Battleground is not your typical war movie with lots of shoot ‘em ups, explosions and dogfights. Set in December of 1941, this engrossing battle film focuses on a particular group of men just days before Christmas in Bastogne, Belgium where the 47th German Panzer Corps is advancing through the allied lines and our guys are meant to hold the line until reinforces can arrive. This truly ensemble cast has no discernible lead, but features such notable stars as Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban and James Whitmore among many other exceptional character actors.
Unlike many other war films, there are no major conflicts or historical moments depicted or reenacted. Instead, Battleground presents to the audience the life of fighting men in the field and their moment-to-moment events as they perform their every day tasks. As a group they have various skirmishes within their own ranks, as well as encounters with the enemy and locals alike. Through the course of events it is revealed that each man has a personal crisis emotionally, mentally or physically.
The subtle power and depth of the performances is a testament to the fine ability of the actors who portray these regular guys without being boring and remain interesting without resulting to melodrama. The true to life portrayal of these men is due in large part to helmsman William Wellman’s ability as a director. Wellman had a unique talent of eliciting detailed nuances from an actor that could speak volumes in a mere moment or fleeting gesture. George Murphy (an often overlooked musical star of the 30s and 40s) is particularly poignant in his turn as a quiet, “older” soldier who is expecting his discharge papers any moment. Unfortunately, his troop’s constant moving prevents those orders from reaching him. So, with no other recourse and very little empathy from his companions, he maintains a stiff upper lip and soldiers on.
Of course (mild SPOILER alert), many of the men ultimately die. Often these deaths happen suddenly and in confusion, placing the audience momentarily in the boots of the survivors who have come to care for someone only to have that person gone in a tragic flash of violence. The impact of these moments has a quiet power that resonates and draws you closer to the remaining men. At one point it seems inevitable that all of these men will perish, but true to most war films of its era (and the actual event) the battle worn survivors are saved at the last moment by the much anticipated air support.
Battleground stands as a great representation of the life lead in the battlefield and the camaraderie that naturally develops to bind men to one another, to depend on each other and to care for each other. The film also reveals the hardships that are not readily tangible; the great losses one has to endure in the course of performing one’s duty and the personal price of survival. All in all, Battleground stands as an excellent tribute to our fighting forces everywhere at any time.