'BATTLEGROUND'
&
'BATTLE OF THE BULGE'
TWO MOVIES ON 'THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE'

Two movies about the Battle of the Bulge which are of particular interest, and I like to share with you are; 'Battleground' (1949) and 'Battle of the Bulge' (1965). The pictures are far apart from each other. The first is more like a play which focuses on the characters, the second is a spectacle with tank battles and more interaction between the American and German situation. There are more movies around the theme of the Battle of the Bulge and the TV-series 'Band of Brothers' spends a whole two ours of survival of the 101st Airborne Division during the battle for Bastogne in December 1944. But, as you will see on the coming page, one movie stood on the base of 'Band of Brothers' and the movie 'Saving Private Ryan', and that was,….

'Battleground'

Writer of 'Battleground', Robert Pirosh was a Sergeant in the infantry in 1944 and was posted in Bastogne. His involvement during the battle shines through in the details which are popping up all around in this movie. Dore Schary from RKO saw potential in the story and was willing to produce it. To protect this project from other studio’s, it was kept secret and the phony title 'Prelude to Love' was given to the upcoming shoot. But the owner of the studio, the eccentric Howard Hughes, had his doubt if the public was waiting for this story, the war had just ended, and he pulled the plug out of the project. Schary left a short time later and went to MGM and took 'Battleground' with him.

'Well men,... they are not pleased with the script,...'

Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM was also sceptic, (Mayer had refused to lent actors to RKO for this project) but gave the green light to Schary. William Wellman was pointed director of the movie. He was not a unknown director to this genre. In 1945 he made 'The Story of GI Joe'. A picture which followed the struggle of an ordinary American infantry unit in Europe, seen through the eyes of a war correspondent. General Eisenhower called 'The Story of GI Joe' the best war movie he had seen, ever! Veterans agreed with Eisenhower, and so the Academy, Robert Mitchum won an Oscar for his performance.

Garby (James Arness) in his foxhole

Robert Pirosh was not a member of the 101st Airborne Division, but he describes the exploits of this unit, which concentrates around the 3rd Battalion of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment. We follow this unit in their defence Bastogne. To pick this unit had a reason. The 327th GIR was the unit that received the German delegation to negotiate the surrender of the American troops (this was declined with a firm, ‘NUTS’). Every aspect of the Battle of the Bulge comes around, even the Germans dressed and speaking like American GI’s operating behind the Allied lines (this is the only minor mistake in the movie, these commando’s were operating further up north).

German officer come to negotiate a surrender by the paratroopers,…
(and receive the famous answer; 'NUTS')

Battleground is not an action packed movie, it is more drama of human tragedy. We follow a young trooper who gets the in’s and out’s from the tired veterans. We see this young trooper, Pvt. Jim Layton (played by Marshall Thompson), later becoming a famed actor in the TV-series 'Daktari') smoking his first cigarette, and firing his weapon for the first time in anger. Even death gets a face 'Battleground', when a soldier dies in agony and is crying for his mother. Steven Spielberg used a couple of the scenes mentioned above for his epic movie 'Saving Private Ryan'. That the GI’s were coming from all kind of backgrounds, from a city boy, a journalist, a Mexican-Amercan, a farmer hick, was also theme that Spielgberg used again in his picture. But it was not all drama, there was room for humour. Van Johnson ('Thirty Seconds over Tokio') who plays the part of private Holley, is constantly in the process of cooking eggs in his helmet, but every time he is disturbed, and finally gives it up.

Holley (Van Johnson) looks if his eggs are okay

'Battleground' was shot in black and white, so original footage could be used in the movie. The Germans speak their own language, which gives the picture more authenticity. At some points the Germans are necessarily talking ‘English’ ('Waz iz diz, 'NUTZ'?', just as the infiltrating ‘American’ Germans). The dialogues are from 1949, and are therefore of a descend nature, far from real in 1944. In the struggle for life, the words used were often foul, but the makers are forgiven, because of the powerful emotions of 'Battleground'.

Notice the correct markings on the helmet of 327th GIR.
To the right, behind 'Pops' (George Murphy) stands Pvt. Jim Layton (Marshall Thompson)

For more authenticity, 20 former paratroopers who were in Bastogne at the time, were hired. They would train the actors and were used as extra’s. The scene shows the message the makers had in mind,…; When rooky Layton finds out his friend is nearby with another outfit, he goes out to look for him. When he arrives, he is informed that his friend is killed. But the Sergeant thanks Layton that the trooper now has a name. Shocked Layton reacts; 'You didn't even know his name.' The Sergeant responds: 'We didn't even find his dog tags!'

Van Johnson (Holley) far from happy in his foxhole

The producers of the movie were afraid that the critics would kill the picture, but it was received above expectations. It was even nominated for six Academy Awards (Oscars). There was a nomination for James Whitmore for best male support, and also for Best Movie, Best director, Best Editing. But only two were awarded, for Best black and white Cinema photography (Paul C. Vogel) and Best Script and Story (Robert Pirosh). Years later, no such awards were there for the movie, 'Battle of the Bulge'!

On their way to the Battle of the Bulge


'Battle of the Bulge'

It is one of the worst historic incorrect movies ever made. A couple of things can be blamed for this disaster, the director and the script. The ‘direction’ of director Ken Annakin is far from spotless. Strange for a director who was once involved with one of the best war movies ever produced, 'The Longest Day'. Every soldier that is shot in ‘Battle of the Bulge’ over-acts with such very dramatic exposure that one finds it after a few minutes hilarious. Also the many times that background projection is used, looks very cheap.

Hessler is shown the new model of the 'Königstiger'?
(obvious an M47 Patton tank)

The German Armored units drive around in post war M47 'Patton' tanks (isn’t it ironic?!), but can be forgiven. German tanks from 1944 were impossible to come by. But to show the M47 only with German markings, was far from convincing. With some simple ‘modifications’, a couple of wood paneling at the rear of the turret for example, and the 'Königstiger' was a bit more convincing in my opinion. Probably what held the producers back to convert these M47, was that they did not own these tanks but were hired from the Spanish army. The M47 was not that bad as a compromise, it was at least better than the Leopard tank used in the movie which was made 10 yesr later; 'A Bridge Too Far'.

With some simple paneling, the M47 could have looked more as a 'Königstiger'

Below a 'Königstiger',... which one looks the best?

Despite the ‘big’ names in the cast, such as Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas and Robert Ryan, the picture can not be brought to a higher standard, they all play flat characters, not very convincing. A great exception is Hans Christian Blech (who played once Pluskat in 'The Longest Day') as the ‘rebellion’ to Panzer Commander Hessler who protests against his ‘boss’, and brings a bit of ‘anti-war movie into this picture.

Left, Henry Fonda (Lt. Col. Kiley) and Robert Ryan (Gen. Grey)

As opposition to the ‘German’ tanks in ‘Battle of the Bulge, the M24 Chaffee was used by the producers. This was not that bad as a choice, because the M24 was present during the real battle in 1944/1945. But the M4 Sherman was the tank that was the most common sight during this period. But, just as the German tanks, the M4 was only in small numbers still in use in 1965, so a compromise was made in using the M24. Not a bad one, or it must be the dialog in combination with the M24, when Hessler orders his gunner to ‘put that ‘Sherman’ out of action’ (when it is clearly a Chaffee). The M24 brings some sort of humour into this picture, when Telly Savalas (Sgt. Guffy) his tank has its turret blown from the hull, it drives on as a drunken duck.

Left, Robert Shaw (Hessler) talks to Charles Bronson (Wolenski)

The title of the movie suggest that this picture is historic correct. An important part of the movie is the ’massacre at Malmedy'. Were the prisoners in 1944 killed at the spot they were captured, in the movie the prisoners are led into the woods and shot from out of a truck. The movie suggest that the main objective for the Germans were the fuel depots. This was a true fact, but not of the importance the films wants us to belief (that was, 'To drive a wedge between the American and British forces and head for Antwerp as the main objective'). For instance, in December 1944, Kampfgruppe Peiper was not even aware of the fuel depot near Stavelot.

Winter in the Ardennes (1944, above), and the sunny Spanish desert (1965, below)

Next disappointing ‘detail’, is the large tank battle which is fought in a (Spanish) desert. To make matters worse as a historic document, the weather has turned around in the movie! Started the offensive (December 16) with reasonable weather dry, it turned nasty very fast with snow and freezing temperatures (December 20). Low clouds and fog held supply drops and fighter-bombers on the ground, which only after a couple of days lifted. In the movie 'Battle of the Bulge' the sky is almost spotless every day (perfect for air support) and during the last tank battle, all the snow has, as by miracle, disappeared (but, I have to mention a scene with Henry Fonda in a spotters plane, who can’t see his objective because of the dens fog).

Finally,... everyone is put out of their misery

The finale of the picture (to stop the panzers from Hessler at the fuel depot), suggest that after that fight the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ was ended, which is pure nonsense of course. German troops could no longer bring up the strength to fight an offensive war, the roads were filled with wrecks, and the Allied opposition became fiercer and fiercer, and when the Allies could counter attack, it was done, but then it was already January 1945 in the Ardennes.

'German' tanks move abreast trough the woods?
In the woods of the Ardennes, this was impossible

‘Battle of the Bulge’ is exclusively English spoken, and that makes of the German roles, with their ‘accents’ a caricature. The only German in the movie is the Panzer Lied (Panzer Song) that is sung for their commander Hessler by his troops. Maybe if the picture had another title instead of ‘Battle of the Bulge’, and was not suggesting that is was historical accurate, than one could think that it is just one of the many war movies from that era (such as ‘Guns of Navarone’, ‘Where Eagles Dare’ etc.).

'We surrender,... you're right, this is a bad movie,...'

The conclusion is not the difficult,… Winner of these two movies is,…
'BATTLEGROUND'

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