Battleground (William Wellman, 1949): USA

Reviewed by Kathleen Amboy.  Viewed on TCM.

Battleground is a true story of the week long Siege of Bastogne in Belgium, which was held by U.S. troops in the Battle of the Bulge, during WWII.

It’s December 1944 and just five months shy to the end of the conflict in Europe.  Replacement recruits Layton (Marshall Thompson) and Hooper (Scotty Beckett), are buddies stationed two hours from Paris in the 101st Airborne Division.  Layton is enthusiastic about their deployment, but Hooper is cynical saying “there must be a difference [in glider infantry] or they wouldn’t give you extra pay,” while complaining that he’s been assigned to “K Company.”

Stationed with I Company, Layton fervently looks for an empty cot and stitches his Screaming Eagles badge to his jacket sleeve, while the seasoned men eagerly talk of their anticipated leave in Paris the following day.  Come morning to their dismay, they soon discover that leave has been cancelled, they’re ordered to strip all badges from their sleeves, and instructed to put on several pairs of pants since they’re returning to the front lines.

After an endless march, gas masks are tossed into a nearby ditch to lighten their load, and despite numerous orders to care for their masks properly, it now seems pointless, and Layton is amongst those tossing his away.

When the men are ambushed, the irreverent pfc. Holley (Van Johnson) immediately checks the eggs he has stolen from a farmhouse, just as a fellow soldier is shot beneath a crucifix.

On this impromptu mission at the outskirts of Bastogne, the squad is soon told to “dig in,” but being the odd man out, Layton must dig a foxhole for three.  As cigarettes are passed around he’s pleased at being offered but declines, saying “I don’t smoke,” and just when the foxholes are finished, to their chagrin, the men are ordered to pick up and move out.

A thick fog rolls in as Layton discovers that K Company is nearby, where he inquires after Hooper, as Holley attempts to cook his eggs in his hard helmet.  Asking about Hooper, the men of K have never heard of him, until they realize that he “was the kid that got it last night.”  Soon after, the men learn they are surrounded by the German Offensive.

As time wears on for this ill equipped troop, they run short on food, ammo, and nerves in the bitter snow, and in a short time Layton learns to chain smoke, swig liquor from a bottle, and crack wise, in order to process the death of his comrades.

Despite the film being told through Layton’s eyes, he’s actually a subtle character, not prominent, and his story is really not much different from all the guys in his Company – starting out naive, and eager, and ending up war weary.

An outstanding film with a terrific ensemble of John Hodiak, George Murphy, Ricardo Montalban, and James Whitmore; but make no mistake, the star of the film is the photography, where nearly every frame, which is beautifully shot, tells its own story.  With superbly polished writing and directing, the drama and action sequences are so evenly balanced, that one does not overpower the other – not easily accomplished in a war film.

No surprise, the film earned two Oscars – Best Writing and Best Cinematography!

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