Released in 1949, William Wellman’s Battleground is considered to be one of the first major American films to center on World War II, with Robert Pirosh’s script covering the events of the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and told through the POV of various members of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, with a large cast including Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Marshall Thompson, George Murphy, James Whitmore, Don Taylor and Ricardo Montalban. The realistic tone and approach was probably startling to audiences, as the narrative showed wartime life to be as hellish and unpredictable as it most likely is, with characters that are flawed, scared, desperate, and potentially damaged. Paul Vogel’s matter-of-fact camerawork got in close to the action, while the tight editing by John D. Dunning kept a face pace. You can see how this film has inspired any number of big-time Hollywood war films from various generations, as Wellman never went for the cheap and easy, instead presenting his vision of War As Hell in a square and blunt manner, excising anything overtly sentimental in favor of rigorous aesthetics and hardened themes.
RKO were the original producers of the film, which had been going by the title of Prelude to Love in order to keep a low profile, but backed out of the shoot when head of production Dore Schary left the studio. Schary got a job at MGM, purchased the rights to the film from RKO, and continued the production, much to the reported chagrin of studio chief Louis B. Mayer, who apparently felt that war films were out of favor with the public. Shot on location in California, Oregon, and Washington in two months for just under $2 million (the production cut costs by editing while shooting was occurring), Battleground would become MGM’s highest grossing film in five years, grossing nearly $6 million worldwide, making it the most profitable release of its year. The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Supporting Actor (Whitmore) at the Oscars, and won two Academy Awards, one for Vogel’s stunning black and white cinematography, and one for Pirosh’s screenplay. Pirosh would go on to direct MGM’s 1951 film Go For Broke!, which also starred Van Johnson. For me, there’s an aesthetic/thematic progression that can be traced from Battleground to The Battle of Algiers to Full Metal Jacket to Black Hawk Down.