The Second World War made a deep impression on Robert Pirosh (1910-1989). He came from a well-off Baltimore family. Desiring to be a writer, after graduating from high school, he spent time in Europe. After this he got into the movie business. Pirosh proved himself adaptable, which Hollywood likes. On the one hand, he co-wrote two Marx Brothers’ hits (“A Night at the Opera” (1935) and “A Day at the Races” (1937)) then adapted an Ayn Rand play (“The Night of January 16” (1941), then went back to comedy with “Rings on Her Fingers” (1942). Then the war came along to derail his nice little life. Pirosh got drafted into the 35th Division. The 35th Division landed in Normandy a month after D-Day, but then saw a lot of fighting in the break-out from Normandy and pursuit of the Germans. Pirosh rose to be a sergeant. The 35th Division helped relieve Bastogne, with Pirosh leading one of the first patrols to enter the town. After the war, Pirosh went back to writing, directing, and producing movies. We owe him some of the best of the movies about the Second World War: “Battleground” (1949); “Go for Broke!” (1951); and “Hell Is for Heroes” (1962). Each movie focuses on a squad of soldiers and treats them as real human beings, rather than as ideal types.
“Battleground” recounts the week-long siege of Bastogne by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. The 101st Airborne Division was rushed from peaceful, if not cushy, quarters in France, to defend the vital crossroads town. Ill-equipped for winter weather, short of ammunition, and with dense cloud cover keeping Allied air forces on the ground, the men hold off the Germans because…well, because “we’re the 101st Airborne and this is as far as the bastards are going.” The squad at the center of the movie fights the Germans in a dogged, un-dramatic way. They complain about each other’s about various little quirks, complain about the food, and complain about the Army Air Force (“London this morning, Berlin this afternoon, headlines tomorrow”). None of them wants to be there. One guy was supposed to go home on a dependency discharge (wife at home was sick and he had to go help with the kids). One guy got out of hospital and was headed to Paris on leave when he got pushed into a truck and driven to Bastogne. One guy is a newly-arrived replacement, worried that no one will learn his name before he gets killed. One cracks during an artillery bombardment and runs away; another is wounded; another is killed. There is some shooting, but not a whole lot. Eventually, the cloud cover clears and the Army Air Force rains down destruction on the encircling Germans, then the tanks of George Patton’s Third Army show up. The ragged survivors are ordered to fall in on the road forward toward the front. Resentful and grumbling at the new demands on them, they reluctantly do as ordered. Their sergeant then gives the order to “About Face” and they march away from the war as well-equipped and fresh soldiers march up to take their share of the burden. As they approach the FNGs the men unconsciously adopt a more military bearing that reflects their pride in who they are.
The movie is historically accurate. Pirosh wanted it that way. He wrote from what he had seen. He had twenty veterans of the 101st hired to train the actors and serve as extras. They shot the movie in cold, wet conditions in CA, OR, and WA. It was a big hit with audiences.