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Battleground (1949)

Directed by William A. Wellman

Written by Robert Pirosh

Starring: Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban, James Whitmore, George Murphy

The true story of one squad from the 101st Airborne Division and their harrowing experiences during the Battle of the Bulge.

This film is considered the first major motion picture about World War II following the end of the war. The legendary William A. Wellman (The Ox-Bow Incident) directed the movie. The script was written by Robert Pirosh (I Married a Witch), who based some of the story on his own experiences in the Battle of the Bulge. (He was not a member of the 101st Airborne.) The cast of this movie includes Van Johnson (The Caine Mutiny), John Hodiak (Lifeboat), Ricardo Montalban (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), James Whitmore (The Shawshank Redemption), and George Murphy (This Is The Army). A number of veterans from the 101st Airborne Division were also hired to train the actors and work as extras in the movie. This movie would win over the critics and audiences on the way to six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

The true story behind the Battle of the Bulge is intense and inspiring. The writing does a great job of introducing us to a company of men with unique and often conflicting personalities. Their interactions are honest and realistic, just like their relationships with one another. The dialogue reflects not just their views, but also their backgrounds. It also avoids any long speeches on patriotism or the nobility of sacrifice. Instead, this is a story about real men who are allowed to be scared and even disenchanted at times. They have moments of bravery, but they’re not men seeking glory. In the end, some of them experience personal growth, and some remain the same. (Much like real life.) While the end of the story is already known, there’s something special about the men on the screen. It’s hard to imagine how the audiences of the day must have felt seeing this, but it’s a story that holds up almost 70 years later. For his work, Robert Pirosh would win an Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.

Once in a while it’s really hard to find the star in a movie. Sometimes it’s the story, sometimes it’s the cast. This time I think it was both. Throughout the movie there are so many powerful moments from each of the central cast members. The actors weren’t afraid to push the emotion of the story. They also created chemistry with one another. These bonds are one of the great aspects of this movie.

In many ways the performances set the bar for films like Saving Private Ryan and the mini-series Band of Brothers. This isn’t just because of the similarity of the subject matter, but because of the imperfect relationships developed by the actors. The cast also did a great job bringing the military training they received to the big screen. Their ability to handle the drama and the action help to make this one a well-rounded experience. James Whitmore gave one of the many great performances in this one, and it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The production work on this film included incredible re-creations of battles and famous locations. Much of the movie was shot in Washington state, Oregon, and California. The shooting actually finished 20 days ahead of schedule thanks to an innovative process where film was processed the same day, edited, and able to be viewed within a few days. (The normal process at the time was much longer.) The editing helps to keep this one moving at a good pace, but it also allows for the right moments to linger. The camera work also does a great job capturing the action. Battleground would take home the award for Best Cinematography (B&W). It was also nominated for Best Film Editing.

This movie was made under a fake title because the heads at RKO didn’t want anyone to know the subject matter. When they abandoned the project it was picked up by MGM (despite objections from Louis B. Mayer). It went on to be the highest grossing film of 1949 for MGM, and their highest earner in five years.

After all these years, this is still a war movie that deserves to be seen. The story is wonderful, and the performances do it justice. Fans of war movies need to see this one. I would also suggest this one to fans of the stars. I give this one 5 out of 5 stars.

Rating: Approved

Running Time: 118 Minutes

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