Friday, December 10, 2010

BATTLEGROUND (1949): The Battered Bastards of Bastogne

Every boy loved a movie like this one when I was growing up.  We were fascinated with World War II and with the men who fought to save the entire free world.  Most of us had fathers who served in Europe or the Pacific during the war years, and if we didn’t quite have the facts right about the roles they played we were still fascinated by what they must have gone through.  The remarkable thing is that the movies I liked the most from that period have still stayed with me.  Whatever else I’ve seen in the meantime, the stark imagery and stoicism of Fixed Bayonets and The Dirty Dozen remain superior to the forced emotion of the tearjerkers we have since had to endure.  If anything, Battleground is even more understated than those movies I most remember.  We don’t see many overt acts of heroism in this movie.  Instead, we see men trying to simply endure what must at times have seemed like certain death.
Bastogne was a Belgium city right in the middle of where the Battle of the Bulge was fought.  It was exemplified by General McAuliffe’s wordy response to the German army’s surrender demand when he replied, “Nuts.”  The soldiers and officers at Bastogne were cutoff of supplies, had to be on the alert for German infiltrators, and had to put up with a number of weeks of bombardment by the enemy.  Sometimes they did a fairly good job of fighting the enemy, and sometimes they didn’t.  One soldier, Holley (Van Johnson), tried to run when under fire only to realize there was nowhere to go.  Another soldier, thought to be a coward and whom at one time smashed his own teeth in hopes of getting a medical discharge, ends up staying at his post.  Hanson (Guy Anderson) falls for a woman in Bastogne and tries to protect her.  Jim Layton (Marshall Thompson) was a naïve youngster at first, but he grows up very quickly to become a three pack a day smoker.  Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban), a Hispanic from Los Angeles and who has never seen snow, ends up freezing to death in the white stuff after being wounded and unable to move.  And a soldier from Tennessee, who doesn’t like sleeping in his foxhole with the boots setting next to him, is shot while reaching outside of the foxhole to put the boots on his feet.
The movie is about the soldiers waiting to be re-supplied and/or relieved with the hope of not being killed during the meantime.  There’s some animosity between the soldiers that at times breaks out, but they nevertheless stick together just to survive and not surrender.  Implicit is the idea that they all know why they are there.  The war was supposed to be over, but suddenly the enemy had different plans.  Without it even once being mentioned, these same soldiers are aware of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime and to this they could not give in.  They know that, even without this siege, the awards for their service will be small – maybe a few days of R&R in Paris before returning to their outfit to eat some more rations – at least until the war is over.  When that happens, they will have time to look back and reflect about what they have done.
I like the humility of this movie.  The dialogue, at first hokey, speaks a great deal in what is not said.  We don’t need the spectacular heroics of most war movies to sympathize with what the soldiers went through.  There are no tears and the whining is left to a minimum.  We probably will not remember the names of a single character in the movie, nor were we meant to remember any of them.  Mostly, the men seemed more concerned with having some time to fry up their eggs or spend a few minutes in town getting drunk or being entertained by the local women.  Even when the siege is over, it ends up being one long march from Belgium back towards France.  Their greatest reward was the relief that the siege at Bastogne was over.
February 5, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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