' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Battleground (1949)

Friday, May 24, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Battleground (1949)

The “Battleground” giving William Wellman’s 1949 WWII film its title is Bastogne, which is in Belgium, where late in December 1944 the Allied 101st Airborne Division fell under siege from the Nazis in their scurrilous and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to capture Antwerp. The 101st survived this siege, earning the nickname The Battling Bastards of Bastogne along the way, a seemingly readymade movie title in and of itself. But if Wellman’s film opens and closes with the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment in rousingly familiar scenes of military cadence all that comes in-between is surprisingly, refreshingly considered, reflective. Indeed, if mom’s blueberry pie is cited as what they’re fighting for and the great Leon Ames, in a magnificent walk-off cameo, as a Chaplain might remind the 101st that they are fighting fascism, it’s also sort of stunning to note how the scene ends not with him invoking God but him giving each man the space to pray to whoever his respective higher power is. It echoes an earlier moment, just after Rodrigues (Ricard Montalban), a soldier from L.A. ecstatic to see his first snowfall only to cruelly, ironically freeze to death in it. A makeshift funeral is held and Pops (George Murphy) mentions Rodrigues’s belief that every wartime death is “God’s will.” Crucially Murphy’s delivery of this line betrays neither belief nor doubt in that sentiment, just profound respect for deceased pal’s faith. And a full shot of the men paying respects to their fallen man is notable for how no music swells; no, it is just the sound of the wind, a palpable, natural hush that could make one think they hear God somewhere in the space of the falling snow or that they don’t hear anything at all.

“Battleground’s” screenwriter, Robert Pirosh, was at Bastogne, which was why RKO drafted him to write the film, though Pirosh made clear his goal was to tell the story “without heroics, without fancy speeches, without a phony romance.” That’s why characters are heard discussing injuries that might deliver them away from the front, a la Junior in “Platoon”, and in a scene where the 327th is transported by truck to the Ardennes the regiment is exhausted and falling asleep even as the truck bounces them up and down, a far cry from, say, the profane jocularity of “Predator’s” “Long Tall Sally” scene. And when the platoon arrives in Bastgone, they spend the evening in the home of a Frenchwoman (Denise Darcel), pointedly written not as a person but merely an object of affection, passed between the men as they dance and desired specifically by Private Holley (Van Johnson), the spoils of war. Those dishonorable intentions are laid bare the next morning when he openly steals eggs from her, a sequence which is played for light comedy, as if Pirosh is twisting the cliché of hiding out in a Frenchwoman’s home in our guts, American heroes as invaders.

Upon arrival in Bastogne, Luftwaffe bombers flying overhead send the 327th, not to mention the Frenchwoman and the two children she’s looking after, scrambling for cover, Wellman juxtaposing their uplooking faces of fear with the distinct buzz of warplanes and all that such a noise entails. It’s a reminder of old school effects, which were mere sound design and reaction shots, nothing more, which isn’t to say it was better or worse than, say, Christopher Nolan’s terrifying spectacle of Luftwaffe fighters bearing down on gaggles of beachbound soldiers in “Dunkirk”, just different, terrifying in its own way. What’s more, it becomes evocative of the film’s emphasis of the unknown, glimpsed further during the actual siege where the literal fog-shrouded terrain illuminates the figurative notion of the fog of war.

Incoherence is part and parcel to the film’s narrative. We may know well know the particulars of what these men are facing given seventy-five years of WWII scholarship, but Wellman makes plain that these men, cut off from the very information they desire. One scene finds Jarvess (John Hodiak) lamenting that his journalist wife back home knows more about what’s transpiring on the European front than him. There are skirmishes fought throughout the movie with German soldiers, but just as prominent is an air of being in limbo, the 327th forced to march around in secret, dig a hole here only to be told that hole is now meaningless and now they have to go dig a hole over here. They were not a machine, in other words, running roughshod through Europe but a united collection of confused, frightened individuals leaning on one another, fighting through that confusion and fear to still come out on the other side. The siege of Bastogne is inevitable, per the history books, but it rarely feels that way in “Battleground”, its heroes less battering bastards than battered bastards who find the disgruntled gumption to hold on anyway.

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