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A single company of soldiers of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division are assigned the daunting task of holding back the 47th German Panzer Corps who are advancing through Allied lines near Bastogne, Belgium. The group is a cross-section of American men, average Joes who find themselves surrounded by the enemy with no air support. How they survive, how they try to keep their humor and humanity in the face of overwhelming odds, and how they ultimately triumph is the real focus of this true-life World War II incident.
Director: William Wellman
Producer: Dore Schary
Screenplay: Robert Pirosh
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Editing: John Dunning
Art Direction: Hans Peters, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Lennie Hayton
Cast: Van Johnson (Holley), John Hodiak (Jarvess), Ricardo Montalban (Roderigues), George Murphy ("Pop" Stazak), James Whitmore ("Kinnie").
Why BATTLEGROUND is Essential
"Was this trip necessary?" That's the "$64 question" delivered to an exhausted, diminished, battle-weary group of soldiers in the midst of one of the bloodiest and most difficult conflicts of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest during December 1944. The speaker is a military chaplain giving a Christmas sermon to a congregation who must have questioned the death and hardship they were enduring so far from home and loved ones. It's also the question the producers of Battleground intended to raise in the minds of its audience, and to answer with a resounding "yes," as the chaplain does in this key scene by reminding the troops why fascism had to be defeated. Four years after the end of the war, the creators of Battleground were taking a chance that Americans were ready to revisit those times, and so the question was not only a reaffirmation of all that had been gained, and lost, by our involvement in the global conflict. It also expressed the hope that audiences would answer affirmatively that it had, indeed, been worth the trip to the theater to see a story about men in battle, and that's just what they did, in huge numbers that made Battleground the second-highest grossing in its year of wide release (1950). Yet the film almost didn't get made.
The production history of Battleground is axiomatic of the studio system, particularly during the uncertain times in which it found itself in the late 1940s. It was rescued from the micromanaging new owner of RKO, Howard Hughes, by producer Dore Schary, who had made it a pet project with writer and former soldier Robert Pirosh, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge a few years earlier. Schary took it to his new job at MGM, where he ran into conflict with longtime studio boss Louis B. Mayer, eventually getting the green light only because Mayer thought its certain failure would result in Schary's forced departure from the studio.
By Mayer's assessment, which was not completely clouded by professional rivalry, Battleground should not have worked as well as it did. The popular battle pictures of a few years earlier (Bataan , Wake Island ) had succeeded because the country's attention was overwhelmingly on the war, an event that was immediate in everyone's daily life. Like those pictures, Battleground had the formulaic plot about a group of men from all backgrounds, ethnicities, regions, etc. What it lacked was the immediacy, the extra connection provided by the concern felt on the homefront for the outcome of the war and the individual fates of those on the front lines. Yet, by giving each character a recognizable trait - Roderigues's wonder at the sight of snow, Pops's arthritis and chance for being sent home, Abner's tagline and habit of sleeping with his boots off - and injecting humor wherever possible, writer Pirosh was able to elicit audience sympathy and interest.
In addition, the last great films of the war, Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and A Walk in the Sun (1945), had taken an almost documentary approach to its subject. Director William Wellman (who also made Story of G.I. Joe) chose instead to shoot Battleground almost entirely in the studio, an unusual choice for an action subject. But what emerged from this rather consciously fictitious mise en scene was a character drama focused more on the human condition than on the locations and mechanics of warfare, highlighting the loneliness and frustration, the struggle against the elements, and the frequent sense of hopelessness that characterizes the war experience as much as action itself. Lastly, the liberal Schary, a producer given to making what were often derisively called "message pictures," proved that a movie could work as both popular entertainment and social commentary, in this case reminding the country (and the industry) of its anti-fascist commitment in a time of mounting right-wing backlash and political witch hunts.
If for no other reason, Battleground would have a place in cinema history for the role it played in the downfall of L.B. Mayer, one of the most powerful men in the business and a shaper of the Hollywood system (he was forced out of MGM in 1951). The movie also serves as a footnote to the ultimate demise of RKO under Howard Hughes. Ultimately, however, Battleground was that rare example of a movie that enjoyed unanimous critical acclaim as well as a huge box office success.
by Rob Nixon
Battleground was often referred to as The Big Parade for World War II. The earlier picture, an account of the ordinary soldier in wartime, was released in 1925, several years after the end of the First World War, and was an unexpected hit. Like its 1949 counterpart, The Big Parade was reluctantly put into production by MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, who insisted Americans didn't want to look back on an earlier war. Both pictures proved Mayer wrong when they turned out to be hugely successful and garnered awards and critical praise.
The shot of Spudler getting shot while reaching out of the foxhole for his boots recalls Lew Ayres's death in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).
Critics and film historians have noted that although director William Wellman preferred the more documentary feel of his other war hit, Story of G.I. Joe (1945), the pictures he shot in far more controlled situations in the studio, such as The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), are more visually striking.
Some observers have commented that Don Taylor's role as wealthy recruit Standiferd is similar to the part he played in the later war film Stalag 17 (1953).
The care with which the creators of Battleground matched exteriors, studio shots, and real combat footage and strove for authenticity in geography and climate has been compared favorably to a later war epic about the same campaign, though on a much grander scale, Battle of the Bulge (1965). The battle in the later film is erroneously depicted as taking place in a rather barren, hilly area, and not the flat, dense Ardennes Forest. Some shots betray the production as taking place during warm weather rather than the deep winter conditions depicted.
In John Sayles's film Lianna (1983), the title character's thoughtless husband, a college teacher, leaves the room in one scene to go watch Battleground on television because "I have to teach it next week."
The computer-colorized version of Battleground was released on video in the 1980s during the brief trend for adding color to old black-and-white movies.
The MGM release Go for Broke! (1951) is sometimes mistakenly listed as a sequel to this film, probably because it capitalized on Battleground's success by starring Van Johnson in another war movie written and directed by Robert Pirosh, who penned Battleground. In the later film, however, Johnson plays a totally different character in a different story.
by Rob Nixon
Director William Wellman and producer Dore Schary worked well together during the filming of Battleground, but Wellman later said their working relationship on future projects didn't end well because, he said, "[Schary] let politics screw him up." Apparently Wellman found Schary's penchant for projects in which he had a personal and intellectual investment ridiculous. "You make pictures to amuse the public, not yourself," Wellman said.
Schary's 30-year career in film included stints as a writer (Academy Award shared with Eleanore Griffin for the original story of Boys Town, 1938), producer, and studio production chief. When he was finally ousted as head of MGM in the mid-1950s, he found a new career as a successful theater producer, director, and playwright, winning Tony Awards for writing and producing the play Sunrise at Campobello about FDR. Schary was one of the few Hollywood executives who attempted to stand up to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the anti-communist witch hunts of the late 1940s.
Wellman, whose career stretched from 1920 to 1958, was known for "men's" pictures, particularly ones that dealt with a subject with which he was personally familiar, aviation. He directed the first-ever Academy Award-winning Best Picture, Wings (1927), and won his only directing Oscar® for the original version of A Star Is Born (1937).
James Whitmore gained his first fame in the Broadway cast of the war drama Command Decision. When the play was made into a film in 1948, Whitmore's role was given to the more bankable actor Van Johnson, his co-star in Battleground. Whitmore instead made his film debut in the crime drama The Undercover Man (1949). He has had a long and respected career, garnering awards and nominations, including Oscar® and Golden Globe nods for Best Actor for the film version of his successful one-man stage show performance as President Truman in Give 'Em Hell, Harry!" (1975).
Early press reports list James Mitchell in the cast, but he does not appear in the film. Some say he was replaced by James Whitmore because Mitchell, a dancer, did not act or move properly for the drill sergeant role. Mitchell's most famous screen appearance was as Curly in the Dream Ballet sequence of Oklahoma! (1955).
Douglas Fowley, who plays Pvt. Kippton, the soldier constantly complaining about (and clacking) his ill-fitting, Army-issue false teeth, actually lost all his teeth in an explosion aboard his aircraft carrier during a battle in the South Pacific in World War II.
Some of the Battleground supporting cast went on to work in television. The most successful of these was James Arness, a bit player here but the star of the TV Western Gunsmoke for many years. Herbert Anderson (billed as "Guy Anderson" here for his role as Hansan) later played the title character's father on the long-running comedy Dennis the Menace. Marshall Thompson (as young recruit Jim Layton) never quite broke through to major film stardom but did have a hit as veterinarian Dr. Marsh Tracy in Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion (1965). He reprised the part on the small screen for 43 episodes of the spin-off series Daktari in the late 1960s. Although he continued to act until 1964, Don Taylor (Standiferd) began directing for television in the late 1950s and helmed episodes of numerous series, including Dennis the Menace. He also directed the occasional feature film, such as Damien: Omen II (1978) and the WWII fantasy The Final Countdown (1980).
Writer Robert Pirosh later developed the long-running World War II TV series Combat, which followed a single infantry squad through the front lines of Europe. The show featured guest appearances by Battleground cast members Ricardo Montalban, Denise Darcel, Richard Jaeckel, and James Whitmore.
Actor-dancer George Murphy's film career was nearing its end when he made Battleground. He later went into politics and became the Republican Senator from California (1965-1971).
Doomed new recruit Hooper was played by Scotty Beckett, a much sought-after child star since his success at the age of 5 in the Our Gang comedies of the early 1930s. Like many other child stars, Beckett had a troubled adult life, in frequent problems with the law and dying of an overdose of barbiturates in 1968 at the age of 37.
Dore Schary wanted to be sure Battleground was released no later than the end of the year to take advantage of the holiday movie season and to qualify it for the Academy Awards for that year. It premiered in Washington, DC, on November 9, 1949. This first screening was attended by military and political dignitaries, including General Anthony McAuliffe, commander of the 101st Division during the events depicted in the movie.
President Harry Truman requested of producer Dore Schary, and was granted, of course, a private screening while he was on vacation in Key West.
Premieres of Battleground were also held in New York (November 11, 1949) and Los Angeles (December 1), a requirement of Oscar rules. The movie went into general release in January 1950.
According to a Daily Variety news item from the period, Battleground took in $3,750,000 (other sources make it more than $4.5 million) at the box office and was MGM's largest-grossing film in five years (although some claim that status for the Tracy-Hepburn comedy Adam's Rib, 1949). It has also been credited as the second-highest grossing film of 1950, behind Samson and Delilah (1949).
Regardless of what actual rank it achieved at the box office, the runaway success of Battleground was a blow to Louis B. Mayer's plans to retain control of the studio. At a time when all the other major studios were experiencing financial decline, Metro's success under Schary positioned him as a savior at the studio. Increasing tension between the two executives soon came to a head, and when Mayer delivered a "him-or-me" ultimatum to the studio money men in 1951, he was ousted as head of MGM after 27 years.
An MGM publicity man commented that he believed the success of Battleground was due to an ad showing the big-breasted Denise Darcel in a tight black sweater.
"A lot of people think Battleground is better than G.I. Joe, but I don't....I don't know why. I guess because there was a lot of humor. A dirty kind of humor." director William Wellman
Memorable Quotes from BATTLEGROUND
WRITTEN PROLOGUE: This story is about, and dedicated to, those Americans who met General Heinrich von Luttwitz and his 47th Panzer Corps and won for themselves the honored and immortal name "The Battered Bastards of Bastogne."
MAJOR: (Edmon Ryan): Thank you Sergeant.
HOLLEY (Van Johnson): That's PFC to you, Major, as in "praying for civilian."
HOLLEY: Let's not try to reach China this time, hey Bettis?
BETTIS (Richard Jaeckel): Well there's no sense digging if you don't go deep.
HOLLEY: The last time we dug one together, you went so deep that when I climbed out in the morning I got the bends.
GERMAN LIEUTENANT (Roland Varno): The major thinks General McAuliffe must have misunderstood. We have appealed to the well-known American humanity to save the people of Bastogne from further suffering. We have given you two hours to consider before raining destruction upon you. We do not understand General McAuliffe's answer.
AMERICAN COLONEL (Ian McDonald): I'd be glad to repeat it. The answer is "nuts."
GERMAN LIEUTENANT: Is that a negative or an affirmative reply?
AMERICAN COLONEL: Nuts is strictly negative.
GERMAN LIEUTENANT: We will kill many Americans.
AMERICAN COLONEL: On your way, bud.
CHAPLAIN (Leon Ames): Was this trip necessary? ... My answer to the sixty-four dollar question is yes, this trip was necessary. As the years go by, a lot of people are going to forget. But you won't. And don't ever let anybody tell you you were a sucker to fight in the war against fascism.
Complied by Rob Nixon
Producer Dore Schary first conceived the project in 1947 as head of production at RKO. Although the trend of war pictures had passed, Schary felt America would experience the same sort of disillusionment and doubt about the value of its involvement in a global conflict that it went through after World War I. He felt it was important to do a film "that would say the war was worth fighting despite the terrible losses....There was something at stake. It was the first time in a long, long time, hundreds of years, that there had been a real danger of a takeover by a very evil and strong force."
To drive home both the sense of sacrifice and the real threat of a Nazi victory, Schary looked for a situation in which the Allied cause was in jeopardy. He found it in the crucial siege of the Belgian town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
Schary was lucky to find writer Robert Pirosh, whose most recent credit was adapting the hit stage military comedy Up in Arms (1944). Pirosh leaped at the chance to tell a story he knew first hand; he had fought in the Battle of the Bulge during the war. In April 1947, he traveled to Europe to revisit the battlefields where he had fought and decided to tell a more intimate story, portraying a single squad in a way that "would not be an insult to the memory of those we left there." The important thing, for Pirosh, was to find something universal to all those who had fought in the war, no matter where, by showing "what did it do to us? How did we feel?"
Although Pirosh had fought in the war, he was not with the 101st Airborne, the division that had been surrounded at Bastogne for eight days. Concerned he might not be able to paint an accurate portrait of the experience, he approached division commander General Anthony McAuliffe, whose reply to a German demand for surrender, "Nuts!", had been a symbol of American determination during the war. McAuliffe assured Pirosh, "You were fighting under the same kind of conditions. You were just as cold, the fog was just as thick, the suspense was just as great. Go ahead and write it the way you feel it." The General strongly supported the project and served as technical adviser on the screenwriting phase of Battleground.
Schary, meanwhile, queried RKO sales reps about the market for a war film. When they responded negatively, he polled exhibitors across the country. They were more positive, although they qualified their assessment with questions about where it would be set, what it would be about, and who would be in it. Without answering, Schary decided to move forward, but he gave the picture a working title as far removed from the subject as possible, "Prelude to Love," in order to keep the project secret and not allow other studios to get a jump on RKO with war films of their own.
Pirosh finished the first draft of the Battleground screenplay by mid-January 1948, and Schary approached director William Wellman, who made one of the war years' finest films, Story of G.I. Joe (1945). Wellman deemed it "a hell of a script" and accepted, with the understanding that it would not be another G.I. Joe. "I'll just make a picture about a very tired group of guys," he said.
Schary contacted MGM to see if he could borrow two of that studio's contract players, Van Johnson and Ricardo Montalban. He was told by MGM's casting director Billy Grady there was no chance of getting anyone from the studio because executives there thought the script was "a stinker."
At this point in the project, millionaire industrialist and Hollywood dabbler Howard Hughes bought RKO. Schary had a clause in his contract allowing him to leave his job if a new owner took over, but initially he tried to work with Hughes. It soon become apparent, though, that his new boss intended to be very hands on, and when Hughes ordered him to remove Battleground from the production schedule, Schary resigned. His only request was to ask Hughes to sell him the script. Hughes agreed, for the bargain sum of $20,000, and Schary brought Pirosh with him to his new job at MGM.
Schary wanted Battleground to be his first project as the new production head of his former employer MGM, the company he had quit several years earlier over conflicts with studio head Louis B. Mayer and other executives. Although they didn't favor the project, Mayer and Nicholas Schenck, president of MGM's parent company, didn't want to butt heads again with their new executive, so they gave him a go-ahead, with the notion in mind that if it failed, they would have more leverage over future production decisions. The project quickly became known as "Schary's folly."
Schary was now able to get the actors he wanted from the start, adding John Hodiak and George Murphy to the cast with Johnson and Montalban. He also cast James Whitmore, an actor with only one other film to his credit (The Undercover Man, 1949), in the key role of the tough-talking Sgt. Kinnie. Schary had been impressed with Whitmore's award-winning performance on Broadway in the war-themed play Command Decision. Although trade papers announced Robert Taylor and Keenan Wynn would also star, neither appeared in the film.
Although Wellman was reportedly against adding a female role to the picture, he and Schary personally interviewed the single woman in the cast, French actress Denise Darcel as a kindlyand sexyBelgian who quarters the squad in Bastogne for a night. From the producer's own statements, she appears to have been cast exclusively on the basis of her physical attributes.
by Rob Nixon
Every now and then there's a film that catches everybody (except perhaps its creators) by surprise, doing great box office and gathering critical acclaim. Such a film was Battleground (1949) which became a big hit after its release in 1949, winning two Oscars and being nominated for four more despite the fact that it almost didn't get made.
Battleground is far from the usual war movie heroics. It follows a group of men from the 101st Airborne trapped in the Bastogne in 1944. Though they're the usual cross-section of male stereotypes - a tough sergeant, a journalist, a Southern boy, a womanizer - the intense characterizations and well-drawn details keep them believable. The men try to survive the snow, the Germans, and their own occasional squabbles.
Writer Robert Pirosh had in fact been at the Bastogne himself (though not in the 101st) and got the project started with producer Dore Schary at RKO when Howard Hughes ruled that particular roost. To avoid other studios making a competing film they kept the subject secret and used the misleading title Prelude to Love. But Hughes insisted that nobody wanted to see a film about the war so soon after it ended and cancelled the project. Shortly afterwards when Schary went to MGM he was able to take the project along with him. MGM head L.B. Mayer was just as skeptical but more tolerant even though when Battleground had been at the previous studio MGM refused to loan any of its actors to the project. Mayer wished Schary well and let the film proceed.
Veteran director William Wellman was hired for the film. Schary was able to get the cast he wanted, including Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban, James Whitmore and George Murphy. To add authenticity, twenty actual paratroopers from the Bastogne were brought in to train the actors and appear in the background.
Battleground was finished twenty days early and almost $100,000 under budget, mostly the result of shooting on a soundstage with a wall knocked out where weather could be controlled. A screening was arranged for President Truman before its opening late in 1949 and practically from the moment it appeared Battleground was recognized as a classic.
Producer: Dore Schary
Associate Producer/Screenwriter: Robert Pirosh
Director: William Wellman
Cinematographer: Paul Vogel
Music: Lennie Hayton
Editor: John D. Dunning
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters
Cast: Van Johnson (Holley), John Hodiak (Jarvess), Ricardo Montalban (Roderigues), George Murphy (Ernest "Pop" Stazak), James Whitmore (Kinnie), Leon Ames (The Chaplain), Michael Brown (Levenstein), Richard Jaeckel (Bettis), James Arness (Garby)
BW-119m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Lang Thompson
Awards and Honors
Academy Awards for Battleground went to Paul Vogel for Best Black-and-White Cinematography and to Robert Pirosh for Best Writing. The movie also earned nominations for Best Picture, Director (William Wellman), Supporting Actor (James Whitmore), and Editing (John Dunning)
Battleground also won Golden Globe Awards for Pirosh's Screenplay and Whitmore as Supporting Actor, a Writers Guild nomination for Best American Drama and the movie was chosen Best Picture of the Year by Photoplay magazine
The Critics' Corner: BATTLEGROUND
"Through sharp focus on a group of characters it exposes all the griping disappointments and foxhole dreams and aspirations of the battle-wearied foot soldier. The cast performs in inspired manner. Murphy is the 35-year-old 'Pop' who is being discharged but finds himself a civilian in No Man's Land because Bastogne is surrounded. Johnson plays the carefree GI, and with great credibility. Other standouts include: John Hodiak as the newspaperman who enlisted; Montalban as the Mexican-American."
"In this corner's tempered opinion, this new drama...is the best of the World War II pictures that have yet been made in Hollywood. And further, we feel that its unfolding at the Astor on Armistice Day, just twenty-four years (less eight days) after The Big Parade  opened there, is a piece of poetic justice with arresting significance. For here, without bluff or bluster or the usual distracting clichs that have somehow crept into the war films, regardless of all we know of war, is a smashing pictorial re-creation of the way that this last one was for the dirty and frightened foot-soldier who got caught in a filthy deal. Here is the unadorned image of the misery, the agony, the grief and the still irrepressible humor and dauntless mockery of the American GI."
Bosley Crowther, New York Times, November 12, 1949
"The picture has in its favor some brisk direction by William A. Wellman, but he has regrettably not managed to hide entirely the fact that the script from which he shot the picture is like a good many previous scripts dealing with war. I'm afraid, too, that in constantly reiterating the idiosyncrasies of its characters...the film becomes pretty monotonous. But there are plenty of rousing battle scenes."
John McCarten, The New Yorker, November 19, 1949
"A serious and frequently powerful re-enactment of WWII's Battle of the Bulge...It may well have been an influence on several Vietnam movies...in its unglamorous portrait of men in war."
- Adrian Turner, TimeOut Film Guide
"Unlike most war films, this one de-emphasizes the action and tries to provide insight into the individual soldiers...But it all seems forced. Another trouble is that these guys are so boring that you'll want them to start firing their guns. Best scenes deal with platoon in cat-and-mouse game with Germans dressed as American soldiers."
- Danny Peary, Guide For the Film Fanatic
"The combat scenes are filmed on some of the most authentic and evocative sets ever constructed. Art directors Cedric Gibbons and Hans Peters and cinematographer Paul C. Vogel create a heavily wooded world of snow and fog without horizon or shadow. Visibility is so limited that hearing is as important as seeing. Give them and the cast equal credit for making the atmosphere of cold desolation seem so chilling. Wellman mixes in archival footage, as most filmmakers did in those years, but few managed it so seamlessly."
- Mike Mayo, Videohound's War Movies
"...Robert Pirosh's slick script...lacks genuine insight into the characters..."
- Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide
"Battleground is the best of the generic "GIs in the Mud" genre of war film...Battleground plays the plight of the ordinary infantryman for its simple truth...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...The film doesn't try to be a document of The Battle of the Bulge...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. "
- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant
"...this studio-bound production now seems stilted and unpersuasive, despite some good writing and direction."
- Halliwell's Film & Video Guide
"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."
- Judge George Hatch, DVD Verdict