Battleground (1949) is the first movie to show US troops in action during World War II. It features an ensemble cast many of which were World War II veterans. The action is set during the Battle of the Bulge and gives a highly fictionalized version of the action that took place.
Rough Script Battleground (1949)
Today’s movie is the first of two that pay tribute to the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles and their action in the Battle of Bulge December 16 – 25, 1944, 71 years ago this month. The Division was surrounded near a small Belgian town – Bastogne. This movie and next weeks tell a highly fictionalized but entertaining version of the brave men that fought to stop the Nazi winter attack.
Today’s movie is Battleground (1949) and it featured an ensemble cast. So I will jump right in…
Van Johnson played the main role of infantryman PFC. Holley. As a youth in Rhode Island, Johnson’s parents were absent. He drifted towards the arts as an escape. After high school, he left for New York.
In New York, he did alright with some chorus line work and being in a Broadway review by 1936. He was an understudy three times and finally got a lead. During that time he became friends with Desi Arnaz and his first film was a Lucy/Desi comedy Too Many Girls (1940). Johnson didn’t do that well in the film. Back on Broadway he was spotted by a Warner Brothers agent and signed a short contract. He co-starred in Murder in the Big House (1942). They dropped him based on his poor acting. Lucille Ball introduced Johnson to the head of casting at MGM and he had a successful screen test.
World War II pulled most of the top male stars away from Hollywood. This worked out for as he began to get a lot of roles such as: Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942), The War Against Mrs. Hadley (1942), and The Human Comedy (1943). During the filming of A Guy Named Joe (1943) Johnson was severely injured in a car wreck. The injuries made Johnson ineligible for military service ensuring he would be in Hollywood for the duration of the war. This film made Johnson a star and he was a heartthrob. He continued to make films of various genres such as Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Easy to Wed (1946), Week-End at the Waldorf (1945) and, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944).
When the big stars came back from the war Johnson had to take a step down. However, it was during this time that Johnson made some of his finest films. These movies include Command Decision (1948) with Clark Gable, State of the Union (1948), Battleground (1949) a Great War movie that set the mold for what was to follow, Brigadoon (1954), and The Caine Mutiny (1954) which very well be one of the greatest movies of all time.
In the 1950s Johnson’s career began to wane. He still made movies such as The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) with Elizabeth Taylor, The End of the Affair (1955) with Deborah Kerr, Miracle in the Rain (1956), The Bottom of the Bottle (1956) with Joseph Cotten, 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) co-starring Vera Miles, Kelly and Me (1957) with a dog, and Web of Evidence (1959), but the end was there.
He used his singing skills to make a good living as a lounge act. Johnson died at the age of 92 in 2008.
Ricardo Montalban played the role of soldier Roderigues. Montalban was born in Mexico in 1920. After moving to Los Angles he was cast in a play with Tallulah Bankhead in 1940. A family illness necessitated his return to Mexico. During that time he was working toward stardom in Mexico. MGM brought him back to LA to be the Latin-lover type in films such as Fiesta (1947) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949) both with Esther Williams. He was actually in a film titled Latin Lover (1953).
Montalban has a good run through the 1940s and 50s with films like Border Incident (1949), Mystery Street (1950), the classic war film Battleground (1949), the boxing drama Right Cross (1950), Across the Wide Missouri (1951) with Clark Gable, The Queen of Babylon (1954), and acting as Japanese Kabuki Sayonara (1957).
He worked extensively on stage and in television. But there are a couple that stands above the rest. The first is a 1967 “Star Trek” (1966) where he played super-human villain Khan Noonien Singh. He replayed that role in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) which is probably one of the greatest character returns of all time. The other important television role was as Mr. Roarke on “Fantasy Island” 1977-1984.
He helped the apes overcome as kindly circus owner Armando in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). Montalban was very successful on night-time soap operas such as Dynasty. He spoofed his own self in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988). He played the grandfather in Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002) and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003).
Montalban died at home at the age of 88 in 2009.
Don Taylor has a role as soldier Standiford. Taylor started working in Hollywood before he was drafted into WWII. Following the war he was in a lot of films including Song of the Thin Man (1947), The Naked City (1948), Battleground (1949), Ambush (1950), Father of the Bride (1950), Target Unknown (1951), Father’s Little Dividend (1951), Flying Leathernecks (1951) with John Wayne, Submarine Command (1951), Japanese War Bride (1952), Destination Gobi (1953), The Girls of Pleasure Island (1953), Stalag 17 (1953) where he played rich Lt. James Dunbar against William Holden’s Sefton and rocked it as the pain in the ass, and The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954) where he played Robin Hood. He is better known as a director for films such as Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), Damien: Omen II (1978), and The Final Countdown (1980).
He played a good family man in The Next Voice You Hear… (1950), played an inept crook in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), a cop ant fighter Them! (1954), a tough social worker in Crime in the Streets (1956), a man passing for black in Black Like Me (1964), and as the chief ape in Planet of the Apes (1968). He returned in a small role as the birdman in The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Whitmore died in 2009.
Leon Ames played the role of the Chaplain. Ames worked in a theater company long before he made it to Broadway by 1933. His first movie was Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). A prolific actor he had over 150 acting credits. Ranging from playing the father in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) with Judy Garland, as the DA in the film noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and as Kathleen Turner’s grandfather in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).On television, he is best known as the neighbor of “Mr. Ed” 1963-1965. Ames died at 91 in 1993.
Herbert Anderson played soldier Hansan. Anderson is best known for his work as the dad of “Dennis the Menace” 1959-1963.
Denise Darcel played the Belgium girl Denise. Very clever. Darcel was born in France in 1925. She won a beauty contest and parlayed it into a nightclub act. After she married a GI she moved to America. Shortly she divorced and began working in movies. Her first was To the Victor (1948). She was the only woman in Battleground (1949) and was very sexy in Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950). In the early 1950s she played sexy roles in Young Man with Ideas (1952) with Glenn Ford, Westward the Women (1951), with Robert Taylor, Flame of Calcutta (1953) with Patric Knowles, Vera Cruz (1954) with Burt Lancaster, and finally 7 Women from Hell (1961). It is said her roles were cut because she refused advances from the head of Columbia and Howard Hughes. She worked on stage and later as a card dealer in Las Vegas.
James Arness played soldier Garby. I am only going to mention three things about Arness. First, he played the marshal in “Gunsmoke” 1955-1975. Second, he was the monster in The Thing from Another World (1951). Finally, his brother is Peter Graves.
Scotty Beckett had a small but important role as soldier William J. Hooper. Beckett was a very popular child star in the 1930s through the early 50s. He was in 15 Our Gang features. By the late 40s, he was hitting the late night scene. His drinking and divorce caused him to lose a lot of roles in the 1950s.
He was later charged with an attempted robbery of a hotel. He took his family to Mexico and began kiting checks. When the Federales came for him there was a gun battle. He severed four months in a Mexican jail which I assume was a hard time. He got three years’ probation in the US. When the Little Rascals made a comeback he was able to ride the wave. However, it didn’t last. In 1957, he was arrested trying to bring drugs from Mexico to the US.
His second wife divorced him and took the kid. Beckett tried to kill himself with pills. By 1959, he began getting into trouble again. With drunk driving and assault charges his third wife left in 1963 after Becket tried again to kill himself.
In 1967, he died of a barbiturate overdose.
Battleground (1949) is one of the first films that showed Infantry fighting the Germans in World War II and many of the actors were actual veterans.
The movie begins with two fresh recruits arriving at their unit who are joining a veteran unit that is in a rear area training camp. The veterans are resting following Operation Market Garden which we will talk about in A Bridge Too Far (1977) which we will review in the future. They also feel that the war is winding down and they will not be returning to the front. You Band of Brothers fans may remember that the 101st was told they would be in combat for less than two weeks before the landing the night before D-Day. However, it was 444 days before they left Europe and combat.
Anyway, the new recruits Privates Jim Layton (Marshall Thompson) and William J. Hooper (Scotty Beckett) are sent to separate companies. Private Hooper makes a couple of statements that ring true for all armies at all times.
When Private Layton gets to his platoon tent the close-knit combat hardened veterans are not very interested in him and his comfort as the all prepare to start a three-day pass in Paris in the morning. We meet all of the soldiers in the tent, the old man ‘Kipp’ Kippton (Douglas Fowley), arthritis man Pop (George Murphy), country boy Abner Spudler (Jerome Courtland), token minority Roderigues (Ricardo Montalban), coward Bettis (Richard Jaeckel) who is closest to the role of the scrounger, the playboy Standiferd (Don Taylor), the jock Wolowicz (Bruce Cowling), and the cynic Jarvis (John Hodiak). Just before lights out the man Layton has come to replace, Private First Class Holley (Van Johnson) returns from the hospital as good as new. As a result, Pvt. Layton doesn’t have a cot to sleep on the first night. Pop’s has been told he is going home because his wife is sick.
At 4 am Staff Sergeant Kinne (James Whitmore) wakes the squad and tells them the Germans have broken through. Holly bellyaches about the generals volunteering the division but not really going along. They load up in deuce and half trucks and meet the replacement 2nd LT. Teiss (Brett King) who is by the book.
The trucks head east until they reach Bastogne, Belgium. Abner says that they may get some rest here in a bit of irony. They are ordered to billet in the houses and a few of the men are lucky to be placed in the house of the beautiful Denise (Denise Darcel) who was pretty much the only woman in the movie. PFC Holly is putting the hard press on her but it’s costing him a small fortune in chocolate bars and cigarettes. They get a rumor that they will be staying in the town so he feels good about his investment. Pvt. Jarvis goes out for guard duty in the fog and before long he encounters American troops falling back before a huge Germany onslaught.
In the morning PFC Holly is out stealing eggs for the poor people trapped by the battle when they get the word to move. They have some good physical comedy with him trying to get the eggs cooked but all in all it was a douche bag move to steal the eggs. The squad moves east of the town. As they are moving along a road they come under fire. As Pvt. Layton his the ground he sees Christ on the Cross above him. This bit was used again in The Big Red One (1980) which was also about a squad in World War II as well but it is a vastly different movie.
The squad clears a small area of woods and begins to dig in. Since Layton is an odd man he is paired with Walowicz and Hansan. Those two go to the CP to check in and make Layton did the entire fox hole. As soon as they finish the squad has to move to another location and do the same thing again.
That night PFC Holley, PVT Layton, and PVT Kipton are placed on guard duty on the road. In the middle of the night, a patrol of Americans come by. The squad knows the password and countersign. They ask the privates if a bridge is down the road. Holley is a little concerned that the LT. is wearing his shiny bars on patrol. However, he chalks it up to the LT. being a 90-day wonder. After the patrol leaves one of them speaks German revealing that they are indeed the spies.
In the morning the ground is covered with snow. Roderigues goes crazy yelling and running around because he has never seen snow before. Roderigues warns Abner about sleeping with his boots off. The guards come in and they find out that the bride has been blown and they know that they let the Germans go by. However, they don’t share this info with anyone.
Pvt. Layton finds K company and finds out that he Hooper has been killed and no one in the squad knew his name. At the mail call, Pops looks for his discharge but it doesn’t come.
Wolowizc sends out a three man patrol consisting of PFC Holley, Pvt. Rodrigues, and Pvt. Garvis. The squad comes under artillery fire and Bettis runs away. A jeep comes up the road and the Maj. In the jeep knows the password. They have some intense times while they figure out that everyone is American based on pop culture knowledge.
They run into some soldiers in the woods and Holley recognizes them. He pretends everything is okay and the patrol gets some distance away before a firefight breaks out. The Americans throw a grenade and kill a lot of the Germans but they still have to do some hand to hand fighting. Then Rodgrigues sees German tanks. Before he can react he is shot by the tanks machine gun. Since they can’t carry him he hides under a jeep and covers with snow. The other two run back to report as the Germans advance.
Since they don’t have any anti-armor weapons SSG Kinne recommends to the Lt. that they call in artillery fire on the Germans but it is near where Roderigues is hiding. They also find out that Sgt. Wolowicz was hit and is heading back. This makes Holley the new squad Sgt.
Holley, Layton, Pops, and Garvis head out to get Roderigues. Pops announces that he lost his teeth and expects to be sent back. When the patrol gets to Roderigues he is already dead from blood loss and cold. They mark the death area and head back with extreme sadness.
The men finally get a Stars and Stripes and find out about the Bulge and where they are located. They also find out that the weather is keeping all American planes grounded. Sgt. Kinne and the LT. let the men know that they are not taken frostbite or fever cases and they are out of medicine at the aid station. They also let them know that the field hospital has been overrun and the wounded American put up a good fight.
Layton and Holley are on guard duty at the road crossing again. Pops comes out to say goodbye as he is being sent back. Kip finds his teeth and tells the others that they are surrounded by Germans and that Pops can’t leave. The group comes under artillery fire again. Layton is showing signs of becoming a hardened veteran. They send the squad forward to dig in by a railroad. The Lt. is now bellyaching like Holley did earlier. Holley tells the men to check their bold to see if they are frozen. Garby (James Arness) ignores the order.
The man on guard duty silhouettes himself against the bridge and is shot by the Germans. Hansan crawls forward and begins firing. Kit moves up and gives support until Hansan is hit. Then Pops, now a civilian comes forward to help.
Holley freaks out and runs away but Layton follows him. When he sees he is not alone he moves to flank the Germans. SSG Kinnie sees what is happening and moves the rest into ambush position. Abner is shot trying to get his boots and Garby is shot when his bolt won’t open. The ambush of the Germans is successful and those that are not killed are captured.
They take the prisoners and the wounded back to the rear and begin to see the problem they have. There is little food, ammo, or medicine. Cooks, anti-aircraft, and mechanics are moved into the infantry. Men rummage through piles of boots and equipment outside the aid station.
At the aid station, Pops tries to get medicine for Hansan but there is none to be had. They run in Bettis and he is working in a kitchen. He gives them some hot chow. Holley heads to find Denise but when he gets there Layton is already there drinking and having a fine time.
They explain to the men that Bastogne is in the middle of major roads that lead to the port of Antwerp. If that port falls two allied divisions would be cut off. A group of Germans with a white flag come forward and ask to be taken to the command General. The commander is Major-General McAuliffe. They take the officers to the general and the enlisted stay with the squad. They bribe the enlisted Germans with cigarettes to tell what’s in the messages. The officers come back and the squad finds out that when the German officer demanded the American surrender McAullife simply replies “nuts.”
The fighting and the bad weather continue until Christmas. The Americans are under around the clock shelling. At the Christmas services, a Chaplain (Leon Ames) holds a service in the field using a Jeep as an altar. He does a great job and then is forced to shorten his sermon as the artillery begins again.
When it looks like the end is near the skies clear and allied fighters begin raining death on the Germans. Supplies are dropped by cargo planes. The Chaplain goes around and shows disgust as he finds dinner rations. Finally, he finds the ammo and calls to the men to arm themselves. The sheer joy during the killing montage is a little shocking.
After the Germans are defeated what’s left of the squad sits by the road waiting for SSG Kinnie. He forms them up facing the fighting and then gives them the about face. The battered bastards of Bastogne limp down the road as fresh troops are coming in. Kinnie calls them to attention and they march away with pride knowing they have done their part.
I have read a few reviews about this movie and it received little criticism for jumping from a comedy to a love story to a war movie. But I have to disagree because the military has been described as 99% boredom and 1 % sheer terror. The interactions of the men and the growth of the new man into a soldier seem logical and realistic.
World-Famous Short Summary – Guys work out pecking order set against the backdrop of the Battle of the Bulge
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Beware the moors