Battleground (1949) Blu-ray Review: War is Hell, but This Is Far from That

Initially advertised to the public as “The First Great Picture of the Second World War!”, William A. Wellman’s 1949 epic Battleground certainly lives up to its own hype ‒ something very few films can truly lay claim to. Sporting an all-star cast that was trained by twenty veterans from the actual events the film’s story is based on ‒ a heroic assembly the history books dubbed “The Battered Bastards of Bastogne” ‒ the two-time Oscar winner from writer Robert Pirosh (who won a total of three awards for this work) lives to fight another day thanks to another spectacular catalogue release from the Warner Archive Collection.

One of MGM’s biggest films of the post-war era (the property was originally owned by RKO, but wound up being shelved, despite having a significant amount of money already invested into it), Battleground centers on a diverse group of GIs whose routine pit stop in the small town of Bastogne begins a grueling weeks-long session with the enemy as the Battle of the Bulge takes place around them. Taking the unlikely lead here is Van Johnson, who, having washed his hands of the Dr. Gillespie movies (and OK, that High Barbaree flick, as well), finally received his golden opportunity to shed his song-and-dance man image.

And he does so in as Van Johnson of a way as possible, returning to a running gag involving a helmet full of runny egg yolks when the premise permits him to, thus ensuring Pirosh’s previous work on the screenplays for the Marx Brothers’ two biggest hits at MGM was time well spent indeed. In fact, Pirosh’s knack for inserting a carefully timed quip or recurring theme can almost be construed as an inadvertant forerunner for the constant jokes we hear in many of today’s “serious” motion pictures; the difference being that it actually works here, allowing several of the story’s more significant characters to develop personalities.

Among the bastards who will soon be battered are John Hodiak (who, as fate would have it, would die shaving several years later), a young Ricardo Montalban (as the outfit’s token Latino), Marshall Thompson, James Whitmore (as the hard-as-nails sergeant), Douglas Fowley (as the cynic with the clattering false teeth ‒ the actor really did lose his teeth serving in the war), Leon Ames (in a prestigious cameo as a man of the cloth), Richard Jaeckel, and even a bit part by future Gunsmoke hero James Arness. The same war heroes of the 101st Airborne Division who helped train the stars of the film also appear in the film as extras.

Though filmed primarily in the studio (and at various outdoor locations throughout the Pacific Northwest), Battleground never feels like it has been removed from the actual war-torn locations it is set in. This adds to the believability factor considerably, and the heartfelt performances by the cast ‒ whether they’re playing suicidal soldiers or greenhorns who might as well be named “Dead Meat” ‒ effectively bring Pirosh’s polished screenplay to life. (And death.) And the WWII tale of hope in a time of hopelessness has never looked better than it has in this restored release from the Warner Archive Collection.

Remarkably, the beautiful transfer for this Blu-ray release was culled from a second-generation safety master, as the original negative had been lost to a fire in the late ’70s. The 1.37:1 print (the original aspect ratio) was scanned in 4k and subsequently cleaned-up during a year-long process, but the time and man-power spent in restoring this classic was well worth the effort, as this is undoubtedly Battleground has ever looked. The original mono English soundtrack (which was also taken from a safety master) has received a stalwart DTS-HD MA 2.0 makeover for this release, and English (SDH) subtitles are available.

Special features for this WAC release include the same goodies from the 2004 Special Edition DVD, albeit this time in glorious 1080p. The first of these is a classic Technicolor cartoon from Tex Avery, Little Rural Riding Hood (1949). Naturally, being from Mr. Avery, the short includes a character who is a wolf in every respect. Next up is Let’s Cogitate (1948), one of many black-and-white novelty shorts from producer Pete Smith, written, directed by, and starring Reefer Madness villain Dave O’Brien. The feature film’s original theatrical trailer, which includes a behind-the-scenes look at its devoted cast and crew in action, wraps this Battleground up.

Highly Recommended.

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Luigi Bastardo

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