War

Battleground: Why an Acclaimed WWII Film Needed Van Johnson

Van Johnson (left) and John Hodiak trudge through the French winter. Image: OCD Viewer

It’s still considered one of the best war movies ever made.

The WWII drama Battleground (1949), examines American solders caught in a sudden, desperate battle against the Germans in the last months of WWII. This campaign was known as the Battle of the Bulge, so called because the Allied line “bulged” as the Germans tried to push through it.

This was one of the deadliest actions of the war, and Battleground documents the ugliness of it: the hunger, the terror, the body count.

Here is a map:

Image: LSU Libraries

It’s cold and miserable in western Europe in December, 1944. The Allies are badly outnumbered against the Germans; their outlook is bleak, their humour dark. They sleep in grave-like trenches in the frozen ground.

The film feels gritty and authentic, and no wonder. Long-time MGM screenwriter Robert Pirosh based the script on his own experiences during this battle.

Pirosh created an ensemble film where everyone pulls their weight. Casting becomes crucial; you need actors who make the audience believe what they see on screen. Actors like John Hodiak, James Whitmore and George Murphy show us men beaten down by war, but are still determined to fight.

You also need someone like Van Johnson, an actor who can portray a charismatic man turned inside out by war.

The German army sends its greetings. Image: strijdbewijs.nl

Johnson was a popular, boy-next-door kind of actor during the 1940s. His performances were sometimes criticized for not having depth, but Battleground proves otherwise.

When we first meet Johnson’s character, he’s fresh and well-rested from medical leave. The men in his unit tease him about getting out of the hospital just in time for a three-day furlough in Paris. Johnson’s character loves the attention; he brags about drinking champagne every night while in the hospital.

Alas, the Paris Leave is cancelled and the unit is sent to Bastogne. War is On.

Initially, Johnson’s character is charming and resourceful. For example, he finds fresh eggs and carries them – whether wrapped in a cloth or scrambled in his helmet – through the snow and sniper fire.

However, the battle alters his personality. Over the course of the film we see Johnson’s character face the worst in the enemy – and in himself.

In one scene, he and a fellow soldier (Hodiak) are on guard duty. They stop a U.S. Army Jeep to ask for the password, but the men in the Jeep don’t know what it is. Johnson and Hodiak grill them about baseball, but the questions are met with confusion. Johnson is suspicious, then becomes hysterical, shouting in German, “Do you speak German? What is your name?”

He looks ready to kill them. We hold our breath.

The injuries and fatalities increase. Image: Cineplex

This is a surprisingly violent film for MGM. (Apparently, Battleground was pushed into production despite studio chief Louis B. Mayer’s reservations.) The violence is not graphic; hand-to-hand combat is obscured by a bush, or a dead man is shown by his feet askew in the snow. Director William Wellman doesn’t wallow in the gory details, he lets us feel them.

HistoryNet says 90,000 Allied lives were lost during the Battle of the Bulge, plus 100,000 Germans and 3,000 civilians. It would be the last major offensive the German army would launch during the war.

Battleground is not an uplifting movie, nor should it be – it explores what it’s like to be shoved into the worst of circumstances. Van Johnson shows us how one man grinds his way through.

Notes:
  • You can read New York Time’s Bosley Crowther’s surprisingly touching review HERE.
  • For a quick overview of the Battle of the Bulge, click HERE.
  • For a behind-the scenes look at this film, read Back to Golden Days’ review HERE.

Battleground: starring Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban. Directed by William A. Wellman. Written by Robert Pirosh. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1949, B&W, 118 mins.

This is part of THE VAN JOHNSON Blogathon hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood.

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27 thoughts on “Battleground: Why an Acclaimed WWII Film Needed Van Johnson

  1. I recorded Battleground a few days ago and I told myself I wasn’t going to read your post until I watched it…but obviously I couldn’t wait. Although it isn’t a completely uplifting film, you’ve made me more excited to see it. I’ve heard Van is fabulous in it and the rest of the cast just sounds amazing.

    Thanks so much for contributing this absolutely wonderful piece to my blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Battleground is a film that moves me deeply. As a youngster, it was the final scene that was most memorable. Through the years, there are so many moments, or even just a close-up, that reveals so much and lingers.

    Sergeant Holly channels what we might be feeling were we placed in such untenable positions. Would we break? Would we run? Would we be there when it counted? No one could have played that role better than Van Johnson.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. Van Johnson’s character is capable of anything, whether good or bad. It makes a person wonder how they’d react in similar circumstances. You need a Van Johnson to portray that successfully…he’s so amusing at the start of the film, you’re rooting for him the whole time.

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  3. Johnson has been underrated for years. He was introduced as an All-American, boy-next-door type — a type which has been pretty much out of fashion for decades now. But I find his performances intelligent, sensitive, and thoughtful right from the beginning — Pilot Numbes Five, for example, which was sort of a tryout picture for new male stars Gene Kelly and Johnson at MGM. He could make a borderline sentimental movie less syrupy, like The Bride Goes Wild, and edd a real edge of anger and cynicism to a classic musical, Brigadoon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed – Van Johnson has been criminally underrated, even though he’s terrific in this film, and the ones you mentioned. I haven’t seen “Pilot Number Five”, though. Will check it out – thanks!

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  4. It’s funny-sad, because in terms of strategy, the Battle of the Bulge (AKA “The Ardennes Offensive,” from the German side), was a minor skirmish. The Germans were out of men and ammunition and basically tried to bluff their way into a more defensible position, using the fog as cover. It didn’t work, and it wasn’t likely to. Even if it had, it would only have delayed their defeat for a few weeks or months.
    But, if you were one of the men in that fog, facing artillery bombardment from unseen cannon and attack from an unknown number of units, it would have been totally terrifying. If you were one of those who lost their lives, it would have been just as tragic. That’s what this film captures, and it does so beautifully. Kudos to Van and all his colleagues.

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  5. I’m not a huge Van Johnson fan, but this certainly is one of his best films. You’re right…it is “gritty” and set the stage for the realistic war films of the 1950s, like THE STEEL HELMET.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. There are still so many WWII movies on my list. I’m now really anxious to see Johnson’s transformation. Can’t recall seeing him in anything like this before. Great opportunity for us to see his range. Thanks for reminding us about this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I thought I had seen this movie, but I was mistaken… And since I’m more familiar with no-depth Van Johnson, a change will be cool. Also, I can’t praise William Wellman enough – that man in so underrated! Thanks for reminding me that I haven’t seen this movie!
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Van Johnson starts the movie as a fellow with little depth, but his character undergoes some changes. His bravado is gradually replaced by fear and weariness. I hope you get the chance to see it soon. 🙂

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    1. This is a bold movie for that time period, and an unusual one for MGM. Some say this film was the beginning of the end for Louis B. Mayer. He didn’t want to make it, but it went into production anyway. (It was part of a deal when they hired Dore Schary, who eventually replaced Mayer, as you know.)

      Liked by 1 person

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