Sunday, January 8, 2017

BATTLEGROUND: Blu-ray (MGM 1949) Warner Archive Collection

In 1949 Dore Schary, a writer/producer of some repute over at RKO, came to MGM at the behest of Loew’s Incorporated president Nicholas Schenck to assume the reigns as Vice President in Charge of Production; a position vacated in 1936 by the untimely death of the studio’s wunderkind, Irving Thalberg and thereafter managed – some would suggest, mismanaged – by MGM’s president, Louis B. Mayer, who commanded the formidable resources of his studio throughout the war years. Mayer’s penchant for family films completely shifted the focus of the studio’s output. Whereas under Thalberg, MGM had been the purveyors of chic adult entertainments of considerable depth with a roster of ‘mature’ stars at the helm, by 1942 Metro’s product had segued into light-hearted ‘feel good’ family films with conservative moralizing and/or effervescent musicals that were undeniably the envy of the entire industry. For the most part, Mayer’s approach to movie-making served the studio well throughout the war. In fact, MGM under Mayer’s tutelage entered the most profitable period in its entire illustrious history. Alas, artistically speaking, Metro’s output increasingly became homogenized and, eventually, predictable – even serialized.  But in 1949 an even more unfortunate shift had occurred, in audience tastes. Mayer’s Victorian-based sensibilities, however well-intended, were unable to change or even keep up with the times. And furthermore, Mayer’s own time and interests had, in fact, become divided by a new love affair with glamorous widow, Lorena Danker (who would eventually become his second wife) and a burgeoning passion for race horses. Whenever Mayer was absent from his office the joke around MGM was that he could probably be found on Lot 13 – code for the Santa Anita race track where he kept his stable of prized thoroughbreds. Hence, when Nicholas Schenck ordered Mayer to find ‘another Thalberg’ in Dore Schary to fill this void, Mayer begrudgingly accepted him on Schenck’s terms – a decision he would rue very shortly.
Mayer did not like Schary. In terms of cinematic tastes as well as political ambitions they were at opposite ends of the spectrum; Mayer’s conservatism and penchant for movie glamour clashing with Schary’s liberalism and desire to produce low-budget ‘message’ pictures rather than big-time glossy entertainments. Battleground (1949) had been a passion project of Schary’s at RKO, a studio where he had been afforded unprecedented autonomy to pursue and make the kind of movies he wanted until its acquisition by Howard Hughes. Now, as Vice President of the grandest motion picture studio in the world, Schary pushed Battleground through despite Mayer’s strenuous objections. Mayer firmly believed no one would want to see a movie about the beleaguered bastards of Bastogne; particularly one as grimly depicted in Robert Pirosh’s screenplay that did not flinch from the cynicism of its men nearly beaten in their resolve to see the war through. In retrospect, Battleground is probably one of the truest movies ever made about this chapter in WWII. The actors brought together and interspersed with real soldiers were put through a rigorous boot camp under director William A. Wellman, who then encouraged a four-star general to look over ‘his troops’. It gave Wellman great pride when the general confessed that, in full regalia, he could not discern the actors from the soldiers. “Bill Wellman was a tough hombre,” costar Ricardo Montalban later recalled, “He wanted to make it as real as possible.” To this end, one of MGM’s cavernous sound stages was refrigerated, a snow-making machine brought in and vast quantities of dry ice dumped into tanks of hot water to simulate a perpetually dense mist. The effect proved uncanny. Most of Battleground is, in fact, filmed indoors despite the fact almost all of it appears to be taking place in the bleak and remote forests of France during an extremely cold winter.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect about Battleground is that apart from Van Johnson, decidedly cast in a very different role than was usual during his tenure at the studio, the film contains virtually no bona fide stars, but rather an adept roster of very talented second string contract players; Guy Anderson, Bruce Cowley, Don Taylor, Richard Jaekel, Jerome Courtland and Marshall Thompson. True enough, Battleground also prominently features the likes of John Hodiak, George Murphy, Ricardo Montalban, Leon Ames and James Whitmore – all well-established by this time in the minds of cinema goers and easily identifiable at a glance. Yet, none of the aforementioned was considered an A-list ‘name above the title’. And Battleground affords virtually none such status before its own title credit, emblazoned in bold-type-faced letters underscored by composer Lennie Hayton’s rousing march; itself tinged with a hint of the damned. War is hell: this much by 1949 all of America knew too well - either from the direct loss of a loved one overseas or by the proliferation of war stories shared by those who had survived the bloody conflict. Yet, until that mass influx of returning war heroes, the movies had remained quietly circumspect about revealing the totality of the deluge. While war-time propaganda films had produced a mountainous back catalogue of triumphant ‘we shall overcome/onward Christian soldier-esque’ narratives exaggerating the valor in fighting for America’s beliefs and freedom abroad, these had been translated inside the local Bijou or grand movie palaces with more than a modicum of artifice that, at least in hindsight, utterly distilled the horrors and brutalities of war; perhaps to keep morale riding high, but also to shield those on the home front from the very real darkness and dangers their loved ones were facing a continent away. As far as the movies were concerned, it had been a very glamorous war.   
Battleground is undeniably one of the first movies to suggest a far more sobering truth. Paul Vogel’s cinematography is both high key and studio-bound. Yet, it remains largely void of MGM’s usual in-house frothy style; the stars made to look very cold, unkempt and dirty. These are not actors straight out of central casting, but harsh, weary and thoroughly exhausted men of action, unshaven and prematurely aged by the horrific sights their eyes have beheld. By today’s standards, the fighting in Battleground is rather tame. Shot in B&W and under the stringency of the Production Code, the film is generally absent from the stark grotesqueness of bloodshed and disembowelment in a soldier’s calling. Yet, Battleground does not shy away from the genuine terror and uncertainty – the intrigue and disillusionment of its fighting men – the deceptions and humiliations faced, narrowly averted and ultimately conquered, though hardly with a flourish of victory. No, Battleground is frank and, at times, uncompromising in its revelations about the war; and very honest in its depiction of those gritty living conditions and the unlikely camaraderie that bind, yet occasionally grate on the bond and valor between its long-suffering warriors. And the actors alike seem to be channeling a newfound realism in their performances. There is a wounded, brittle, penetrating look caught in their eyes; less reactive via the craft of ‘acting’ and more a reaction to some memory triggered by life to motivate their actions and reading of the sparsely written dialogue. There is more than a modicum of substance in all this sweat, overseen by Wellman’s voracious appetite to achieve a heightened sense of ‘realism’ while still occasionally maintaining at least some of Metro’s ensconced precepts for A-list entertainment a la the kind Mayer might have preferred.          
Our story commences in mid-December 1944. Jim Layton (Marshall Thompson) and his buddy, William J. Hooper (Scotty Beckett) are fresh-faced, bright-eyed replacements assigned to separate companies in the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Observing the soldiers being led in their vigorous training by Sgt. Kinnie (James Whitmore), Layton cannot contain his own spirit of adventurism – that ridiculous folly of youth, unfathomable in absence of any firsthand experiences in battle. In many ways, Layton’s initial view of the war is that gleaned from the movies he’s undoubtedly seen before becoming a soldier; as a grand and glorious declaration of valor extraordinaire for which he too has come to do his part but is about to receive a very frosty reception indeed. For the men in his company have endured the perils and do not share in his illusions. The company had in fact been told they were all heading off to Paris; a trip diverted much to the bitter chagrin of Holley (Van Johnson) who is already recuperating from a wound. Layton is not made very welcome at base camp nor even on the march, the newbie bounced around and rather ignored by his regiment. The men are understandably bitter as they are driven to front once more to face the foe who is attempting a breakthrough at Ardennes. The company spends the night in Bastogne, a war-ravaged town where they are encouraged by a local, Denise (Denise Darcel) to spend the night under her hospitality. Holley takes an immediate interest in the girl; she, slyly reciprocating his advances though never allowing their flirtation to progress beyond a wink or whimsical “Bonjour, soldier.”
The next morning while the rest of the company is still asleep, Holley sneaks out to the adjacent chicken coop to swipe some eggs he hopes to turn into an omelet. Regrettably, Sgt. Kinnie makes it known that the orders are for the 101st to dig in on the outskirts of town immediately. The troops march under the cover of a dense fog that has descended, constantly under the threat of annihilation from German bombers flying overhead. Base camp is set up in a remote forest on the outskirts of Bastogne. But before the soldiers can settle in for the night they are told of an immediate change of plans to yet another location.  Holley, Layton, and Kippton (Douglas Fowley) are assigned to stand guard at a roadblock where they encounter a patrol of German soldiers disguised as American G.I.s. Layton allows them to pass but will come to regret his decision when the company learns that a nearby bridge has been destroyed as a result. In the morning, the entire squad awakens to a heavy winter storm. No one is particularly pleased except for Roderigues (Ricardo Montalbán) who, having come from Los Angeles and thus never experienced snowfall, is frankly amused by its novelty, diving headlong into drifts and practicing his baseball curve with snowballs. Pop Stazak (George Murphy) who has been awaiting a ‘dependency discharge’ that ought to have come even before the company pulled out of base camp, at last receives news that it has been granted. Unfortunately, the Germans have cut off all roads leading back. Thus, Stazak is forced to remain and fight. Layton learns that Hooper was killed in an ambush the night before. Enemy artillery pummels the camp causing Bettis (Richard Jaeckel) to panic and run away.
In the meantime, Kinnie sends out a patrol; Holley, Roderigues, and Jarvess (John Hodiak). The mood between these three is jovial at first; Roderigues pitching snowballs into the forest and calling out plays as though they were all at a baseball game. Holley and Jarvess amusedly look on until one of the errant snowballs is returned with a volley made from the bushes. The emerging company is dressed like American G.I.’s but Holley instantly recognizes one of them as the Nazi soldier Layton allowed to pass the night before. In the resulting skirmish Roderigues is wounded by machine-gun fire. Unable to make it back to base camp, Holley digs a hole for Roderigues beneath the wreckage of a jeep and half-buries him inside with a blanket, promising to return as soon as the coast is clear. Unfortunately, it takes several hours for Holley and Jarvess to make good on their rescue by which time Roderigues, bleeding badly, has already frozen to death. During yet another skirmish Sgt. Wolowicz (Bruce Cowley) is wounded in the shoulder. He appoints Holley as the new squad leader before being carried off on a stretcher, along with Standiferd (Don Taylor), who has come down with virulent bout of pneumonia. Holley partners up with Layton while Stazak joins Hansan (Herbert Anderson). 3rd Platoon is ambushed at dawn: Hansan, wounded and Holley loses his nerve. But before he can run away Holley is joined by Layton whose blind-sighted faith breeds shame and then anger within Holley for even having considered abandoning his company.  Girding his resolve, Holley leads a flanking counterattack that captures the Germans, but not before Jarvess’ partner, Abner Spudler (Jerome Courtland), a backwoods hick whom Jarvess rather detested, is killed while attempting to put on his wet boots.
Returning to Bastogne, Holley and the others discover Bettis on K.P. duty. While scarfing down a hot meal Holley shows his indifference to an old woman rummaging through their trash for something to eat. His callousness angers Jarvess. Meanwhile Holley discovers that Layton has spent the night with Denise. Amidst the interminably bitter cold and persistent fog, and with their supplies and morale dwindling by the hour, the men are gathered together for an impromptu Christmas sermon, in which the Chaplain (Leon Ames) delivers a profoundly moving benediction; one unfettered by religious fervor but imbued with the spirit of hope nonetheless. That night the Luftwaffe launches their most aggressive attack yet. Bombs decimate Bastogne and Denise is killed. The ‘walking wounded’ are recalled to defend the town but Bettis is killed by a collapsing house shaken during another explosion. Just as the situation looks hopeless the clouds part, allowing Allied fighters to attack while C-47 transports drop badly needed supplies into Bastogne, enabling the 101st to hold their position indefinitely. In the final moments, Kinnie announces to Holley and the rest of his men that he has been instructed to lead them to the rear for a well-deserved rest. The company marches home, their morale restored by Kinnie’s chant as they pass reserves marching toward the front to take their place; the theater of war goes on. 
Battleground is a movie that arguably could only have been made under Dore Schary’s aegis. L.B. Mayer had, in fact, vehemently opposed the project as Howard Hughes at RKO before him. The difference was that Schary had been given the authority by Nicholas Schenck to pursue whatever projects he preferred at MGM. As VP in Charge of Production he had complete authority to override Mayer’s decisions. In hindsight, Schary’s thirst for ‘message pictures’ like Battleground marks the beginning of the end for MGM as the world leader in entertainment. Within a year of its release, Mayer would be ousted from power, Schary assuming absolute control. It was an ill fit and a very short run, capped off by Schary’s disastrous production of Raintree County (1957) – the most expensive movie ever funded by a major studio at that time and a colossal critical, financial and artistic flop for all concerned.  In many ways, Schary was woefully miscast; his zeal for darker, moodier, low budget fare in a constant clash with MGM’s ensconced glamour and star system. Miraculously, Battleground is one of Schary’s personally supervised pet projects that also provided a spectacular windfall for the studio. It’s easy to see why. The film, while arguably retaining an air of the artful, is nonetheless truthful to the harsh realities of war; its stars playing to the strengths of a more intuitive verisimilitude that rarely appears staged; as in the sequence where Van Johnson’s Holly attempts to teach Denise how to dance and falls back on some moves we have seen him perform in Till The Clouds Roll By (1946). Yet, for the most part, Battleground acquires an uncanny patina of truth, something most war movies from this vintage genuinely lack. Shooting in B&W gives Battleground its newsreel quality; but Wellman – a veteran of WWI and one tough bugger besides – knows exactly the tone to strike and reaches into the depths of an unease and uncertainty likely to have struck a chord with returning soldiers.
Yet, it is the actors who manage the biggest coup of all; their performances utterly void of pretense or even the art of pretend. Makeup can only take the illusion so far. We have all seen actors in war movies ‘looking the part’ but woefully out of touch with the lost and embittered sentiment of the moment. But everyone in Battleground seems to have lived the war, or at least had its experiences scourged into them by director William Wellman’s unflinching and uncompromising viewpoint. War is hell. Wellman has imparted this message on his players and they, in turn, successfully convey it for the audience without embellishment. The result is a war picture that distinctly feels like it is happening now rather than being staged for the camera’s benefit then and having thus aged and dated since. While Dore Schary’s brief tenure at MGM was arguably marred by more deliberate misfires than legitimate successes, at least with Battleground he gave us a movie to reveal his strengths and his purpose with restrained poignancy, absolute honesty and an exceptionally keen ability to place his finger on the pulse of the public’s changing appetite. Any way you slice it, Battleground remains a remarkable screen achievement.
The Warner Archive’s (WAC) Blu-ray is, in a word, marvelous, rectifying a barrage of sins committed on their former DVD. Battleground was shot mostly under natural lighting conditions. Blu-ray’s higher bit rate captures every subtle nuance in Paul Vogel’s bleak and frigid-appearing cinematographer. The image retains its slightly tarnished ‘newsreel’ quality, the dinginess distinct and palpable. Age-related artifacts that once plagued the DVD have been eradicated and film grain, appearing clumpy and digitized on the aforementioned, has taken on a refined characteristic on the Blu-ray. Wow and thank you!!! Fine details in close-ups, medium and long shots look superb. The interspersed footage of actual WWII newsreels is transparently obvious, as it should be (audiences more sophisticated than we then did not seem to mind this use for a short shrift summary to connect dramatic passages…neither should we). WAC has truly given renewed life to another of their deep catalog assets and we sincerely give thanks for the effort. The audio is DTS 2.0 mono and more than adequate. Extras are limited to two unrelated vintage short subjects and a theatrical trailer.  If WAC keeps this level of quality up for their upcoming spate of release yet to be announced, 2017 is going to be a banner year for classic movie lovers everywhere. Here’s to hoping, anyway! Bottom line: highly recommended! 
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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