Monday, June 8, 2009
Reeling Backward: "Battleground"
I just can't believe "Battleground" was made in 1949, a mere five years after the actual Battle of the Bulge, which it depicts.
I admit I'd never heard of this movie until recently; it's one of those lost classics that gets overlooked over the march of time. Perhaps you'd be as surprised as I was to learn that it was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, and won two, for screenwriting and cinematography.
What's surprising about it is how gritty it is, and how realistically bitter the soldiers are portrayed. It's really, really raw stuff -- if it were not for the black-and-white cinematography and the presence of a few name actors of the era, like Van Johnson, James Whitmore and Ricardo Montalban, one would swear it was made during the peacenik '60s.
The head sergeant, played by Whitmore, gets frostbitten feet but can't get a medical evac because Army regulations say your feet have to change color first. Another soldier named Pops gets a discharge due to family hardship, but he can't get out because he needs one final letter from HQ, and it gets lost in the mail before the Bulge squeeze starts.
One of the most touching bits has to do with Van Johnson's character, Holley. He gets some eggs from a nice French woman's barn, but they're ordered to ship out before he has a chance to eat them. For the next few days, he carefully cradles the eggs in a cloth, even under gunfire. He starts to cook the eggs in his helmet over an open fire, but again the call comes to move out, so he pours the batter into his meal tin and carries that around for a couple more days. At one point he's ordered out on patrol, and gives the eggs to another soldier to guard, with the offer to split them. Finally, the eggs are blown up in a mortar blast.
I love stuff like that because it has such verisimilitude -- a fancy word I learned in college that I translate as "more real than real." You can just imagine real G.I.'s behaving this way, carefully hording little things like eggs or a letter from home that reminds of the sane life that awaits them across the seas.
"Battleground" was directed by William A. Wellman, who also helmed "The Story of G.I. Joe," from a script by Robert Pirosh, who mostly was a TV guy. The cinematography was by Paul Vogel, and is truly a watershed in American cinema. The stark black-and-white of soldiers fighting in the snow, with images that just seem to pop off the screen, makes the film seem timeless.
The tone of the movie reminded me very much of "Willie and Joe," the iconic cartoon strip penned by Bill Mauldin in Stars and Stripes during the war. Mauldin drew the regular soldiers, or "dogfaces" as they called themselves, as unshaven, surly and tough regular guys who loved to poke fun at the insanity of Army rules and bureaucracy. In one of my favorite strips, Willie says to Joe that because he saved his life, Willie was giving him his most prized possession: His last pair of dry socks. "Battleground" exactly captures the mindset of guys in the foxholes like Willie and Joe.
One of the other main characters is Jarvess, played by John Hodiak. Jarvess was a newspaperman who kept writing columns about how important it was for every American to get into the fight against the Axis, so he felt compelled to volunteer himself. He eagerly awaits copies of his newspaper sent by his wife, who is filling in as columnist. Jarvess is ostracized from the other grunts, partly of choice, because of his intellectual bent.
Marshall Thompson plays Jim Layton, the fresh-faced kid who just joined the outfit. At first he's unbelievably green, but in short time he becomes a grizzled veteran, and one of the most cynical at that. At one point he surprises the platoon with an acerbic monologue degrading the Army and even the existence of God.
There's a great moment where the soldiers are pinned down, and Holley suddenly breaks away and runs to the rear. Layton follows him, assuming he's going AWOL. Holley does indeed start to sprint toward the rear, but when he sees the rookie following him, he quickly turns and runs toward the enemy line, outflanking them and forcing their surrender.
In showing the gray line between heroism and cowardice, and its stark realism in peering at the face of war, "Battleground" stands out as one of the best World War II dramas I've seen.