Battleground: Real War

I saw an oldie but goody l recently on TCM. Battleground, a 70-year-old film about the siege of Bastogne during WW II. Featured were Van Johnson, Don Taylor, Marshall Thompson, John Hodiak, James Whitmore, George Murphy, Richard Jaeckel and a young Ricardo Montalban. In the end, only a handful of them are still alive.

The story begins with the waiting that comes with war; the waiting for battle, waiting for an assignment, trying to pass the time without one’s teeth chattering in fear and cold. You could feel the cold wet ground of wintry Belgium through their boots. Later you learn that the men couldn’t report to the aid station with frozen feet until they began to turn black. Nice. Well, that was war; it wasn’t an easy life for those men wintering in mud, snow and ice.

Their thoughts are all over the place; going over the rumors they had heard, barking at each other over the wild rumors; the one soldier who refused to change the time on his watch from Springfield, Illinois where his wife and kids were. The one who spent hours cleaning his dentures that didn’t fit so well in his mouth and crackled when he slept.

Then of course there was the rookie, the new guy, played by Marshall Thompson, who didn’t know his can from his elbow, who had no idea where to go or where to lay his bedroll, thrown in with experienced guys on the line, trying to fit in and be accepted. He learns that his buddy in another company was killed in his foxhole before his commander ever learned his name. Thereafter, he made sure everyone in his company knew his name, Jim Layton.

Of course there was the Hollywood-type story of the squad billeting in the home of a young attractive French woman who cheerfully made them coffee and danced with them. Van Johnson went and stole eggs from her rookery and carried them with him to the next campsite, only to have to put off cooking them because they kept breaking camp.

The film was shot in stark black and white cinematography and won an Oscar for its efforts, contrasting the black tree trunks and the white snow of the bitterly cold woods. There was no color where these guys were, except the color of blood when things got rough.

Battleground won two Academy Awards: Best Cinematography (Black and White) by Paul C. Vogel, and for Best Writing Story and Screenplay by Robert Pirosh. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, (William Wellman) and Best Film Editing (John Dunning) and Best Supporting Actor, (James Whitmore).

The reason this movie is so good is that the men are real; you recognize the actors, but they are servicemen out in the cold, freezing, hungry, pining for a hot meal, desperate for comfort, which was provided somewhat by a traveling chaplain (Leon Ames) on Christmas Day. (This was the first movie where I saw Leon Ames play a decent human being.)

The production began with training of the actors by 20 veterans of the actual 101st Airborne Division servicemen, including technical advisor Lt. Col. Henry Kinnard, who was deputy commander of the division stationed in Bastogne.

Only once do the fighting men have the advantage, when, after an ambush, the German troops, dressed in white parkas, advance, not knowing that the remaining squads had circled behind them. As they are cut down by American fire, the bodies disappear as their white parkas hit the snowy ground.

You find that the men don’t even know what country they’re fighting in; but they do learn that the German troops are masquerading as American servicemen complete with uniforms and dogtags. They have to ask every squad they meet all kinds of questions about baseball, movie stars and other Americanisms to make sure they were addressing Americans.

The men are horrified to learn that an American air barrage was to be made where they had left their wounded buddy hiding under an overturned vehicle, hidden by walls of snow; they find him frozen to death the next day.

They are there when the Germans delivered their ultimatum of surrender to the American commander, only to be told “Nuts,” by acting divisional commander Brigadier General McAuliffe, the most famous quote of the whole war.

After the siege is over, when the company is slowly and painfully making their way back to the main army camp, they see replacements marching in the opposite direction. Immediately they straighten their backs, quicken their pace and sound off one of the cadence songs to show the replacements they were still viable fighting men, not fatigued and beaten troops ready for hot meal and a clean bed.

Premieres of this movie were made prior to public release for President Harry S Truman and attended by Brig General McAuliffe, and others who were there.