Battleground (1949, William A. Wellman)

It’s been a long time since I watched (of my own accord) a straightforward war film from this era, so perhaps I have this all wrong. But in contrast to its very high reputation, Battleground — the complicated and claustrophobic story, presented by William Wellman (no stranger, obviously, to the genre), of the surrounded 101st Airborne Division in the waning days of WWII — seemed decidedly ordinary to me. It’s remembered for its attempt at a sophisticated exploration of the relationship between men in combat and under duress, for seeing them as seasoned experts coping with a myriad of problems rather than the wet-behind-the-ears rookies of All Quiet on the Western Front or Full Metal Jacket in all their cutting tragedy. Quite a few major characters die in Battleground, but this movie’s interest is not how war breaks them but how they carry on, and their heroic action in holding their own and coming about hard during the Battle of the Bulge.

It’s significant, of course, that Battleground is a simple piece of direct storytelling — it’s not an anti-war film or a patriotic glorification of battle, but rather a fairly stoic dramatization of the facts. As winter falls forebodingly on these soldiers, whose supplies and rations are nearly gone, they talk at length about hoping to be wounded so they’ll be sent home and close ranks (or don’t) around the classic New Guy played by Marshall Thompson. (The rest of the cast includes John Hodiak, George Murphy, the standout Ricardo Montalban, and at the center of it all of course, Van Johnson.) There aren’t many battle sequences but there is a matter-of-fact, unsentimental depiction of how matters deteriorate, how men are lost, how death and violence become a day-to-day facet of mundane reality in war. Through it all, the men show a constant rapport and considerable strength under pressure, and there’s little doubt that the result is one of the more realistic perceptions of actual fighting in World War II to come out of the U.S. during the decade after the war’s end.

But part of that distinction is driven by one of the film’s two major failings: even if one doesn’t mind the absence of graphic and momentous action sequences, Battleground seems weighted down with talk. There is a lot of dialogue; it far outweighs the warfare (which is probably why it’s not one of the countless war films I watched not of my own accord as a kid — my dad would’ve hated that about it). Did this pick up the screenplay Oscar strictly because everyone was stunned at the amount of talk one could fit into an ostensible gritty macho war picture? To the film’s credit, it gets across the sense of isolation and the longing for escape, especially during the scenes dealing with the men’s Christmas in the heat of a dire situation and constant requests for surrender. When things turn around for the 101st, one feels sufficiently involved to feel like celebrating — in my case, though, it was at least partially because it meant the film was nearly over.

Moreover, while many modern viewers disagree, all that talk is a lot of anonymous buzzing, really; the script is more successful at establishing a sense of what the group’s personality is like than that of individuals, a model that similarly flawed — if noble — films like Das Boot would pick up on. The chatter circles around and goes nowhere because the characters are all stereotypes, some downright lazy, and are never investigated in any incisive or affecting way. It’s moving to see how close they become and how well they relate, but this is something that comes across far more because of the skill of the actors than of the writing.

It’s difficult to dislike Battleground, as it’s very polished and somewhat entertaining, but there’s just not much to it, unless you have an extremely high interest in this particular chapter of the war. Its macho mythologizing seems very MGM. However, it’s more likely than usual that I will feel a need to approch this one with a fresh mind in a few years, and so I’m not prepared to call it out as either a win or a loss. For now, it’s a toss-up, and a fondness for war pictures in general should send it to the top of your queue.

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