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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.

The Iron Curtain (May 12, 1948)

The Iron Curtain
The Iron Curtain (1948)
Directed by William A. Wellman
20th Century-Fox

William A. Wellman’s The Iron Curtain was the first appearance of Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney together in a film since Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). This really has no bearing on The Iron Curtain, but I love the movie Laura and Andrews and Tierney are one of my favorite screen couples, so it was fun to see them play completely different roles.

The Iron Curtain is the fictionalized tale of Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet code clerk who was stationed at the U.S.S.R. Embassy in Ottawa and discovered that American military secrets and other products of Soviet espionage were being transmitted through his office.

There is the obligatory text preceding the film that tells the viewer that all the documents presented appear exactly as they did in actual court records, as authenticated by the R.C.M.P.

This is a standard opening for a docudrama, which in the late ’40s was sort of a subgenre of film noir, with dramatic lighting, expressionistic camera angles, and subjective storytelling applied to true stories of espionage or miscarried justice, like The House on 92nd Street (1945), 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), Boomerang (1947), and Call Northside 777 (1948). These films used actual locations, documents, and occasionally even the actual participants in historical events to add sizzle to their “ripped from the headlines” plots.

When Gouzenko first arrives in Canada he’s the perfect apparatchik, devoted to Marxism and to the Communist Party. When one of his fellow Soviet embassy workers, Nina Karanova (June Havoc), shows him her spacious, well-decorated apartment, he berates her for her laxity and for being seduced by the trappings of Western decadence. But a chain of events conspires to force Gouzenko to experience some character development. His wife, Anna Gouzenko (Gene Tierney), joins him in Ottawa, and together they experience the friendliness and good hearts of their North American neighbors, and realize that they might have more in common with their “enemies” than they thought. At work, Gouzenko is haunted by the drunken recollections of Maj. Semyon Kulin (Eduard Franz), who murdered some of his own men to force others to “volunteer” for a mission during the war.

When Gouzenko discovers that he is passing classified information from the embassy back to Moscow — American nuclear secrets, the details of a supposedly secret meeting in Canada between FDR and Churchill, details of sleeper agents — he experiences a crisis of conscience, and has to decide if he should turn documents over to the Canadian Minister of Justice and put his life and the lives of his wife and child in danger.

The Iron Curtain is a slick, well-made thriller that doesn’t generate suspense through over-the-top elements like chases or shootouts, but rather through grounded, real-life elements like the threat of the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police.

When the story of Igor Gouzenko was originally covered by the media in February 1946, it was the beginning of public awareness of the Cold War. The revelation that our former allies were running a spy ring in North America had a profound impact that would last for decades. The Iron Curtain is the earliest film I’ve seen to tackle the looming Soviet menace, and it’s more tasteful and factually accurate than some of the outré Red Scare flicks the ’50s would give us.

Magic Town (Oct. 7, 1947)

Complaining that William A. Wellman’s Magic Town is built on a faulty premise is kind of like complaining that Cadbury Creme Eggs are too sweet, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Magic Town, which is written by frequent Frank Capra collaborator Robert Riskin, is about a public opinion pollster named Lawrence “Rip” Smith (James Stewart) whose small polling company has just gone out of business because of high overhead costs. To stay afloat, Rip starts looking for a mathematical miracle in order to conduct public opinion polls without nationwide coverage.

He finds the shortcut he’s been looking for in a little town called Grandview.

You see, Grandview has the exact same distribution of Republicans and Democrats, men and women, old and young, farmers and laborers, and so on, as the nation as a whole. In other words, Grandview thinks exactly the same way the entire United States does. Instead of exhaustive telephone polling of representative swaths of the nation, all Rip will need to do is find out what people in Grandview think, and he’ll be able to extrapolate the results.

The catch is that the people of Grandview can’t know what Rip is up to, otherwise they’ll become self-conscious, and it’ll kill the goose that lays golden eggs. So Rip and his partners, Ike (Ned Sparks) and Mr. Twiddle (Donald Meek), head for Grandview, where they pass themselves off as insurance men from Hartford, Connecticut. They’ll engage in stealth polling, pretending to offer insurance policies while they’re really making note of the current issues the citizens of Grandview are all too willing to sound off about.

Rip’s plan hits a snag as soon as he hits town, where he reconnects with an old friend from his days in the service — Mr. Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) — who is now principal of Grandview High School. The snag is pretty local girl Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman), who’s a civic crusader, and is constantly pushing to modernize the town and build a new civic center.

Rip’s “perfect” town and its “perfect” demographics can’t be altered in any way for his covert polling operation to work, so he opposes Mary’s plans. He tells the city council that Grandview is “A sturdy challenge to the evils of the modern era.” He encourages them not to modernize anything and not to change anything.

And herein lies the problem, and the reason I said that Magic Town is built on a faulty premise. Grandview supposedly perfectly mirrors the demographics of the United States as a whole, but it’s consistently represented as an idyllic Utopia, unchanging, and a refuge from the outside world. (It’s also oddly free of blacks and Jews.)

So Magic Town is less about a town that represents America in miniature than it is about one of the most enduring American myths — the sanctity and perfection of small-town life. Grandview doesn’t represent what America actually is, it’s what America wishes it was.

Rip finds happiness in Grandview. He and Mary fall in love. He and Hoopendecker relive old times. Rip coaches the boys’ basketball team and turns them into winners.

All this could have been funny, romantic, and charming, but the film persists with its idiotic plot about opinion polling. Eventually Mary finds out what Rip is really up to and “outs” him in the press. There follows a nationwide rush to move to this “mathematically perfect” town. The civic center is approved and the citizens of Grandview become full of themselves and start forming and selling their own opinions.

And just as Rip predicted, their self-consciousness destroys everything, and results in the following newspaper headline: “GRANDVIEW COMPLETES FIRST POLL. 79% Favor Woman for President. ‘RESULT RIDICULOUS!’ SAYS EXPERT.”

All the newcomers move out of the now not-so-magic town, but things don’t go back to normal. Grandview is in shambles, and it’s up to Rip to fix things.

Despite the weak story, I enjoyed all of the actors in Magic Town, especially Stewart. He’s been parodied and impersonated so many times that it’s easy to forget what a good actor he was. He didn’t always play good guys, but when he did, no one projected the same kind of sweetness, generosity, and earnestness.

Magic Town is sort of a “greatest hits” compilation of earlier, better films that Stewart starred in. There’s the same celebration of small-town life found in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and there’s even a scene in which Stewart gives an impassioned speech while being supported by a bunch of kids, just like in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). It’s nowhere near as good as either of those films, but it’s not without its modest pleasures, as long as you don’t think about it too hard.

Ernie Pyle’s “Story of G.I. Joe” (July 13, 1945)

StoryGIJoe
The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
Directed by William A. Wellman
United Artists

Ernie Pyle was a journalist for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. Long before the term “embedded journalist” entered the national consciousness, Pyle traveled with servicemen, writing about the war from their perspective. He had a conversational writing style, and attracted a huge following during World War II. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his work as a war correspondent. He was killed in combat in 1945.

William A. Wellman’s film Ernie Pyle’s “Story of G.I. Joe” stars Burgess Meredith as Pyle, and co-stars Robert Mitchum as Lt. (later Capt.) Bill Walker and Freddie Steele as Sgt. Steve Warnicki.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said it was the finest war film he had ever seen, and I tend to agree with him. Wellman is a superior craftsman. Not only is The Story of G.I. Joe one of the best war movies I’ve seen, its gripping scenes of combat have yet to be improved upon. For all the credit that Saving Private Ryan (1998) got for ushering in a new era of realism to the World War II film, watching this film reminded me that the horrors of war don’t necessarily need to be depicted in gruesome detail to be affecting. The first combat scene comes early in the film, when a German plane attacks the company on the ground, strafing them as they return fire with mounted machine guns and BARs. After the dust has cleared, there’s a low-angle shot of the men looking down, dejected and stunned, followed by Walker brusquely saying, “All right men, in the truck. Come on, make it snappy, the medics’ll take care of him.” As the men disperse, he says to Pyle, “First death’s always the worst.” The corpse is never even shown on the screen, but the impact is huge.

The battle scenes in the film are gripping. Walker and his men fight amidst bombed-out rubble, in close quarters, in the destroyed towns and cities of Italy. But the focus of the film is on the day-to-day lives of the men in the infantry. For most of the film, Warnicki carries a phonograph recording of his baby boy’s voice that he received in the mail, but he can’t ever seem to find a record player. The living conditions of infantrymen are unglamorous. The men are nearly always unshaven, wet, filthy, tired, and underfed. Mud, rain, and fatigue are a few of the running themes. Pvt. Robert “Wingless” Murphy (played by Jack Reilly) is constantly falling asleep on his feet. His sleepiness provides a few comic moments, but not without some sadness. When he marries a WAC and they go the “bridal suite” (a truck), he passes out immediately.

Meredith is the first actor billed, and a large part of the film is about Pyle’s relationship with the men he writes about. When a G.I. asks Pyle his age, he says, “Forty-three,” and crosses himself. The G.I. responds, “I’m twenty-six. If I knew I’d live to be forty-three, I wouldn’t have a worry in the world.” Pyle says, “Oh yes you would. You’d be just like me. Worrying about whether you’d get to be forty-four.” Meredith was actually 37 years old when he made this picture, but with his dyed white hair and bald pate, he looks older. He has a natural rapport with the men, but he doesn’t try too hard to be anyone’s buddy. In fact, in most scenes, he’s almost aloof. He’s also more soft-spoken than the real Pyle, who had a blunt, straightforward style, at least in the single piece of newsreel footage I’ve seen of him.

Pyle’s ordinariness is stressed. He learns that he has been awarded the Pulitzer from a couple of servicemen during mail call. He shrugs off their praise, then sits down at his typewriter to eulogize a man who has just died, and whom he thought of as a friend. “He was just a plain Hoosier boy,” Pyle writes. “You couldn’t imagine him ever killing anybody.”

I liked Mitchum in his supporting role in the 1944 film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (another excellent World War II film), but he’s even better here. The Story of G.I. Joe received four Oscar nominations, including one for Mitchum for best supporting actor. It was the only Academy Award nomination he would ever receive. He never won an Oscar. In The Story of G.I. Joe he displays effortless star power, even though the film is not a star vehicle for him.

Director Wellman was a fighter pilot in World War I, where he earned the nickname “Wild Bill.” Like many pilots, he had no use for the infantry, and originally had no interest in making this film. Producer Lester Cowan went to great lengths to cajole Wellman into being his director, but Wellman only agreed to take on the job after meeting Pyle and spending time with him.

An aura of tragedy and sadness pervades the film. Pyle acted as technical advisor on the film. The extras were all American combat veterans of the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Most of them were in the process of being transferred from active duty in the war in Europe to the war in the Pacific. And many of them were killed fighting in Okinawa, the battle in which Pyle himself was killed.

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