Battleground (1949): Bastogne and The Screaming Eagles

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“We must never again let any force dedicated to a super-race or a super-idea, or super-anything become strong enough to impose itself upon a free world. We must be smart enough and tough enough in the beginning to put out the fire before it starts spreading.”  ~ Leon Ames as the Chaplain

This is the story of Bastogne in 1944 and the renowned Screaming Eagles. Admittedly, if you’re like me, this means very little, but fortunately, we are in good company because the men we get to know over the course of two hours didn’t know anything about the city either when they first arrived. This was not the Battle of the Bulge; it was simply a stepping stone or a weigh station on the road to their future destination. That is until it became, you guessed it, a battleground in its own right.

For the time being, they can be found drilling in smartly executed formations and getting ready for an unnamed assignment ahead. This is our chance to feel them out before they get in the thick of everything.

Director William A. Wellman does them a service in the first full scene together spread out in their cots. There’s barely enough room for the dust to settle but within the close confines, camaraderie is immediately palpable as is each man’s personality.

What a great group of guys they are covering a lot of the bases of humanity. Van Johnson and even a Don Taylor are easy to pin down because of their broad appeal and charm. They make most any armed forces picture a little more affable. Among their finest traits is exuding good old-fashioned Americanism.

There’s old college grad Jarves (John Hodiak), who gets jeered for his presumed stuffiness. There’s the gruff cynic (Douglas Fowley) always playing around with his set of false chompers like his most prized possession. (They kind of are because without them he can’t eat). Squished in with them is the gangly and drawling southern boy (Jerome Courtland), who feels like an easy trope to target in these pictures. The new recruit (Marshall Thompson) can be found nervously bed-hopping from cot to cot trying to find one he can take.

In something genuinely unusual for the period, even a Latino from L.A. (Ricardo Montalban) is represented. His best bud Pops (George Murphy) all but has a ticket home on a hardship discharge. A young Richard Jaeckel rounds out the band along with a chaw chewing James Whitmore, acting as their weathered drill sergeant.

What is meaningful about these relationships is how they reach outside the confines of the film with this inferred history we don’t know explicitly, and yet we can read into it. We know what guys have a bone to pick with the army and the ones who are trying to make the best of it.

The perilous journey ahead is riddled with enemy planes overhead, and the fog of war is quite literally laid on thick, complimenting the mud the army trucks slog through on the road. One minute they’re diving into ditches at the sound of sniper fire, and the next they are tasked with the backbreaking toil that goes with digging in for the evening, only to be pulled away on revised orders.

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There’s absolutely nothing permanent aside from the constant patrolling, lack of sleep, and perpetual snow. Battleground is one of the snowiest war movies I can recall, at times, deeply striking and equally relentless

Private Holley scores quite a cache of eggs, dreaming of the scramble he’s whisking up in his helmet time and time again — only to get pulled off for another assignment. Watching the yolk drip from his helmet is one of the defining images of the film for me as is his utter indifference. You’re never clean so why even bother.

As a fitting inflection of the Cold War, we have Germans in G.I. uniforms sneaking behind Allied lines to wreak havoc and sabotage important strategic assets like bridges. More than anything, it continually triggers this terrifying threat of infiltration. Thus, one cannot help but draw a connection to the Chaplain’s stirring speech later on (reference at the top of this page).

Amid the paranoia, it’s almost hilarious to think that the best way of telling friend from foe is baseball terms, idioms, Terry and the Pirates references, and the relationship status of the war’s favorite pinup Betty Grable (Note: Cesar Romero is out for Harry James).

When they do come upon the Krauts, Wellman captures the firefight and the subsequent hand-to-hand combat in a stylized manner to conform to the Hollywood production codes. Regardless, he manages to accentuate the rough-and-tumble brutality through boots pounding on the snow and violent inferences.

Battleground leaves unabashed sentimentality behind and it is not squeamish about death. People get picked off one by one leaving a trail of dead and wounded in their plucky company. This carnage hurts because of the rapport we build up. But even in the face of these micro-tragedies, there is no time to mourn, and their stand against the Germans proves a gutsy one. There’s no other alternative in their minds.

As we bunker down, it’s true the ensemble melds together nicely with no one actor totally upstaging the others. Certainly, Van Johnson is just left of center, if not the undisputed headliner, but even he has to navigate conventional feelings of fear and loathing when it comes to military service. He is by no means impervious to the toils of war.

In a moment of duress, Holly looks all but ready to turn tail ignominiously, but he finds his courage in the urging of another man who looks up to him — as they double back on the German lines and catch them off guard. They’ve girded their loins about them now and when ceasefire agreements and surrender are suggested by the enemy, they unceremoniously scoff at the very idea.

As alluded to already, in the thick of the hard pelting enemy artillery fire, the Chaplain holds an impromptu service. He’s of a certain denomination, but a very succinct point is made of the fact his service and his message is all-inclusive. In fact, it’s hardly a spiritual homily at all but a candid rallying cry against the forces of evil. It’s one of the most blatant examples of the film getting on any sort of didactic soapbox.

In response, each man kneels down to pray in his own way the enemy artillery fire still bursting in the background. The results are a stirring image of solidarity. They have not yet begun to fight.

Even in the simulated soundstage action, there is a compelling commitment to the atmosphere, which aids rather than hinders the story being told. It brims with the elements and forces of nature on all sides. In a last-ditch effort, all the terminally ill are moved out of the makeshift hospital, and the walking wounded are brought in for one final stand of desperation.

There is a slight sense Robert Pirosh’s script skipped over what might have been the most rousing scene. Wellman tackles the counterattack from the rallied forces with their new batch of airlifted ammunition, gasoline, and K rations in only an extended montage.

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Although the ending of the war is a foregone conclusion, it very nearly could have been a letdown that we don’t get a more pronounced action scene. However, it’s quickly salvaged by the effectiveness of the final scene. It says all the same things and exudes all the same battered but resolute emotion with one simple drill, leading them off toward the rear. The men sound off with a renewed vigor knowing theirs was a job well done.

In my book, James Whitmore is the unsung hero of the picture because his grizzled mug brings so much understood texture to the world of the movie. Van Johnson is the vision of what an idealized American G.I. is and Whitmore is the more likely reality. And in the final minutes, he’s the one who leads them to the finish line. He maintains an unswerving grit and pride as tenacious as anyone.

Battleground is quite the sensational war picture while also holding the distinction of being one of the most high profile WWII films following the conflict’s cessation. It allows for this strange limbo of sorts where the war is still fresh and within grasp of the collective consciousness, but there is enough wiggle room to begin looking back in hindsight.

Surely it’s not a complete portrait, but it does well to blend shades of action with the everyday gumption needed to make it through such a conflict. What a pleasure it is to be reminded each of these soldiers is a singular human being.

It’s refreshing to have their warmth and their fears in plain view along with their courage. It feels like we can look them in the eyes and truly marvel because they are not a whole lot different than us in many ways. Their courage is extraordinary in just how ordinary it appears.

4/5 Stars

The Violent Men (1955) and Rockefellers on The Range

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The Violent Men is an age-old tale of cattle wars on the range. The local apothecary warns about Wilkerson a man from the long tradition of land eaters. There are only two choices: run or stand and fight.

Before we ever see him, his cronies are messing around town. In the town’s main street the Sheriff is gunned down in the back by a hotshot gunman (the always smirking Richard Jaeckel). Everyone either turns away or is in the coattails of the local tyrant. We learn so much about them from their inaction. This is a community that has acquiesced to a thug and conformed to a type of general passivity.

No one is willing to stand up or speak up or do anything involving gumption because it means sticking their neck out and being vulnerable to the consequences. Glenn Ford starts getting perturbed, realizing he is just as liable as everyone else.

He’s been stewing to the point of exasperation, even as his future in-laws and his girl coax him to mind his own business and think of their extended future happiness. Again, it’s this constant mentality of the individual over the common good. Maybe it’s a product of reading a book on the Red Scare, but I cannot help but see it as a parable of benevolent socialism versus the tenets of a particularly ruthless capitalism.

For well-nigh 20 minutes the name Wilkerson is all but mythologized and lifted up as one of the most ruthless, bloodthirsty names on the frontier; he is Rockefeller on the range. With such a build-up, there must be performances to hold up the bargain. Fortuitously the movie delivers with not only Edward G. Robinson but Barbara Stanwyck as well. Of course, Stanwyck is no stranger to the West, and she’s quite adept at exuding this certain balance of necessary toughness and femininity.

Robinson is hardly the image of a western cattle baron (he was, in fact, a late replacement for Broderick Crawford), but he still has the presence of Edward G. Robinson. The fact he is crippled with a pair of crutches and still so ornery makes for an intriguing character biography. He completely subverts conventional expectations.

Meanwhile, Dianne Foster feels a little like Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep — the first impression is important — and she leaves the audience wary of this family’s pedigree. They’re not allowed to have one normal member.

Next, comes the entrance that is of utmost importance. The hobbling old codger himself. He’s particularly boisterous and hard-nosed when it comes to land dealings and taking over the valley. Behind closed doors, his wife is equally cunning and calculating, along with his kid brother (Brian Keith). His main enforcer (Jaekcel) follows up murder in the streets with another grisly murder on the range as a message to the holdout, Parrish, and anyone else brazen enough to stand up to Wilkerson.

For the 1950s, it’s quite the brutal exhibition as they whip a man, rope him up, nearly choke him to death, before leaving him for dead. Words do not do it the justice it deserves.

If Wilkerson didn’t sanction these egregious actions, he gave Cole (Keith) free reign to enforce their presence on the territory in whatever manner he deems applicable. The crooked deputy, a seemingly obliging fellow, has the system conveniently tipped against anyone who dares stand in opposition. There’s no way to win.

The movie might easily end here if only our hero were to wash his hands of the situation and move back east. He loses his bride-to-be for the sake of his own private moral integrity. Whether it’s because this is Glenn Ford or his character, need not be important. He resolves to stay, playing the fool, only to draw in his foe and retaliate.

Soon he’s taken his army training and put it to good use, fighting a war against his neighbors who, by all accounts, seem more formidable. What he has are determination and tactical advantages. The distinction of who the actual foe is remains dicey.

Robinson is just the blustering frontman. Cole blasted the range open with his pack of thugs. Martha Wilkeson pulled the strings, working all the while in her husband’s shadow.

Cinemascope offers some expected monumental views of the west compete with all the trimmings of the great outdoors. Ironically, the actual montages of the stampedes, burnings, and killings are relatively uninteresting. It might as well be stock footage from other pictures, and it probably is. The most invaluable moments are delivered by the characters, served up just as much as psychological warfare than any physical grudge match.

As the Wilkerson girl perceptively berates the men in her climactic stand, at their core is this barbarism, causing men to constantly be driven by a senseless need to kill one another for a lousy piece of land. Merely to prove something to themselves and others. What makes it worth it?

There is the subsequent realization this is not wholly good versus wholly evil. There are corrupt people, selfish ones, yes, but even Ford, who is supposed to act as our moral center, has no qualms about retribution and annihilating his enemy, since they were first poised to kill him.

It makes for a volatile experience, and the leads are a worthy ensemble, capable enough to suggest these particular nuances and personal ambitions. The irony remains in the title. On a cursory glance, it’s a lurid eye-catcher, but it also happens to be an apt descriptor for a movie with a main conceit about the implications of such escalated violence. The Violent Men takes its most obvious attribute, only to turn it right on its head. The surprise punch is a much-appreciated admonition about violence in the guise of popular entertainment.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lineup (1958)

Thelineupmovieposter6nfIn style if not entirely in execution The Lineup exhibits some similarities to Murder by Contract from the same year. Both films choose to take hit men as their main characters and it becomes a surprisingly intriguing way to look at a crime. Because the killers are a certain brand of sociopath who make film criminals all the more compelling based on not only on the way they carry themselves or the actions they take but the very words that leave their lips.

For the modern viewer, it’s very possible to miss the fact that The Lineup was a Dragnet-like detective show of the 1950s and this film installment carried over some of the same hallmarks from the program.

The police lieutenant is played by a no-nonsense Warner Anderson who utters every word as if he has marbles crammed in his throat. The other man (Emille Meyer) is what you expect from a second fiddle, a bit more flabby, a rounder face, and a funny intonation to his voice. Still, together these two men represent the arm of the law in San Fransisco, only two hardworking men in a vast force of crimefighters.

Don Siegel does well in all facets of the film from the opening mayhem on the streets of San Francisco that set the groundwork for all the rest, guiding the plot through the rhythms of procedures, hits, crime scenes, and casings. The climatic scenes on the Embarcadero pack the type of gratifying wallop you would hope for.

Meanwhile, Stirling Silliphant’s script has an odd cadence to it that’s particularly entrancing. It’s not hardboiled patter and that’s perhaps signified best by the fact that we meet our two main villains mid conversation on an airplane. One lauds the use of proper grammar and diction while the other, an out of town killer only known as Dancer (Eli Wallach) reads a grammar book to improve himself. After all, who’s ever heard a killer who knows their subjunctives?

From one end we follow the police as they look into a few big payloads of heroin that are being shipped in from Asia using unsuspecting tourists. There are no solid leads but they have enough competency to know something is up. They do all the things that they’re supposed to in order to nab the wanted parties. But it’s not that simple.

Because we also see a bit of what’s going on with the other side of the law. Dancer and Julian (Robert Keith) are called in to retrieve the payloads for a shadowy Mr. Big orchestrating everything from the background. And these are two of the most peculiar criminals you’ve ever known.  Dancer’s a bit of a tough guy and he’s almost never caught without his trusty briefcase that carries his silent killer. He’s not about to take any flack from their chatty wheelman (Richard Jaeckel) either.

Except Dancer listens to Julian, an older fellow (obsessed with last words) who seems to serve little purpose except to be Dancer’s constant voice of reason and his coach giving him pep talks and guidance from every location. First, a Seamen’s club near the Bay, then a local residence, and finally an aquarium where they track down their last unsuspecting carrier, a young mother (Mary LaRoache) traveling with her little daughter.

But all great crime pictures must have some kind of twist, a wrench in the plans or an about face and The Lineup likewise begins to tear at the seams. Except it actually begins to mean something because in some ways we’ve built more of a connection with the criminals than the good guys.

With its surprisingly authentic images of San Francisco preserved from the 1950s, you can definitely trace a line between this film and Dirty Harry another Siegel picture that made extensive use of SF’s iconic terrain as well. Silliphant also graduated to several big crime films most notably In the Heat of the Night. But there should always be a place for smaller gems like this because they must differentiate themselves from the pack in the ways they draw up their characters and how they choose to rehash themes that have existed all throughout the tradition of gangster flicks and film-noir. That is the only chance they have to be remembered. The Lineup certainly stands out amid the fray.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Gunfighter (1950)

thegunfighter1“Ringo don’t look so tough to me.”

Those are the words that propagate a legend and simultaneously follow notorious gunman Jimmy Ringo wherever he goes. There’s always some impetuous kid looking to have it out with him and every time it’s the same result. The kid never listens and Ringo rides off to the next town, wearier than he was the last time.

The Gunfighter has a surprisingly vibrant script with numerous names attached to it at different times including William Bowers, Nunnally Johnson, and Andre de Toth.  It evolves into a sort of chamber piece made into a carnival show when Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) comes to the town of Cayenne.Kids milling about peering in and catcalling as this “murderer” sits in the saloon like a sideshow attraction.

It’s an oddly compelling commentary on celebrity, and in this case, notoriety as everyone far and wide knows the name Jimmy Ringo and is either in awe of it or ready to prove they’ve got the guts to take him down. He’s constantly being sized up, continually being gawked at, or gossipped about. That’s the price of such fame.

But on the opposite side of the coin, and incidentally, the side no one much cares to think about, there’s a jaded man who’s made a life out of gunning down other men and moving from one town to the next to the next. There’s something very human about growing old and that’s what Jimmy Ringo has done. Because as the years march ever onward your whole mindset shifts along with your priorities. A life on the run doesn’t have the same luster. You want to be able to settle down, to be happy, to be at peace. But old vendettas take a long time to die, continuing just as long as the legends that they follow.

the gunfighter 2Of all men to understand Ringo, you would think that the local Marshall (Millard Mitchell) would be the last, but he happens to be an old friend of the gunman. They used to run in the same circles before Mark softened up. His life mellowed out, while Ringo’s reputation continued to build.

The subsequent sequence in the jailhouse illustrates just how much weight a simple name can carry. When the well-to-do ladies of the town come to the sheriff with their petition for justice, they think little of the stranger who tries to shed a little light on Ringo’s point of view. However, the moment they hear his name uttered, everyone is in a tizzy, rushing out of the jail lickety-split. It reflects just how hypocritical their form of morality is.

the gunfighter 3The main reason Ringo stays in a town that doesn’t want him is all because of a girl (Helen Westcott). He waits and waits, biding his time, for any word from her, and finally, it comes. He gets his wish to see her and his son in private. These scenes behind closed doors are surprisingly intimate, casting the old gunman in an utterly different light.

Of course, none of that saves him when he walks out that door back into the limelight, living the life of Jimmy Ringo, whether he likes it or not. If the three vengeful brothers don’t get him, there’s someone waiting for him up in a second story window or hiding behind a corner. A man like that can never win in the end.

It struck me that this film has some thematic similarities to another film of the same year, All About Eve. Aside from the fact that I personally enjoy Gregory Peck a great deal more than Bette Davis, both films focus on aging icons. While Ringo is not so much manipulated as undermined by his own legacy, his story ends with a young man much like himself riding off into the distance, to take up the life that Ringo led for so long. The specters of such notoriety will haunt the boy until the day he dies, and much like Eve, the deadly cycle begins again. Henry King made an unprecedented 6 films with Peck and this is probably the hallmark for both of them, certainly their most prolific western respectively.

4.5/5 Stars