Apr 172014

BattlegroundRating: ★★★½☆

MGM, 1949, 118 minutes
Cast: Van Johnson, John Hodiak, George Murphy, Ricardo Montalban, Marshall Thompson, Jerome Courtland, James Whitmore, Douglas Fowley and Denise Darcel
Screenplay: Robert Pirosh
Associate Producer: Robert Pirosh
Producer: Dore Schary
Director: William Wellman

Historical Background

With the Allies pressing against the borders of Germany and the Soviet juggernaut moving east, Hitler gambled on an offensive that would create total victory. The plan was simple, wait until weather grounded the Allied air force, and then move twelve panzer and eighteen infantry divisions through the Ardennes to cross the Meuse River. The goal was the destruction of the British and Canadian armies, which Hitler believed would convince the United States to wash its hands of Europe and concentrate on the war against Japan in the Pacific. Attempts to persuade Hitler to adopt a more feasible objective failed since Hitler’s trust in his generals had evaporated following the failed Valkyrie plot. Preoccupied with their own offensives, the Allies thought that the Germans were incapable of a major offensive.

Despite total surprise on December 16, the Germans were already behind schedule by nightfall, creating a massive traffic jam behind German lines. More important, the Americans responded much faster than Hitler had expected, and moved troops to block the Germans at the Elsenborn Ridge and the rail junctions of St. Vith and Bastogne. On December 19, the Germans had their greatest victory of the offensive when two American regiments were forced to surrender. However, the American strength in the Ardennes had grown from 90,000 to 180,000 men, and the rest of the offensive was going badly. The Germans continued to advance, surrounding Bastogne, but when the weather improved on December 23, it ended the last remaining shred of German hope for victory. Bastogne finally received supplies, while Allied planes targeted the German columns. The siege ended when Patton’s tanks reached Bastogne on December 26, and all of the Allied lines in the Ardennes still held. Unwilling to face reality, Hitler refused to end the offensive until January 7, and fighting continued until January 25. The offensive was a crushing defeat since the Germans ended up at the Siegfried Line, the fallback position advocated by Hitler’s generals before the offensive, minus all of the troops and tanks lost during the Ardennes Offensive.

Plot Summary



In mid-December 1944, Jim Layton (Marshall Thompson) reports to a platoon in the 101st Airborne Division as a replacement, but is ignored by the veterans. Eagerly looking forward to a three-day-pass to Paris, the men suddenly learn that the Germans had made a breakthrough somewhere, so they are sent to fill the gap. The news is not welcomed by Pop Stazak (George Murphy), the oldest member of the platoon, who is about to be sent back to the US to take care of his family. Arriving at Bastogne, the platoon enjoys a friendly welcome from the charming and shapely Denise (Denise Darcel), who opens her home in exchange for chocolate and cigarettes. While the men are asleep, one of the guards encounters exhausted soldiers coming back from the front, retreating through the town with stories of an unstoppable wave of Germans. Learning that German soldiers are pretending to be American, paranoia spreads, and patrols ask strangers questions about American trivia. After several days of fighting, the men are told that Bastogne has been surrounded. Since cloudy weather prevents aerial drops of supplies, the men start running low on food and ammunition. Despite the hardships, the soldiers are pleased when they learn that the commander of the American troops at Bastogne refused the Germans’ demand that they surrender.

Historical Accuracy

Robert Pirosh, the screenwriter, had fought in the Battle of the Bulge as a member of an infantry division, so the script captures the perspective and confusion of the soldiers. Throughout the film, the men have no idea what is going on. Their world has shrunk to their company. One of the soldiers finally explains that Bastogne is important because it is a road junction that leads to Antwerp. The men read about the Battle of the Bulge in the Stars and Stripes, the army newspaper, but are not sure if they are in Belgium or Luxemburg.

Unlike the patriotic war movies produced en masse by Hollywood during WWII, the film is an honest look at the war, portraying the soldiers as human beings with faults. While it may seem rather tame today, it was remarkably gritty at the time. Battling fever and frostbite, the men constantly grumble and dream of wounds that would send them home, but they endure and continue to fight. Private Holly (Van Johnson), the best scrounger in the platoon, has tried to avoid responsibility but has to take over when the sergeant is badly wounded. Recognizing the danger of the situation, Holly starts acting like a sergeant. Meanwhile, Layton follows Holly’s example and becomes a scrounger, always looking for an angle.

Holly and Layton

Holly and Layton

One scene in particular reflects the film’s realistic attitude towards war. At one point, Holly runs away during a battle, but changes his mind when he is followed by Layton. Embarrassed that the younger man witnessed his panic, he leads a counter-attack that enables his platoon to win the skirmish. Later, Layton admits to Private Jarvess (John Hodiak), a grizzled veteran, that he was terrified, and Jarvess responds that they are all scared. As Layton tries to understand how the veterans could attack when they are terrified, he receives a simple explanation: “Things just happen. Afterwards you try to figure it out.”

While the movie was ahead of its time because of its realistic portrayal of soldiers, it was still made in 1949, so the men’s carnal urges are toned down. The men are eagerly looking forward to three days of leave in Paris, when they learn they will be sent to stop a German breakthrough. Actually, the real soldiers had already started their leave, so the MPs had to scour the bars and bordellos of Paris to find them.

Denise is remarkably cheerful, even though she has to care for two children who were orphaned during a bombing raid. Whether the gratitude was genuine or not is unknown, but she did grab as many chocolate bars and packs of cigarettes as possible in exchange for her hospitality. Unimpressed with Denise’s friendly attitude, one of the paratroopers resents all of the Europeans, saying they are only friendly if you give them cigarettes and chocolate.

While it is true that the turning point in the battle occurred when the weather improved, enabling planes to drop supplies for the troops in Bastogne, the script goes overboard when it shows that the troops immediately counterattacked after receiving supplies, and had driven off the German attackers before Patton’s tanks reached Bastogne. In reality, the supplies simply enabled the men at Bastogne to hold on until Patton’s tanks broke through the Germans surrounding the town.

FoxholeIn most war movies, foxholes magically appear but a great scene shows how long it takes to dig a foxhole, while the film repeatedly reminds viewers that sleeping in a foxhole during a snowstorm is far from comfortable.

While English-speaking German soldiers did masquerade as Americans, it was a small operation and it only took place in another part of the front, not at Bastogne. However, the scene where soldiers from different units quiz each other about baseball trivia is an accurate portrayal of the paranoia that spread through the American army. At one point, military intelligence feared that the infiltrators planned to assassinate General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe, so he was placed under strict security, until he became fed up and dismissed his over-enthusiastic bodyguards.

VeteransShortly after the platoon reaches Bastogne, Layton finds out that his buddy, a fellow replacement who was assigned to a different company, had died the night before. Stunned that the men in his platoon do not even know his friend’s name, Layton obsessively informs everyone he serves with his full name until he is finally accepted. By that time, he has become as unshaven and bitter as the veterans. As the battle continues, the men become too tired to complain, and focus on survival. Near the end of the siege, the survivors look through piles of gear from dead soldiers for coats and goulashes that fit. Meanwhile, civilians root through garbage cans for leftovers.Boots


Producer Dore Schary had purchased the rights to the story despite the misgivings of Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, who believed that the public had lost interest in war films. Schary was proven right, and Battleground was the studio’s most profitable film that year.

Director William Wellman had flown with the Lafayette Corps during WWI, and directed Wings (1927), which was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Although he was an airman at heart, he clearly understood infantrymen, since he made an excellent film.

  • the war movie buff

    Twenty members of the 101st Airborne were used as extras. They were put through acting boot camp. The film won Oscars for Cinematography and Original Screenplay (Pirosh). It was nominated for Picture, Director, Editing, and Supporting Actor (James Whitmore).

    The movie has some strengths. It is a realistic portrayal of the soldier’s experiences and the dialogue is authentic and typically humorous for American G.I.s. What is not realistic is the combat. The movie makes the elements, not the Germans the principal enemy. In reality, there would have been a lot more pressure from German probing than the movie shows. The acting is top notch and several characters are given idiosyncrasies that are endearing. My favorite was Kippton clicking his false teeth. (Douglas Fawley lost his teeth to an explosion on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)

    You are right about the emphasis on the “fog of war”. At one point a soldier laments that his wife back home probably knows more about the battle than they do.
    This movie is ranked #36 on Military History magazine’s 100 Greatest, but I think it is overrated. I would give it only a B-.

    • historyonfilm

      You are right that the combat is underplayed, although when I read about the battle, I think it was in Toland’s book, men complained about the cold and the confusion. But yes, a few more combat scenes would have improved the movie, especially if they had eliminated the annoying montage at the end, which looked like the budget ran out.
      #36 seems more generous than the film deserves, although I think it should be a contender for the top 100. Looking forward to seeing your list when you finish making your way through the official list.

  • john dunar

    In a contrary view, I despised this movie as a particularly egregious example of what one film researcher labelled `combat genre’ films; they are deliberately historically inaccurate because their objective was to fulfill the old familiar Hollywood mandate, to entertain. They also served the useful purpose during the war of masking the true horrors as well as the almost unbelievable bravery of many of those fighting men. As a result, ;this movie is just a corny sequence of one bad thing after another. In addition to the ubiquitous tale of soldiers chasing tail, it features stupid vigniettes like van Johnson trying to scramble eggs in his helmet.. Compared to many contemporary superb films about WW 2 (e,g, Band of Brothers, Pacific etc.) which really accurately portray the horrors and magnificence of war and ultimately stand as appropriately worthy testimonials to the guys who ultimately defeated Facism, this is a stupid, boring film.

    • historyonfilm

      I agree that it can not be compared to Band of Brothers but it is pretty good for the time, especially since it was one of the few to show soldiers griping.