How MGM's 'Battleground' Became an Unexpected Film Classic
To the film industry's surprise, recent World War II veterans craved movies that depicted the realities of combat, like 1949's "Battleground."

How MGM’s ‘Battleground’ Became an Unexpected Film Classic

By Mark Grimsley
June 2019 • World War II

Released in November 1949, Battleground tells the story of an infantry squad trapped in the besieged town of Bastogne in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. It won instant critical acclaim, including two Academy Awards. Yet the film fought an uphill battle just to be made. Conventional wisdom held that American audiences would not be interested in seeing a combat movie about the recently concluded conflict, and producer Dore Schary encountered a buzz saw of opposition from fellow executives when he first pitched the idea in early 1947. Undeterred, Schary enlisted the help of experienced screenwriter Robert Pirosh. The two began work on the project, disguised under the name Prelude to Love so that no one would suspect their true motives.

Early on, Schary and Pirosh settled on the Siege of Bastogne as the setting for the movie. They wanted to convey a picture of American soldiers holding out against formidable odds. Pirosh had been an American infantryman who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, though not at Bastogne. To reassure himself that he could tell the story of Bastogne accurately, he consulted with Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, who had been in temporary command of the 101st Airborne Division assigned to hold the town. “You were fighting under the same kind of conditions,” McAuliffe assured Pirosh. “You were just as cold, the fog was just as thick, the suspense was just as great. Go ahead and write it the way you feel it.”

Both Schary and Pirosh understood that a successful film would have to pass muster with an audience of civilians, who would expect to be entertained, and veterans, who would scoff at anything that did not accurately convey their lived experience. The resulting screenplay focused on a small infantry squad that battled the cold as much as the enemy and generally had no idea of the bigger picture.

Potential disaster loomed when business magnate Howard Hughes purchased their motion picture studio, RKO Pictures, and nixed the project. He had no interest in a war movie. Schary resigned in protest. But before leaving he persuaded Hughes to sell him the rights to Battleground, and it became Schary’s first project when he began work at MGM.

The demands of doing a movie that takes place almost entirely in a snowbound landscape largely precluded filming on an outdoor set at the studios, so Schary knocked down the walls between two sound stages and created a single massive indoor set. It was here that director William Wellman began principal photography in the spring of 1948; with the exception of a few exterior scenes, everything that appears on the screen was shot here. Pirosh gave each member of the ensemble cast a distinctive manner and idiosyncrasies. Private First Class Holley (Van Johnson) was an inveterate scrounger, Staff Sergeant Kinnie (James Whitmore) was forever spitting tobacco juice, and Private “Johnny” Roderigues (Ricardo Montalban) took a child’s delight in seeing his first snow. Other characters included a man who clicked his dentures to emphasize a point and a hayseed whose trademark phrase was “That’s for sure, that’s for dang sure!”

Civilian viewers had seen portrayals of a colorful squad of varied personalities before. But they had never heard the authentic cadence calls of army life, which abound in Battleground; nor had they seen the details of what it was like to keep warm in the snow and wind, or dig a system of fox holes only to be told to march to a new location as soon as it was complete. The battle sequences consist mainly of enduring shell fire or firing at an unseen enemy. Certain moments were almost inside jokes for the veterans in the audience. When Staff Sergeant Kinnie rousts the squad out of their barracks with the command, “Leave your cots and grab your socks,” only veterans would have recognized this as a cleverly camouflaged version of its vulgar real-life counterpart, “Drop your cocks and grab your socks!” And when a soldier pads off into the woods, carrying fliers dropped from a German aircraft demanding an American surrender, only veterans would have realized that he was going to use them for toilet paper.

Battleground was an unexpected combat film—anything but a slam bang shoot-’em-up filled with deeds of derring-do. Even its main firefight sequence shows the squad beating the Germans when Holley runs from the battle and then, shame-faced, turns back. His comrades mistake his move as leading a charge. “Things just happen,” one of them reflects. “Afterward you try to figure it out.” Ultimately, the film showed audiences what a combat soldier’s life was really like—and this, it turned out, was the basis for its success. Dore Schary’s gamble had paid off in a way the skeptics could have never imagined. ✯

This story was originally published in the June 2019 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here. 

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