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:
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.
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.
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.
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.