Battleground (1949): William Wellman’s Oscar-Winning WWII Drama, Starring James Whitmore

One of the more serious and harshest WWII films to have come out of Hollywood, William Wellman’s “Battleground” centers on the crucial Battle of the Bulge by depicting the ordeal of a platoon of men lost in the fog during the Ardennes winter.

Though shot on the back lot of MGM, the black-and-white movie seemed realistic by the standards of the time. The film occupies a special footnote in film history. Producer Dore Schary had to fight MGM’s honcho Louis B. Mayer to make the film, which, despite the latter’s fears, proved to be a bonanza at the box-office and a critical favorite too; Schary became MGM’s head of production a year later, when Mayer was ousted.

The squad represents a cross-section of men, including Holley (Van Johnson), a wisecracking womanizer “inconvenienced” by the war, and Jarvess (John Hodiak), a concientious journalist turned soldier, and Roderigues (Ricardo Montalban), a Mexican-American from California who experiences the first sight of snowfall, which reducs him to a boy frolicking in the flakes..

James Whitemore received a Supporting Actor Oscar momination for playing a tobacco-chomping, frozen-footed sergeant.

The sharply observed screenplay by Robert Pirosh benefits from his own personal experience at Bastogne.

Many critics detected references, both manifest and latent, to other war films.  By 1949, so many war movies were made that intertextuality was inevitable.  Thus the film’s humor recalled the movie “What Price Glory?” the eloquence reminded of “journey’s End,” the pathos sent viewers back to reexamine “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the adventurism recalled “Hell’s Angels,” and the prevailing sentiment might have been inspired by “The Big Parade.”

In its depiction of a diverse group of soldiers and their harsh daily survival, “Battleground” served as blueprint for many later War movies, including two of the best Vietnam War sagas, Oliver Stone’s 1986 Oscar-winning “Platoon” and the 1987 “Hamburger Hill,” among others.

MGM top grossing picture, Battleground was released on November 12, 1949, and became one of the most popular films of the year, earning over $5 million of box-office receipts.

Oscar Nominations: 6

Picture, produced by Dore Schary

Director: William A. Wellman

Supporting Actor: James Whitmore

Story and Screenplay: Robert Pirosh

Cinematography (b/w): Paul C. Vogel

Oscar Awards: 2

Story and Screenplay


Oscar Context

In 1949, “Battleground” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with another WWII movie, “Twelve O’Clock High,” Wyler’s melodrama “The Heiress,” Mankiewicz’s witty satire “A Letter to Three Wives,” and Robert Rossen’s poignant political expose, “All the King’s Men,” which won.

The winner of the Best Director Oscar was Mankiewicz and of the Supporting Actor Dean Jagger for “Twelve O’Clock High.” The Editing Oscar went to Harry Gerstad for the boxing drama, “Champion.”

Running time: 118 Minutes