The first twenty minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" raised the bar on the realism of war film in terms of the portrayal of the violent hell of combat. But in terms of showing us in a movie what it was like to be combat troops in World War II, the standard still remains the 1949 film "Battleground," directed by William Wellman (and I say this having loved "Band of Brothers"). The film won Oscars in 1950 for Robert Pirosh's script and Paul Vogel's black & white cinematography, and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (James Whitmore), and Best Editing (John D. Dunning).
The setting for "Battleground" is the besieged city of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and focuses on I Company of the 101st Airborne. Pirosh had based the story on his own experiences during the battle, which including the details like Private Kippton (Douglas Fowley) always losing his false teeth and Private Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban), who came from L.A. and had never seen snow before he got to Belgium. The situation was pretty simple: the Germans have Bastogne surrounded and the 101st is short on food and ammunition. Sgt. Kinnie (Whitmore) and the men of I Company have there sector to control, so they sit in the freezing cold, waiting for the Germans to attack and praying for the cloud cover to lift so they can get air support and supplies.
I am sure I am not the other kid from my generation who learned to do the cadence call of "Sound off," not knowing that it came from older kids who had seen this movie. This is a movie full of memorable scenes: Private Holley (Van Johnson) trying to make eggs, a checkpoint exchange that shows the importance of knowing baseball terminology like "Texas Leaguer," and a befuddled German officer trying to understand if General McAulliffe's infamous reply of "Nuts" to the demand for the 101st's surrender is a negative or an affirmative response.
For me the key moment in the film comes when I Company finally receives supplies dropped from C-47s. These guys have been freezing and pretty much starving for a week, and when they open up crates of SPAM and K-Rations, they are clearly disappointed. It is not until they find ammunition that they finally get excited. The montage of defeating the Germans is superfluous at that point, because the look in the eyes of these guys captures the moment even better.
In terms of realism I do have one slight knock on this film, in that I Company is atypical because they had winter coats (compare with the Bastogne episode of "Bad of Brothers"), but that is rather secondary to the point of this film, which is to celebrate the citizen soldier. As Holley explains to a major, "PFC" means "praying for civilian." Even when the Chaplain (Leon Ames) answers the big question, as to why these guys had to leave their families and jobs to fight in Europe, in has less to do with fascist ideology and more with the idea that the Germans were bullies throwing their weight around and killing a lot of people.
Still, "Battleground" comes down to the guys in I Company, Jarvess (John Hodiak), "Pop" (George Murphy), Layton (Marshall Thompson), Spudler (Jerome Courtland), Standiferd (Don Taylor), Hansan (Herbert Anderson), Bettis (Richard Jaeckel), Doc (Thomas E. Breen), and Sgt. Walowizc (Bruce Cowling). There is a tendency to make fun of the idea of the melting pot nature of these units, but we are talking diversity in terms of ethnicity more than racial lines and is certainly in keeping with everything I have read about the 101st. The humor in the trenches is a lot grimmer than you hear in most of these movies, an advantage of being made several years after the war ended (compare it with Wellman's 1945 film "Story of G.I. Joe").
This film is more about the psychology of war, putting up with the weather, the lack of supplies, the Germans trying to get them to surrender and showing up dressed in American uniforms, and keeping up morale than it is about actual fighting. That makes it rather unique in terms of movies about World War II in general or the Battle of the Bulge in particular. "Battleground" remains one of the classic films about grunts in the army.