Scripted by WWII combat veteran Robert Pirosh; directed by William Wellman; and starring Van Johnson, John Hodiak, James Whitmore, Ricardo Montalbán, and George Murphy, Battleground is an American war film about a company of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, surrounded by German forces and holding out at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
Robert Pirosh (1910–1989), Hollywood writer and producer and, later, creator of the popular 1960s Combat! TV series, was uniquely qualified to make Battleground, a film about the Siege of Bastogne (20–27 December 1944) during the Battle of the Bulge. Pirosh served in World War II as a master sergeant with the 35th Infantry Division, saw action in the Ardennes and Rhineland campaigns, and was awarded a Bronze Star. During the Battle of the Bulge Pirosh led a patrol into Bastogne to help relieve surrounded American forces there. After the war he used material from his wartime journal to develop a screenplay that presented Bastogne from the infantryman’s point of view, but he had to wait a few years before the war (film)-weary public was ready for a postwar combat film. Battleground became an RKO property in 1947 but was shelved by studio owner Howard Hughes, a decision that caused production head Dore Schary to resign. When Schary went to MGM, he purchased the rights to the script from RKO, over the objections of Louis B. Mayer, who believed that the public was tired of war films. MGM signed Robert Taylor, Keenan Wynn, and John Hodiak, and the project was budgeted at $2 million. Twenty veterans of the 101st were hired to train the actors and to appear in the film as extras. Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard, deputy divisional commander of the 101st at Bastogne, was hired on as the film’s technical advisor. Director William Wellman put the cast through two weeks of military training, but Robert Taylor, a former navy officer, dropped out, and Van Johnson replaced him.
Battleground was shot in 44 days between 5 April and 3 June 1949 at several sets: a replica of Bastogne, refashioned from an Italian village set built on a United Artists (UA) studio backlot for The Story of G.I. Joe (1944); a faux pine forest in the Ardennes, built on a UA sound stage using 528 real trees; and on location in northern California, Oregon, and at Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, Washington, which was used for the tank sequence showing the relief of the 101st Airborne by Patton’s Third Army. Shooting went faster than anticipated, taking 20 fewer days than planned. This time savings was in part due to Schary’s creative filming methods—he often processed film right after it was shot, then had scenes cut together so that they were available for preview two days after being shot. The film came in almost $100,000 under budget.
In December 1944, new replacements Jim Layton (Marshall Thompson) and William J. Hooper (Scotty Beckett) are dispensed to different companies in the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Holley (Van Johnson) returns to his unit after recovering from an injury. The squadron is set to go on leave, but is instead sent to the frontlines to fight off German forces in the Ardennes Forest. After stopping for a night in Bastogne, Belgium, Sgt. Kinnie (James Whitmore) orders his men to settle in at multiple locations at the town borders. While guarding a roadblock during the night, Holley, Layton, and “Kipp” Kippton (Douglas Fowley) are surprised by German soldiers who are dressed as American G.I.s. The German soldiers blow up a bridge. A snowstorm greets the squad the next morning. Roderigues (Ricardo Montalbán) delights in the snow, though a fellow soldier, “Pop” Stazak (George Murphy), remains unfazed. Layton discovers that his friend Hooper has been killed by German mortar rounds, and Kinnie sounds the alarm about the German infiltration. A patrol heads out—Holley, Roderigues, and Jarvess (John Hodiak)—to comb through the woods, but before they get far, the Germans attack and the platoon panics. Bettis (Richard Jaeckel) runs for cover, Holley’s patrol battles against the infiltrators, and Roderigues is injured in the firefight, left unable to walk. Holley tries to hide Roderigues beneath a jeep while the men continue to ward off the German fire, but Roderigues freezes to death before his platoon can retrieve him. Two soldiers are sent off to a field hospital, and Holley is named the new squadron leader along with Layton. Pop Stazak is grouped with Hansan (Herbert Anderson). The squadron discovers, by reading Stars and Stripes, that theirs is a “heroic stand,” and Kippton confirms that the 101st is fully surrounded. The 3rd Platoon falls victim to an attack at first light, and as they are overwhelmed, Hansan sustains an injury and Holley flees the scene in panic. After facing his embarrassment at being cowardly in front of his inferiors, Holley counterattacks. Later, while on guard duty, the squad meets a group of German soldiers who have arrived beneath a “flag of truce” to present terms of surrender to Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe. McAuliffe shocks and confuses the Germans with his famous reply, “Nuts!” Foggy weather grounds Allied transport aircraft, and the squad is short of supplies. That night, Luftwaffe planes bomb Bastogne and Denise is killed. The “walking wounded,” Hansan included, are summoned to the frontlines in a last-ditch effort to defend the town. Bettis lets fear get the better of him and delays his return, dooming himself to the cruel fate of a bomb destroying the house he is staying in. The fog finally lifts, and Allied fighters attack the Germans, enabling the 101st to hold. When the siege lifts, Kinnie leads the successful survivors toward a well-deserved respite from the lines. The film ends with a group of fresh troops marching in to replace those going on leave, with the war veterans chanting the refrain from “Jody” as they leave the battleground.
Battleground went into general domestic release on 20 January 1950—just five years after the events it depicted. Contrary to Louis B. Mayer’s dour predictions, the movie made a healthy profit and won an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Critical notices were mixed but mostly positive. Bosley Crowther praised Battleground as “a smashing pictorial re-creation of the way that this last [war was] for the dirty and frightened foot-soldier who got caught in a filthy deal. Here is the unadorned image of the misery, the agony, the grief and the still irrepressible humor and dauntless mockery of the American GI” (Crowther, 1949). On the other hand, John McCarten found the movie “constantly reiterating the idiosyncrasies of its characters,” a tendency that rendered the film “pretty monotonous” in McCarten’s view, but he also noted that “there are plenty of rousing battle scenes” (McCarten, 1949).
Reel History Versus Real History
Although the film is a fictionalized and very narrowly focused version of the siege of Bastogne, it is highly accurate with one major exception. There were no Germans disguised as American soldiers around Bastogne. Unternehmen Greif (Operation Griffin), as it was designated, only operated in front of the 6th SS Panzer Army at the start of the German offensive, many miles to the north. Another minor but deliberate inaccuracy: the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment did not have an Item Company (glider regiments consisted of two battalions, with each battalion having four companies, A-D and E-H). The film’s producers created a fictitious unit to allow for artistic license and not have veterans object to inaccuracies.