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In WWII France, a squad of American soldiers is surrounded by the Germans in fog and snowbound Bastogne. It's freezing cold, the food is running low and the ammunition is all but exhausted. The GIs pray for the pea-souper to lift, so that support aircraft can bomb German positions and drop-in vital supplies. The tension of the situation tests the mettle of every man. Some will rise to the occasion and others will fall ... a buddy here, a body there and no place to hide, anywhere.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
"We must never again let any force, dedicated to a super-race, a super idea, or super anything become strong enough to impose itself on a free world. We must be smart enough, and tough enough, in the beginning to put out the fire before it starts spreading." This trenchant anti-war statement is delivered by an army chaplain (Leon Ames) to the bedraggled troops of the 101st Airborne Infantry division in a brief lull before German bombs rain down on them again.

Such is its resonance that the same speech might have been delivered by George W. Bush yesterday against the on-going war on terrorism. "Don't let anyone tell you you were a sucker to fight in the war against fascism," the same chaplain says. Today it's clear that there isn't a great deal of difference between the two "isms" and so, it seems, the world hasn't really changed that much at all.

The fighting men, of course, are clichés before they actually became Hollywood clichés: Van Johnson is Holley, the wise-cracking, skirt-chasing soldier, who sees the war as an "inconvenience;" the Oscar nominated James Whitmore is Kinnie, the tungsten-tough tobacco-chomping career sergeant; John Hodiak is Jarvess, a sensitive small-town newsman who will never forget the human loss; Marshall Thompson is Layton, the raw recruit who feels like he doesn't belong and Ricardo Montalban is Roderigues, the deeply religious soldier who whoops with childish delight during his first ever frolic in the snow.

Director Wellman is at pains to develop character, camaraderie and comedy within the ranks: Holley is continually thwarted in his simple bid to scramble eggs in his tin helmet; Kippton (Douglas Fowley) constantly clicks his false teeth to the annoyance of others; Abner is devoted to his comic book namesake and there is talk of "mom's blueberry pie" and how a "good clean flesh wound" might get them out of this hell hole and into a warm bed back home.

These are the men who, during Hitler's desperate last-gasp offensive in Europe in December 1944, are threatened with annihilation in a conspiracy of fog and freezing cold that shuts down Allied supply lines. They became known as The Battered Bastards Of Bastogne, bravely resisting the might of massive enemy forces hell-bent on busting open a strategic route at the crossroads of "seven main highways." The film recalls a famous incident when a German envoy, under cover of a white flag, approaches the battle-weary Americans offering to spare their lives upon surrender.

Writer Robert Pirosh, who claims to have served at Bastogne is presumed to have recorded the moment faithfully, but it is shot rather clumsily by director Wellman, making it seem unlikely that the pride of the German army might kowtow to a handful of ragtag soldiers. No amount of lingering fog and clumps of snow can disguise the fact that the film was shot on the MGM backlot. At times it looks so stagey that you'd swear that it was adapted from a postwar play.

Still, from six nominations that included Best Picture, it was convincing enough to win Academy Awards for Best Screenplay and Story and Best Black and White Cinematography. And historically, it was one of the most significant films ever shot at the famous studio. Dore Schary acquired the film rights from RKO after Howard Hughes vetoed production. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer tried to steamroll over it as well, believing that the public was not ready to relive the harsh realities of war. It was, however, a box-office smash which led to Schary ending Mayer's 26 year reign as studio head the following year.

The very best of more modern war films such as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan conspire to date these battle-scarred relics and yet much of what we see and hear is timeless. A soldier bellyaches to a buddy that he should "stop beating your gums and let a guy get some sleep," a sergeant explains that the army won't relieve him of his frostbite until his feet turn blue and a yapping young Southerner uses his dying breath to cry out to "mama" before finally falling silent in the fox-hole that becomes his grave. And there's the chaplain's priceless piece of propaganda that might yet rattle the polls at the next Federal Election.

Published: August 5, 2004

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(US, 1949)

CAST: Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban, Marshall Thompson

PRODUCER: Dore Schary

DIRECTOR: William A. Wellman

SCRIPT: Robert Pirosh

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes

PRESENTATION: Black and white

SPECIAL FEATURES: Feature: Little Rural Riding Hood.

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video

DVD RELEASE: August 4, 2004

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