Battleground (Wellman, 1949)

Battleground doesn’t concern itself with military tactics or visceral battle sequences. In many refreshing ways, it’s completely about the men, the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division who fought and defended Bastonge in WWII, otherwise known as The Battle of the Bulge. William A. Wellman follows these assortment of personalities from an Army camp post Normandy onward, unsuspecting of the magnitude of what’s to come, to the fateful battle with the German Panzer Corp. Other films have portrayed the battle itself with far more conviction to the human toll of this bloody ordeal, but Battleground makes it’s casualties stick with greater intensity, since we’ve come to know and care for them as people. This is an odd war film, in that it doesn’t try and seduce the viewer with a star presence, or epic, heroic action scenes, but lets it’s deceivingly simple story play out as if we were right in the fox hole with Van Johnson and co. Wellman allows you to be invested in the outcome of their cold, brutal journey, mainly through the camaraderie of the men and the way this life is introduced to newcomers, here represented by Pvt. Jim Layton (Marshall Thompson). His indoctrination to the group begins slowly, even harshly when he thinks some soldiers don’t even know his name. But a great moment occurs shortly after the battle begins. After a mortar shell almost takes out half the platoon, Layton makes sure one of his commanding officers does know him by name. The man replies, “I know who you are.” Layton smiles, finally believing he’s one of the group. Layton’s experience, along with all the rest, signifies a respect for brothers in arms and the honor one can share while serving alongside them. Simple and beautiful stuff. Wellman directs this film with little show, but plenty of heart, dashing the cliché’s of the John Wayne war picture with true character development and sadness, a sublime outlook on friendship and loss. Battleground might not be the most visually stimulating war film, but it’s certainly one of the most fleshed out pieces on entrenched soldiers in combat. Also, it’s small does of comedy provide ample laughs and relief, but always remain based in the wintry environment of war. A fact not lost on the soldiers themselves as Nazi bombs explode all around.

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