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Battleground (Nov. 9, 1949)

Battleground
Battleground (1949)
Directed by William A. Wellman
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

A lot of reviews of Battleground claim it was the first World War II movie to portray servicemen as fully human characters who experience fear and doubt, and not just as inspirational patriotic figures.

Whoever thinks this has probably not seen very many World War II movies made between 1941 and 1945. While Americans have never been great at understanding our enemies, we have always been good at exploring the vulnerability, fears, and doubts that our own soldiers experience in combat. Everything from Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) to Lewis Milestone’s film version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) presented nuanced views of men under fire.

During World War II, Hollywood films about the war tended to lionize servicemen and depict America’s involvement as vitally necessary, but the better ones, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) (with script by Dalton Trumbo), were also great human dramas.

I think the most significant antecedents to Battleground were two other films about men in the infantry: The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and A Walk in the Sun (1945).

A Walk in the Sun was directed by Lewis Milestone, the man who directed All Quiet on the Western Front. It attempts to depict the mind of the American infantryman, through both dialogue and rambling internal monologues (a technique Terrence Malick would later use in The Thin Red Line). In keeping with the POV of the soldiers, the viewer is kept mostly in the dark about the larger significance of the violence, which punctuates the film in terrifying and confusing bursts.

The Story of G.I. Joe starred Burgess Meredith as embedded combat reporter Ernie Pyle and co-starred Robert Mitchum as the commanding officer of Company C, 18th Infantry. It was directed by William A. Wellman, the man who directed Battleground. Just like Battleground, the scenes of violence were swift and brutal, but the focus for most of the film was on the infantrymen themselves, and the boredom, extreme physical discomfort, and drudgery punctuated by fear that everyone who serves in combat experiences. Also like Battleground, most of the extras in The Story of G.I. Joe were actual soldiers who had served in combat.

Johnson and Hodiak

The big studios dumped most of their existing war movies in theaters not long after V-E Day and V-J Day in 1945, rightly assuming that the public had little interest in war movies once the war was over. In the few years that followed, plenty of movies dealt with veterans’ homecomings (The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946, was the finest of these films), but I’m hard pressed to think of any American films from this period that directly dealt with the experience of combat. The only one I can think of is Mervyn LeRoy’s Homecoming (1948), but all of the fighting in that film was just the backdrop for a passionate and illicit romance between Clark Gable and Lana Turner.

So Battleground was unique in that it was a return to films about World War II that focused on the combat experience. Producer Dore Schary brought the project with him to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when he left RKO Radio Pictures. It was a passion project for him, and he really had to fight to get it to the screen, since MGM head Louis B. Mayer believed that the public was still tired of war films.

Schary’s persistence paid off. His tribute to the “battered bastards of Bastogne” was a huge hit with audiences, and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. (It took home two Oscars, one for Best Story and Screenplay, and one for Best Cinematography, Black & White.)

As I said earlier, Battleground is firmly in the tradition of humanistic portraits of ordinary soldiers like The Story of G.I. Joe and A Walk in the Sun, but it does go further than any films made during World War II depicting how scared many ordinary infantrymen really were, and how strongly they could desire to be far, far away from the fighting.

One character in Battleground is counting the days until he rotates out of the Army, and is furious when he’s told that they’re surrounded by the Germans, and he’s not going anywhere. But typically of the film, he steels his courage and eventually manages to make jokes about how the Germans are committing war crimes by shooting at him, a civilian. Another character has a full set of false teeth, which he loses and then tries to be given medical leave for a few days. (That character is played by Douglas Fowley, who really did lose his teeth in an explosion while serving on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)

At one point in the film, two soldiers retreat and have to leave behind a wounded man, who hides himself from the Germans by crawling under the wreck of a jeep and covering himself with snow. The film never depicts any of the men’s acts as cowardly; they are badly outnumbered, and doing anything else would have been suicide for all of them.

The Oscar-winning screenplay of Battleground was written by Robert Pirosh, who served as a master sergeant with the 35th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge. Pirosh based his script partly on his own experiences, but the film details the exploits of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, so Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard, who had been the deputy divisional commander of the 101st at Bastogne, served as technical advisor. More than a dozen veterans of the 101st appeared as extras in the film and worked with the actors to ensure accuracy. (The film is relatively accurate except for a plot about German soldiers moving through the lines who are disguised as Allied soldiers, but this can be forgiven in the interest of creating suspense and tension. It is, after all, “only a movie.”)

SPAM

The actors are all great, and many of them had actually served in combat. James Whitmore, who plays Sgt. Kinnie and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, served in the Marine Corps in World War II. James Arness, who would go on to star in the 20-year run of Gunsmoke on TV, has a small role in the film, and was the most decorated soldier among the cast. (Arness was severely wounded at Anzio, and received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars.)

Consequently, Battleground is one of the most authentic World War II movies you will ever see, even though it might not seem that way to a viewer who has been weaned on the bloody CGI horrors of 21st-century war movies. However, if you’re conversant in the language of film, and can read what is being written on and off the screen, there’s one sequence that’s as brutal as anything you’ll ever see in a war film. Our heroes are surprised by German troops and in a fast-moving sequence, Ricardo Montalban rips a German soldier’s throat out with his teeth, Van Johnson stabs a German soldier to death with his bayonet, and John Hodiak bashes in the skull of a German soldier with the stock of his rifle.

I’ve read reviews of Battleground that refer to it as an “anti-war film.” I don’t know if this point of view springs from Steven Spielberg’s ridiculous assertion, made around the time that the philosophically incoherent Saving Private Ryan (1998) was released, that “every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie,” but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Although very few Hollywood films can simply be called “pro-war” films, a truly “anti-war” film would have to condemn any kind of armed conflict and celebrate pacifism as a viable and noble alternative. A truly “anti-war” film could not depict death and destruction in a highly aestheticized way, like Apocalypse Now (1979). And it could not celebrate the value of brotherhood under fire, as do Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down (2001). No film that celebrates soldiers nobly putting their lives on the line for the greater good can ever be called an “anti-war movie,” any more than The Passion of the Christ (2004) can by called an “anti-crucifixion movie.”

I’m not condemning Battleground because it’s not an anti-war movie. I even thought the short, moving scene in which an Army chaplain explains why he thinks America’s involvement in the war is vitally necessary was one of the best bits of the movie.

But today is Memorial Day, and I think it’s worth considering, as we honor the sacrifice of people who laid down their lives overseas, that no war movie can ever replicate the experience of combat. No matter how realistic, the viewer is watching from a position of safety. And every war film is a tale told by survivors. The dead no longer have a voice.

Border Incident (Oct. 28, 1949)

Border Incident
Border Incident (1949)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

If you think that Mexico-U.S. border security and illegal immigration are relatively new issues, check out Anthony Mann’s Border Incident. Watching it today, it’s remarkable how familiar the social and political backdrop feels.

Border Incident is a fictional film, but it’s a composite of actual cases. It begins with the stentorian narration that opened nearly every docudrama from the 1940s, and explains how important migrant labor from Mexico is to the U.S. agricultural industry. The narrator goes on to say that while the vast majority of Mexican farm workers play by the rules, wait their turn, and arrive in the United States with working papers, some go through back channels and slip across the border in order to work illegally.

In Border Incident, Mexican and U.S. law-enforcement agencies join forces not to combat illegal immigration but to protect illegal immigrants who are being victimized in the lawless borderlands. (Police officers going undercover to protect illegal immigrants was also the subject of Joseph Wambaugh’s 1984 nonfiction book Lines and Shadows, which I highly recommend.)

The police officers on the front line of the operation are Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) and Jack Bearnes (George Murphy). Pablo and Jack have worked together before and have an easy friendship, but they don’t get much time together onscreen in Border Incident.

George Murphy

Jack goes undercover as an American fugitive looking to flee the country and cozies up to the vicious leader of the gang who are robbing and killing illegal immigrants. The gang’s leader is named Owen Parkson and he’s played with understated relish by dependable heavy Howard Da Silva. (And speaking of dependable heavies, the great Charles McGraw is also on hand as one of Parkson’s lieutenants.)

Meanwhile, Pablo goes undercover as a migrant laborer looking to put himself at the mercy of the human traffickers who transport desperate men in dangerous and cramped conditions. Will his soft hands give him away? You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Mitchell and Montalban

Border Incident was one of the last films Anthony Mann made with cinematographer John Alton. Earlier in their careers, Mann and Alton made two of the most visually innovative noirs of all time; T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948).

I didn’t find Border Incident quite as involving as either T-Men or Raw Deal, but visually it’s every bit the equal of those films, maybe even better. It’s full of deep-focus photography that frames two people’s faces — one in the foreground and one in the background — in a way that dials up the tension and paranoia. Day-for-night shooting rarely looks good, but Alton makes it work in Border Incident, which is replete with stunning desert landscapes that are dominated by jagged mountains and that have a sense of claustrophobia despite taking place outdoors.

While Border Incident doesn’t have any of the “We don’t need no steenking batches” types of Mexican caricatures, aside from Montalban’s protagonist, the Mexican characters don’t have much depth. And it’s odd that a film with so much authenticity would cast an Anglo actor, James Mitchell, as the second most prominent Mexican character. (If you’re a fan of soap operas, you might know Mitchell as Palmer Cortlandt on All My Children.)

Minor quibbles aside, however, Border Incident is a top-notch entry in the film noir docudrama genre. It’s a tough, tense, violent film that features extremely impressive cinematography and continually mounting tension. It also made me wonder what Orson Welles’s masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958) would have been like if Ricardo Montalban (an actual Mexican) had been cast in the lead role instead of Charlton Heston (a fake Mexican).

Neptune’s Daughter (May 22, 1949)

Neptune's Daughter
Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
Directed by Edward Buzzell
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Neptune’s Daughter was the third and final pairing of Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban. The two previously starred together in Fiesta (1947) and On an Island With You (1948).

In Neptune’s Daughter, Williams plays Eve Barrett, a swimsuit designer, and Montalban plays a dashing South American polo player named José O’Rourke.

The film also stars MGM’s big comedic draw, Red Skelton, as masseur Jack Spratt, and the manic, wild-eyed Betty Garrett as Eve’s sister, creatively named “Betty Barrett.”

Neptune’s Daughter was the second time Skelton and Williams appeared together. The first was Bathing Beauty (1944). (They both appeared in the revue film Ziegfeld Follies, but in separate segments.)

I love Esther Williams. She’s beautiful, athletic, and charming. And the fact that she was a swimming star made her unique. I also like Betty Garrett, who plays essentially the same man-crazy role in Neptune’s Daughter that she played in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949). And Ricardo Montalban is Ricardo Montalban. He’s the smoothest Latin lover in Hollywood history.

Williams and Montalban

But I’m not totally sold on Red Skelton. I just don’t find him that funny. Plenty of his bits in Neptune’s Daughter are amusing, but I didn’t find them particularly uproarious, and I really don’t enjoy all his mugging for the camera.

The musical high point of Neptune’s Daughter is the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” by Frank Loesser. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song, but there was some controversy over whether it should be eligible for the 1949 Oscars, since Loesser wrote it in 1944 and had performed it at parties with his wife, Lynn Garland. Since it had never been performed “professionally” until its appearance in Neptune’s Daughter, it was deemed eligible and went on to win the Oscar. Loesser’s wife, however, was furious that her husband had sold it to MGM, since she considered it “their song.”

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is first performed by Montalban and Williams; he sings the “wolf” part and Williams sings the “mouse” part. It’s performed later by Betty Garrett and Red Skelton with the roles reversed; she is the aggressor and he is the shy one.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was used in the film because MGM’s censors decided that the lyrics of Loesser’s song “I’d Love to Get You (On a Slow Boat to China)” were too suggestive. (Which explains its presence in a film that takes place in sweltering heat.)

This is ironic, since “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has lyrics that are more more suggestive than the lyrics of “I’d Love to Get You (On a Slow Boat to China).” Parts of the song even border on suggesting date rape, an aspect of the song that was recently satirized by Key & Peele.

I think some of the lyrics to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” sound worse now than they were intended to. For example, the line “Hey, what’s in this drink?” suggests roofies nowadays, but at the time Loesser wrote the song it was probably meant to imply the sentiment, “Oh my goodness this is a strong drink.”

I think it’s a playful and seductive song, and the fact that Skelton and Barrett reverse the roles when they perform the song adds to the acceptability.

What I found totally unacceptable in Neptune’s Daughter, from a gender standpoint, is the unquestioned assumption that Esther Williams’s character will have to give up her swimwear design business — which she built herself — if she gets married. The idea that she could remain head of a successful company and also be a married woman is unthinkable.

But for the most part, Neptune’s Daughter is a fun, vibrant Technicolor extravaganza. For my money, anything with Esther Williams is worth watching.

Neptune’s Daughter will be shown on TCM on April 6, 2014.

On an Island With You (May 3, 1948)

On an Island With You was director Richard Thorpe’s fourth film to star the shimmering sea creature Esther Williams.

I didn’t get a chance to see the last film they made together, This Time for Keeps (1947), but I enjoyed On an Island With You a lot more than their second collaboration, the disappointing bullfighting drama Fiesta (1947), mostly because On an Island With You allows Williams to do what she did best — look stunning in and out of the water, and perform some spectacular water ballet numbers. (I’ve also never seen Thorpe’s first film starring Williams, Thrill of a Romance (1945) … what kind of an Esther Williams fan am I?!?)

In On an Island With You, she’s again paired with Mexican heartthrob Ricardo Montalban — her co-star in Fiesta (1947) — and also with Peter Lawford, who comes off as a real drip compared to the dashing Montalban.

This is too bad, since the audience is supposed to be rooting for Lt. Lawrence Y. Kingslee (Lawford), who fell in love with movie star Rosalind Rennolds (Williams) when he was serving in the South Pacific in World War II. Rosalind was doing a USO tour to raise the boys’ morale, and doesn’t even remember meeting Lt. Kingslee. She had too many brief romantic dalliances during the war to remember one more than any of the others, but for him it was the single most important event of his life.

As is all too common in movies from the ’40s, his romantic brio is so excessive it borders on stalking. During a break in the filming of Rosalind’s latest picture, Lt. Kingslee flies her away to the island where they met against her will. The rub is that real islands aren’t like islands in the movies. There are leeches and sinkholes, and when they’re away from the plane the natives steal the wheels. On the plus side, he remembers where he buried all the cans of Spam around the old Quonset hut where he used to bunk.

There’s a metafictional element to On an Island With You, since the film Rosalind is making with her fiancé, Ricardo Montez (played by Ricardo Montalban), is also called “On an Island With You,” and in all the spectacular dance numbers there are at least a few shots of the cameramen filming the action to remind you that they’re making a movie.

While I thought Lawford was miscast, there’s plenty of entertainment to be had in On an Island With You. Besides Williams’s luminescent screen presence and big water ballet numbers, Ricardo Montalban has some wonderful dances with Cyd Charisse — all high points of the film — and Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra are on hand for some good musical numbers. I especially liked Cugat’s tiny chihuahua.

Jimmy Durante has a big role in On an Island With You, too. He might even have more screen time than Lawford. I like Durante, but he’s not exactly the first person I want to see when I sit down to watch a Technicolor musical that takes place in the South Pacific.

Fiesta (June 12, 1947)

And introducing Ricardo Montalban.

When I sat down to watch Fiesta, those words in the credits floored me. I can’t conceive of what it was like to grow up in a world without Ricardo Montalban. His suave, white-suit-wearing Mr. Roarke, from Fantasy Island (1977-1984), is a mysterious character who was burned into my mind at a young age. Ditto for his insane and weirdly brilliant role as the villain of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Or his dapper and hilarious bad guy, Vincent Ludwig, in The Naked Gun (1988). Or his work as the pitchman for Maxwell House Decaf.

Maybe it was just the movies and TV shows that I watched, but Montalban seemed ubiquitous.

By the ’80s, he always appeared to be having fun with his “Latin lover” image, but he was never parodying himself. His smooth charm was undeniable, no matter what kind of ridiculous lines were coming out of his mouth. (Like claiming that decaffeinated coffee was “good to the last drop.”)

Richard Thorpe’s Fiesta wasn’t the first film to star Montalban. He’d already appeared in more than a dozen films in his native Mexico. But it was his first Hollywood film, and it was his introduction to American audiences. It was also an opportunity for Esther Williams to perform in a dramatic role that was very different from the roles that had made her famous in MGM’s “aquatic musicals.”

Williams and Montalban play twins, Maria and Mario Morales. Their father, Antonio Morales (Fortunio Bonanova), a former matador, always wanted a son to carry on his work in the ring. After confirming that he is indeed not going to have just a daughter, but rather twins, Morales proclaims his son “The future greatest matador in the whole world!”

Of course, things don’t work out the way Señor Morales expects. His son Mario is a gifted musician and composer who would much rather make music than wear the traje de luces (“suit of lights”) and fight bulls (even though he’s good at it). His daughter Maria, of course, is the one with the real desire to be a torero, but her gender makes such a thing unthinkable.

Mario is torn between his father’s plans for him and the interest that conductor Maximino Contreras (Hugo Haas) shows in his music. Eventually, Mario flees the ring when he finds out his father lied to him about a visit Señor Contreras made to their house. He does so out of anger, but his action is viewed as cowardice by the spectators. Naturally, Maria comes up with a plan to don the traje de luces and impersonate her brother in the ring.

Fiesta has the kind of shopworn plot and lifeless dialogue that one can suffer through if they’re merely the framework for a musical packed with great songs and exciting dance numbers. But while Fiesta is often classified as a musical, it’s not a really a musical. It’s a turgid, woodenly acted drama whose only high points are a handful of dance sequences.

If you like dancing, then Montalban’s numbers with Cyd Charisse (playing a character named Conchita) are worth seeing. (I especially liked the number they stomped out to “La Bamba,” the traditional Mexican song that Ritchie Valens later made famous.) The scene in which Mario hears one of his compositions played on the radio by Señor Contreras’s orchestra and listens in rapture before sitting down at the piano in the cantina to play along would be at home in a musical, but it’s an organic moment. There are no scenes in Fiesta in which the characters just break into song.

In short, it’s pretty lifeless, especially when compared with other Technicolor extravaganzas from MGM. Most of the cast isn’t very interesting to watch. The great silent star Mary Astor is wasted in a thankless role as Señora Morales. Montalban is enjoyable to watch, but Williams is terribly miscast. It’s not that she doesn’t look “Mexican” (you can see plenty of women who look like Esther Williams if you watch Spanish-language television). It’s that she looks nothing like Montalban, yet the audience is asked to believe that she is a convincing double for him when she dons the traje de luces and enters the ring. Her own stunt double is also a completely unconvincing facsimile of Williams during the bullfighting sequences. His muscular buttocks, lack of breasts, crotch bulge, muscular neck, and big ears are pretty difficult to confuse with Williams’s slightly different attributes.

I like Esther Williams a lot. She’s beautiful and appealing, not to mention a hell of a swimmer. But this was just the wrong role for her. Also, her “romantic” scenes with Jose “Pepe” Ortega (John Carroll) are dead on arrival.

Although the film begins with a statement of sincere thanks to the Mexican people, the production was a troubled one. The cinematographer, Sidney Wagner, and another crew member both died of cholera after eating contaminated street food. Esther Williams’s husband, Ben Gage, and makeup artist George Lane were both expelled from Mexico after a fight with a hotel employee. And a stuntman died of an infection he contracted after being gored in the groin by a bull.

The largest problem the production ran into had to do with bullfighting, which director Thorpe chose to depict in a sanitized fashion. For example, the first time we see Mario’s moves in the ring, he skirmishes with an uninjured bull who charges at him over and over as he dances around the ring and flourishes his cape, avoiding several near misses. Eventually the bull gets too tired to continue, and the fight is over.

During the bullfights in Fiesta, only the bullfighter’s life seems to be in danger. It is presented as a dangerous sport. In reality, the outcome of a bullfight is rarely in question, and it is less a sport than an artistic, ritualized slaughter in which the torero is judged according to his grace and style, not whether or not he kills the bull. (According to this article, which was published last year in The Guardian, only 52 matadors have been killed in the ring since the year 1700. There are myriad injuries, of course, which range from minor to spectacular. If you have a strong stomach, click here.) In Fiesta there are no banderilleros jamming spikes into the bull’s back, bleeding it out and tiring it. There is no taunting of the bull or clownish antics on the part of the other toreadors in the ring, like grabbing the bull’s tail and skiing through the dirt as the bull circles. And, most important of all, there is no killing of the bull with a single sword thrust — the estocada.

Bullfighting is inextricable from the national identity of most Spanish-speaking countries. The people of Mexico were already angry that their own toreadors could not star in the film, so the depiction of bullfighting as a bloodless spectacle added insult to injury. When Thorpe had finished shooting Fiesta, his unit manager Walter Strohm convinced him that the bulls used in the film should all be killed to assuage the anger of the Mexican people. Thorpe acquiesced, even though the bulls had cost $1,000 each, which is nearly $10,000 in today’s dollars.

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