William Wellman is a director I have long admired. He was a rogue, a character and a man who made many, many fine films. I'm sentimental about the man and his work dating back to Tuesday, July 9, 1974. On that date The Ontario Film Insitute hosted An Evening With William A. Wellman that included two of his best, the thoughtful movie about a lynching based on Water Von Tilburg Clark's novel, The Ox-Bow Incident and a story of displaced youth during the Great Depression, Wild Boys of the Road. The highlight of the evening was the entertaining presence of the director. It was a free evening of entertainment. My Dad read about it in the paper and asked if I would like to go. Would I? Sixteen years old, absolutely mad for classic movies and a night out with my dad!
"Wild Bill" Wellman wanted to direct every kind of movie there was, and I believe he did. Westerns (Track of the Cat), comedies (Nothing Sacred), crime pictures (The Public Enemy), et cetera. A WWI veteran, he seemed to have an affinity for stories of people facing adversity. He directed Wings, the first picture to win the Academy Award. He directed the well-regarded story of war correspondent Ernie Pyle in The Story of G.I. Joe. And he directed Battleground, a picture MGM didn't want to make in 1949. The reasoning was that nobody would want to see another war picture. If it's as good a picture as Battleground then, yes, people would want to see it. It was the idea of producer/writer Dore Schary and when the receipts and the awards piled up, he was made head of the studio.
Battleground is the story of one squad of the 101st Airborne Division. It is the epic Battle of the Bulge through the eyes of a few men - strangers, yet family. We see them through the eyes of rookie replacement Jim Layton (Marshall Thompson). The polished Sgt. Kinnie (James Whitmore), cocky Holley (Van Johnson), thoughtful Jarvess (John Hodiak), easy-going southerner Spudler (Jerome Courtland), all-round great guy Rodrigues (Ricardo Montalban), elder statesman "Pop" Stazak (George Murphy), whiner Kippton (Douglas Fowley) and others played by Richard Jaeckel, James Arness, Herbert Anderson and Don Taylor.
Layton grows up before our eyes. It is inevitable and not always pretty. Holley, too, for all his bravado grows through facing up to his own fears. James Whitmore was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Sgt. Kinnie. While we begin to see the emotional layers crack for the men, in Sgt. Kinnie we see this physically as the uniform becomes ragged and his boots are lost to rags. My feet hurt just thinking about him. Whitmore wanted his character to look like Pulitzer Prize Winner Bill Mauldin's Sadsack - and, does he ever!
The script of Battleground is by Bastogne veteran Robert Pirosh, who won an Oscar for his work. It's one thing to write what you know, but another to write as well as Pirosh did. He would be Oscar-nominated a couple of years later for his work on another war picture, Go for Broke! the story of an all Japanese-American platoon. He would also develop the television series Combat (1962-1967) as well as writing for every show from The Waltons and A Family Affair to Ironside and Bonanza.
A favourite line which typifies the movie for me is spoken by Jarvess (John Hodiak), who ran a newspaper with his wife back home. "Only one thing gets me. When you work on a newspaper, I'd get those wire releases and know I was the first person in town who had the news, all the news. I guarantee you my wife knows what's going on in Bastogne. All I know is what is going on in the 2nd squad of the 3rd platoon of I Company."
Battleground is an enthralling story and a fine example of an ensemble cast. All the elements mesh perfectly to entertain, educate and move the viewer.
The final scene of the movie, with fresh troops moving to the front and "our guys", their ranks depleted and their bodies broken, proudly marching back to Sgt. Kinnie's cadence count is iconic among war pictures, and chokes me up every time.
Recent passings: Van Johnson (1916 - 2008), Ricardo Montalban (1920 - 2009) and James Whitmore (1921 - 2009).