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Soldiers battle the enemy and the elements in “Battleground”

Updated: Jan 7, 2019


Van Johnson stars as Private Holley, who's just returned from a Paris hospital and John Hodiak as Private Donald Jarvess. (Frame shots courtesy of Warner Archive Collection)


Blu-ray, 1949, Not Rated

Best extra: A short MGM cartoon by Tex Avery, "Little Rural Riding Hood" in HD, an inspiration for moments in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"

DECADES before HBO's award winning mini-series "Band of Brothers" dramatized the WWII fighting men of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne, there was MGM's Oscar winner "Battleground" (1949).

Directed by William A. Wellman of "The Public Enemy" (1931) and the original "A Star is Born" (1937) from a script by Robert Pirosh, "Battleground" concentrates on the men of I Company, Third Platoon, Second Squad of the 101st Airborne. It is an intimate portrait, putting viewers right in the foxhole on the edge of the Battle of the Bulge, the war's bloodiest battle. The Americans suffered more than 75,000 casualties and the German losses were from 80,000 to 100,000.

On December 16, 1944, Adolph Hitler's German forces launched a last-ditch counterattack, marshalling up to 250,000 soldiers with the 47th Panzer Tank Corps. They advanced along thinly held lines of the Allied forces. Two inexperienced and battered American divisions were positioned in the dense forests of the Ardennes in southeast Belgium. The Germans hoped to retake Bastogne, where seven major roads converged near the border of Luxembourg, and on to recapture area lost to the Allied forces.

Nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director for "Wild Bill" Wellman, a World War I French Foreign Legion pilot, and Best Supporting Actor for James Whitmore as Sergeant Kinnie, it won for Best Screenplay for Robert Pirosh, a veteran who served in the 35th Division and kept a diary during combat. It also won Best Cinematography – Black and White – for Paul C. Vogel.

Pirosh, a comedy writer before the war, had a hand in the Marx Brothers' classic "A Night at the Opera." Initially, he got RKO development executive Dore Schary to approve a 60-page draft for "Battleground." Howard Hughes, the RKO studio head at the time, felt the story was too grim and shelved it. Schary was hired by Louis B. Mayer of MGM to oversee studio productions, and eventually take over the studio in 1951. Mayer gave Schary the green light for "Battleground" even though he was originally against it. The gritty war film pushed MGM, known for its musical comedies, into new territory. Written and directed by veterans, characters were more true to life, and not always "heroic." Pirosh would go on to produce the 1960s TV series "Combat" about a WWII platoon starring Vic Morrow.

An 11-day "boot camp" with the 101st Airborne was conducted to prepare the cast. It set the tradition for other war films, and has been used for decades. Former U.S. Marine Dale Dye now serves as Hollywood's drill sergeant, prepping actors for "Platoon," "Saving Private Ryan," "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific."

James Whitmore (right) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as Sergeant Kinnie.

Production for "Battleground" started in the spring of 1949. Oddly, it was filmed mostly on soundstages, with trees transplanted from Northern California and chemical snow blown by huge wind machines to mimic the brutal winter of 1944. It's reported Wellman and Pirosh had a falling out and the writer was banned from the set.

I Company is introduced during a morning close-order cadence with Sgt. Kinnie barking out commands. The soldiers are looking forward to a three-day pass to Paris as newcomers Private Jim Layton (Marshall Thompson) assigned to I Company, and his basic training bud, Private William J. Hopper (Scott Beckett) assigned to J Company, watch the drill. Layton heads to the barracks and an accidental confrontation with Private Holley (Van Johnson), who's just returned from a Paris hospital, where he received a Purple Heart. It was "misery with passes every night for champagne," Holley says of his time there.

The next morning, the 101st is ordered to the front lines. It's a secret mission, with the "Screaming Eagles" patch removed from uniforms. Travel is rough – a bumpy ride on the backside of trucks all the way into Bastogne, Belgium. A German plane drops leaflets with the message: "Welcome 101st Airborne," illustrated with a graveyard of crosses topped with U.S. helmets.

They spend the night in the home of an attractive woman played by French actress Denise Darcel, the only female in "Battleground." Hopper can't keep his eyes off her. He gets up early and snags half-dozen eggs from the barn, with hopes for a warm breakfast. No such luck. He walks into the house to find they've got 30 seconds to head out.

Once in the Ardennes, it's dirty, cold, and a struggle to stay alive. Germans endlessly bombard the trenches and foxholes; a number of them have infiltrated, disguised as members of the 101st. The platoon will nearly run out of ammunition; frostbite sets in since they don't have proper winter gear – and they're completely surrounded by the Germans. Still, when the Nazis demand surrender, Army Gen. Anthony McAuliffe has one answer: "Nuts!"

The powerful cast also includes: John Hodiak as Jarvess, a small-town newspaper man; George Murphy as "Pop" Stazak, who's gotten word from the Red Cross that he's heading home; Douglas Fowley as "Kipp," with rattling dentures; Ricardo Montalban as Rodrigues from Los Angeles, who plays baseball with snowballs, and Jerome Courtland as country boy Abner.


The Oscar-winning visuals (1.37:1 aspect ratio) are surprisingly super-sharp. The Blu-ray transfer is most likely taken from a 2K master from a first generation print, with an abundance amount of natural film grain providing that documentary look. Plus, the gray-scale is well-balanced from shadows to controlled highlights. One brief moment, less than 10 seconds in, shows a lower grade print was inserted. There are no scratches or marks; it's been completely restored from start to finish.

Preservation makes all the difference. It doesn't happen overnight; decisions made decades ago deliver rewards today.


All audio imperfections have been digitally removed. The mono track is straight and center from the all-important center speaker.

"Battleground" was the sleeper hit of its time, the second-highest grossing film of 1950. It continues to resonate today. Don't miss it.

― Bill Kelley III, High-def Watch producer




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