Mar 17, 2017

On Blu-ray: A Cast of Sympathetic Characters in Battleground (1949)

We must be smart enough and tough enough in the beginning. To put out the fire before it starts spreading.

Battleground (1949) performs a balancing act of great precision. It plunges you into the devastation of war, but it also shows flickers of light. Though it can often be difficult to watch, this is an entertaining, engrossing film that succeeds because of and despite its bleak message. Now it is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

The setting is Belgium in 1944. A platoon of American soldiers struggle with homesickness, discomfort, loss and the horrors of war as they fight the Battle of Bastogne in a final, horrific counteroffensive against Hitler. With an Oscar-winning screenplay written by Robert Pirosh, a veteran of the stand-off, this is a tense film because the details feel true-to-life.

It opens with a shot of a Christmas tree, decorated with the naked leg of a female mannequin. Soldiers in formation sing about the home they left, the baby they left. Though they constantly make jokes and lightly jibe at each other, you can feel how homesickness continually plagues them. A piece of bread or the prospect of getting real food, like a plate of eggs, symbolizes not only comfort, but the homes to which they wish to return.

To make it all the more touching, director William Wellman's cast is packed with some of the most likeable actors in Hollywood. Most famous for lighter musical and comedy fare, it is almost disorienting to see stars like Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy in such a bleak milieu. The actors who are more strongly associated with dramas, like James Whitmore and John Hodiak, serve as a sort of comfort, because you know how the characters they play have triumphed over darkness.

It's an interesting cast, diverse in character, but simpatico. They play off of each other with such lightness that when they can no longer shut out or gloss over the tragedy surrounding them, there is a feeling of profound loss. One moment they attempt to casually chat during a bombing, the next, they face death.

For all the forced gaiety among the soldiers, the atmosphere is one of pure horror. A haunting fog envelopes most of the action, and is a constant reminder of their vulnerability to sneak attacks and starvation due to the lack of supply drops. The battlefield covered in snow hints at the discomfort of the men and the fear of muffled steps in the snow masking a deadly approach. Half the time the soldiers can't see their target, the rest they are unsure if they are speaking to Americans or German soldiers succeeding at a brilliant masquerade.

Audiences must have still felt raw from the wounds of World War II as they watched this upon its first release. This is the fear that they either felt themselves or saw their loved ones experience. That terror is stripped down to the basics, where a makeshift shelter under a jeep can be a tomb or a pair of empty boots can cause a man to choke in helpless grief.

A harrowing experience, Battleground is nevertheless a deeply satisfying film that rewards multiple viewings. It elicits empathy by drawing you into the battle, the boots and helmets of these brave, but ultimately vulnerable men.

The black and white imagery on the disc is especially striking, with a soft, velvety look that enhances the feeling of a disconnect from reality on the fog-shrouded battlefield. Special features include a trailer for the film, a vintage featurette and the cartoon, Little Red Riding Hood.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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