Friday, July 8, 2016

From the Rental Vault: Battleground (1949)

Conventional wisdom suggests that movies made about World War II during wartime and in the years following its end were largely patriotic celebrations of brave and heroic GIs battling villainous Huns and scheming Japanese. It took several years for war movies to have a more accurate picture of the weariness, terror and lousy conditions endured by those soldiers, and their often all-too-human response to them.

But the soldiers in Battleground grouse, kvetch and complain -- with good reason, as they're stuck in Bastogne during what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. And they're not uniformly brave and cheerful, or disdainful of danger, personal and otherwise. We'd expect that level of character dimension today, but its presence in a movie made less than five years after war's end might surprise some folks.

Members of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, find themselves ordered to Bastogne to try to repel German advances towards Antwerp. In late December of 1944, German forces surround the city and put it under siege. Thick fog and other bad weather conditions prevent supply flights from reaching the isolated Americans and keep American air power from countering the German heavy armored vehicles pulling in closer.

Battleground isn't a documentary, although screenwriter Ronald Pirosh drew on some of his own Battle of the Bulge experiences for his narrative. He won an Oscar for the effort. But it's cast very much as a slice-of-life story, focusing in on a handful of members of the 101st rather than the wider field of the whole battle. Miserable from cold and frostbite, running low on ammunition and wary of disguised German units sneaking through the forest, they wonder if their presence has a purpose. Battleground offers a kind of hokey answer to that question in the form of a battlefield sermon by the chaplain that addresses just those issues, but it's a rare misstep for the movie.

Of course, while fear and grumbling come front and center in the story, bravery tells and those who live up to their responsibilities to country and comrade come off looking the best. The payoff seems a little more substantial, though, given the doubts and wavering the men display earlier in the movie. And some grace notes, like the way Ricardo Montalban's Johnny Roderigues whoops at the sight of snow he's seen only in the distance from his native Los Angeles, elevate the movie overall.

Studio infighting and power struggles meant that Battleground almost didn't get made, and it's probably not the most famous WWII movie around. But its layered portrayal of the stereotypes behind the characters in most of those movies and willingness to let a little reality creep into the legend make it one of the better ones.

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