TCM’s star of the day is Van Johnson, and my film pick for the actor is Battleground, which airs today at 8:00 P.M. (EST).
Battleground follows a company of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division in the besieged city of Bastogne, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. The squad faces many hardships in an especially harsh winter; they’re low on fuel, rations, and ammunition, and the thick fog surrounding them prevents their relief by Allied air support. As they wait for the clouds to break, the soldiers try to keep their morale up while evading attacks from the Germans nearby.
Aside from a couple of details, Battleground is a highly accurate account of the Siege of Bastogne during World War II. Screenwriter Robert Pirosh based the story on his own experiences as an infantryman during the Battle of the Bulge. Some scenes in the film, such as Mexican-American soldier Roderigues (Ricardo Montalbán) never seeing snow before the war, seemed like they were played up just for entertainment value, but they actually did happen and were based on real incidents. The film’s most inauthentic quality is where it was filmed. While there was some location shooting done in northern California, Oregon, and Washington state, Battleground was almost entirely filmed on the MGM backlot.
Leading this fantastic cast is Van Johnson as Holley, a sardonic PFC. Here he gives a great performance for one of the best characters he ever got to play, proving he could do more than just play the amiable romantic lead. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, he embodied the boy-next-door and often starred in MGM musicals and war dramas playing good-natured soldiers. Johnson himself once commented on how often he played soldiers: “I remember finishing one [film] Thursday morning with June Allyson and starting a new one Thursday afternoon with Esther Williams. I didn’t know which branch of the service I was in!” Though Johnson never received any accolades throughout his film career, he always gave good performances that allowed him to show off his talent while also not taking the spotlight away from his co-stars, and this skill of his couldn’t be more evident than in Battleground. This article remembers him as “a better actor than Hollywood usually allowed him to be.”
Battleground was the second top-grossing film of 1949, and it was also MGM’s largest grossing film in five years. Along with great commercial success, the film was well-received critically and garnered six Oscar nominations, including ones for Best Director and Best Picture. The film won two Academy Awards for Best Black-and-White Cinematography and Best Story and Screenplay.
While Battleground has a fair share of action sequences as any other war film, this one stands out for its focus on the soldiers. Released a few years after the end of World War II, the film also strays from sentimentality and has a more realistic approach to how vulnerable the soldiers often felt in the midst of battle. The film really relies on its cast to sell the camaraderie between the soldiers, and the actors really have a wonderful repartee with each other. Along with Van Johnson, stand-outs in the cast include John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalbán, George Murphy, and James Whitmore (who received an Oscar nomination for his performance here). To me, Battleground is one of the best war films ever made, not just for its authentic depiction of the war itself, but for imbuing it with a true sense of humanity.
I wrote this as a part of the 2016 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, where bloggers are celebrating the channel’s honorees and movies playing throughout the month. Click the banner below to read more posts!