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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