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WWII in the Movies: Allied Powers
Remind Me

Breakthrough (1950)

"Warner Brothers' Breakthrough is a war film so authentic that its impact takes the viewer out of the theatre and right onto the battlefield!" Or so said the Warners publicity department upon the film's release in November 1950. Among D-Day films, whose number includes the Ken Annakin/Andrew Marton/Bernhard Wicki/Darryl F. Zanuck-directed The Longest Day (1962), Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One (1980) and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998), this Bryan Foy production ranks considerably lower, if it even registers at all. Yet Breakthrough was among the first Hollywood films to recount the Allied invasion of Normandy in early June 1944. The availability of battlefield footage from both the Allied and Axis sides six years after the fact was likely the clincher for Foy to spin newsreel fodder into narrative cinema. Tapping Lewis Seiler, director of his Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Foy hired screenwriters Bernard Girard and Ted Sherdeman to flesh out an original story by Joseph Breen, Jr., namesake son of Hays Code enforcer Joseph Breen and a war veteran who had lost a leg in combat.

Despite the verisimilitude afforded by its use of stock footage, Breakthrough otherwise hews close to war movie convention, with a predictably eclectic assembly of dogfaces tasked with storming Omaha Beach and pushing the Reich back through the hedgerows of northern France to the gates of Fortress Europa. John Agar, Frank Lovejoy, and David Brian play the square-jawed squadron leaders, their unit made up of the Comedian (Dick Wesson), the Strongman (Greg McClure), the Schemer (William Campbell), the Hillbilly (Matt Willis), the Jew (Danny Arnold), the Newbie (Richard Monahan), the Complainer (Paul Picerni) and the Goner (Eddie Norris) who queers his luck by showing off pictures of his wife and kids back in Oregon. Skating past the D-Day landing with only a cursory acknowledgement of the carnage that Spielberg turned into a smorgasbord, Breakthrough concentrates on the battle inland, as the First Army crawls towards the strategic crossroads of Saint-Lô. A scene late in the film, as the squad's number is thinned by an unseen sniper in a seemingly liberated French village, anticipates a similar reveal in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987).

Shot on the Warners lot in Burbank and on location at Fort Ord, California, with the Monterey coast subbing for Omaha Beach, Breakthrough was itself a crossroads for many of its leading players. Frank Lovejoy and Paul Picerni (in his film debut) were both recipients of new Warners contracts (the two would pair again to oppose Vincent Price in Andre de Toth's House of Wax in 1953) while John Agar was enmeshed in both the process of a painful divorce from actress Shirley Temple (his costar in John Ford's Fort Apache [1948] and the mother of his daughter Susan) and a troublesome dependence on alcohol that would result in a DWI arrest in 1951 and the cancellation of his contract with independent producer David O. Selznick (who had discovered Agar while he was still an Army enlistee); it would take Agar several years to rebound but with a new contract at Universal he scored in a string of sci-fi crowd pleasers, including Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955) and The Mole People (1956).

Given that at least a third of its running time is comprised of existing footage, it should come as no surprise that Breakthrough was a quick shoot for all involved. Southern California's infamous "June gloom" necessitated the transport of lights and reflectors to Monterey during the beach landing scenes while star David Brian suffered a bruised shoulder from a misfiring Bangalore torpedo and both Frank Lovejoy and director Lewis Seiler were stung by hornets during the filming. Breakthrough received a big rollout from Warners on November 11, 1950, with a premiere event enlivened by an hour-long military parade, which incorporated tanks from the 13th Motorized Division, the 40-piece Marine band from the El Toro Marine Air Base, troops shipped in from Fort McArthur, a fleet of Army jeeps to ferry the stars, and MPs retained to handle the crowd of eight thousand onlookers. Reviews were largely positive, with The Hollywood Reporter heralding "a powerful, tensely absorbing film" and Louella Parsons of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner's crowed, "Here is realism of the finest kind." The Hollywood Citizen News mistakenly praised Roy del Ruth for "a brilliant job of directing" and a grudgingly complimentary Newsweek lauded the "grime-smeared honesty" of Breakthrough's dramatis personae.

Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: Lewis Seiler
Original Story: Joseph Breen, Jr.
Writers: Bernard Girard, Ted Sherdeman
Music: William Lava
Cinematography: Edwin DuPar
Editor: Folmar Blangsted
Art Director: Stanley Fleischer
Technical advisor: Joseph Breen, Jr.
Cast: David Brian (Captain Tom Hale), John Agar (Lt. Joe Mallory), Frank Lovejoy (Sgt. Pete Bell), William Campbell (Cpl. Danny Dominick), Paul Picerni (Pvt. Edward Rojeck), Greg McClure (Pvt. Frank Finley), Richard Monahan ("4-F"), Edward Norris (Sgt. Roy Henderson), Matt Willis (Pvt. Jumbo Hollis), Dick Wesson (Pvt. Sammy Hansen), William Self (Pvt. George Glasheen), Danny Arnold (Pvt. Rothman), Janet Barrett (Sniper), André Charlot (Mayor), Suzanne Dalbert (Colette), Helene Bank (Red Cross Nurse), Danni Sue Nolan (Lt. Janice King), Howard Negley (Lt. Col. John Lewis), Joan Winfield (Barmaid), Christopher Appell (French boy).

by Richard Harland Smith



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