WILLIAM A. WELLMAN FOR BATTLEGROUND (1949)
The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives
Carol Reed for The Fallen Idol
Robert Rossen for All the King’s Men
William Wyler for The Heiress
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
To borrow a metaphor from Manny Farber, William A. Wellman’s preeminent critical advocate, Battleground is war from the termite’s point of view. Forgoing the omniscient scope and overdone stylistics of the MGM Van Johnson combat films produced during the war, Wellman confines the story of the Siege of Bastogne to the perspective of a single squadron of the 101st Airborne Division. It is to Wellman’s credit that he could deliver such an understated depiction of American heroics at Louis B. Mayer’s MGM, and with Johnson headlining the cast, no less. To be sure, he was helped by the strong support of producer Dore Schary, who brought the script with him from RKO (where it was inauspiciously titled “Prelude to Love”) and fought against both Mayer and the prevailing wisdom regarding war films to get it made. To safeguard the integrity of the story, Schary chose the fiercely independent Wellman to direct, yielding a war story remarkable for is grounded emphasis on the thick of the fight.
Not that there’s much of a fight—even during a major battle, war from Wellman’s perspective consists of the proverbial long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Wellman, a veteran in both senses of the term (a WWI flying ace turned filmmaker, his aerial melodrama Wings christened the Best Picture—then Best Production—category at the First Academy Awards. The directing identifies entirely with the foot soldiers caught up in the arbitrary troop movements and tedious trench-digging. Apart from a single cutaway to establish the existence of German infiltrators, the film stays within eyeline and earshot of the collective protagonist as they march across Belgium and little into a snowlogged clearing in the woods. George Dunning edits the film to emphasize the interminable stretches of tension and tedium between the sudden eruptions of danger. With the soldiers’ limited knowledge of the battle surrounding them, supplemented only by the occasional update from Stars & Stripes, their situation remains a perilous unknown. The enemy itself is largely a phantom; the Germans remain offscreen when shooting, only showing up in disguise or in peace, civilly speaking English to their foes. Bombings interrupt the calm with moments’ notice, and the soldiers must strain to distinguish the sound of friendly and hostile planes. In the dense woods, the soldiers are just as likely to be a hundred feet from another platoon as they are from the enemy, and every unknown face leads to a cautious standoff. The rest of the soldiers’ time is just spent waiting around, griping and preparing for the unforeseeable.
Wellman keeps visual flourishes few and far between, though there are a few: the camera expressionistically losing focus for a moment as Layton (Marshall Thompson) smokes his first puff of cigarette smoke; the efficient montage of freshly restocked American arms overlaid with footage of Germans giving up the fight. Most notable, though, is the use of silence, and particularly the decision to eschew an orchestral score entirely. In between the opening and closing fanfares, this layer of silence on the soundtrack imbues the story with a pervasive sense of stoicism. The Spartan sensibility of the filmmaking reflects the hardened matter-of-factness of the platoon. Of the many established characters, a frightening number will die, but in a way that does not permanently affect the identity or dynamic of the group. The mournful moment in which the soldiers stop digging under the jeep for Roderigues (Ricardo Montalbán), the wind whistles faintly through the trees, and the story moves on. The only music heard in the film, apart from a few strains of melody heard in the solace of Denise’s house in town, come in the form of the marching cadence that bookends the film, led by Sgt. Kinnie (a gruff James Whitmore, in an archetypal role that would later be embellished to high heaven by Louis Gossett, Jr. and Lee Ermey).
Of the film’s six nominations, the two it won were two it absolutely deserved. The beauty of Paul C. Vogel’s black & white cinematography sustains the long scenes bereft of action. Vogel stunningly captures the grace of the snow-laced trees against the severe contours of the battle, separating the planes of action with subtle gradations of gray and skillfully integrating exteriors shot throughout the Pacific Northwest with masterful soundstage recreations of the forest battlegrounds. Robert Pirosh, a studio screenwriter (who got his first job off of the best cover letter of all time), fought in the Battle of the Bulge and wrote his Oscar-winning original screenplay in tribute to his comrades down the road in the 101st. In addition to his superb gifts for plotting and dialogue, Pirosh’s main contribution is his choice to minimize the interpersonal melodrama of the soldiers—the Screaming Eagles, for all of their kinship, foibles, and coarseness, are functional teammates and not vessels for pedantic character arcs. The protagonist is the squadron itself, and the men, with no protracted storylines hanging over their interactions, work well as a group of pragmatic individuals thrown into the task of winning a war. All of the elements in Wellman’s film fit into this functional mandate. Portraying Allied victory on the level of a single unit of the fighting forces, Wellman shows the stuff from which wars are won.
1949 marked the end of a brief turnover period in the normally staid Best director category, welcoming 11 first-time nominees in the span of three years. Of the year’s three debs, two were previewing their imminent greatness. Joseph L. Manckiewicz, the year’s victor for his attractive but so very talky A Letter to Three Wives (based on the novel A Letter to Five Wives—can you imagine?) and Carol Reed, nominated for adapting Graham Greene’s The Fallen Idol, would return the very next year and repeat the pattern with their respective masterpieces All About Eve and The Third Man. Robert Rossen, meanwhile, reached his Academy career high with the supremely ambitious political epic (and Best Picture-winning) All the King’s Men, and William Wyler just kept chugging along with a tasteful turn in The Heiress. Of the four films I’ve seen, none shows off the director’s absolute best work, but clearly I’m quite beholden to what Wellman accomplished here. He gets my tentative vote, but we’ll see very soon whether Reed can snatch it away!