilities with the USSR.

The violence is brief and generally portrayed off-screen. For example, when a man strangles a German soldier, the actual strangling is done behind a concealing bush. But the claustrophobic feeling of the fog-laden trees and the mortar bursts raining down at random intervals...that worked incredible well (more furious note-taking by "Band of Brothers" crew).

Overall, I'm very glad I watched this one. It was not only an entertaining movie, but a fascinating anomaly in WWII filmmaking that wouldn't find an equal until the 1990s.

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