What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called The Fifth Annual Van Johnson Blog-A-Thon being hosted by Love Letters To Old Hollywood. This is the eighth event hosted by her in which I’ve been granted the honor of participation, and on subjects ranging from Doris Day, Clark Gable, and Esther Williams. But today is all about Van Johnson, who checks in at #11 on my list of favorite actors.
You can see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon here:
It’s easy to stereotype post-war American films with the overdone “Rah-Rah – Cheerleader for America” trope. But Battleground isn’t one of those. Released in 1949, its regarded as the first significant American film about the Second World War to be made and released after war ended.
The plot revolves around several soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, which was part of the 101st Airborne “Screamin’ Eagles” Division. This is the outfit best known for being isolated and besieged by the Germans in the Belgian town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
Battleground broke ground for war films of the time as it was one of the first of its type to be made with a more realistic view of the life of the foot soldier. While continuing to show their toughness and raw courage, it also reminded the viewer the infantrymen were still human and still contained the vulnerabilities we all have.
To take the viewer on that journey, the film opens on December 17, 1944 as a rifle squad led by Staff Sergeant Kinne (played James Whitmore) returns to the front after a richly deserved rest in France after taking part in the battle of Nijmegen-Arnhem in Holland. Two replacements have joined the 101st, Privates Jim Layton (played Marshall Thompson), and William J. Hooper (played by Scotty Beckett). Hooper is assigned to another unit while Layton is assigned to SSG Kinne’s Squad. The assumption is Layton is the replacement for Private First Class Holley (played by Van Johnson), who was wounded at Nijmegen-Arnhem.
However, PFC Holley returns, leaving Layton an an “extra” man in Kinne’s unit. Nobody give this much thought as the entire squad is set for a three-day pass in Paris. But those plans are changed the very next morning when SSG Kinne drags his men out of their bunks with the news they aren’t going to Paris. Instead, Kinne tells his men they are being rushed to the front as the Germans have launched an offensive which has breached the Allied lines. They are told that the Germans are pouring through that breach, and the 101st is needed to stop their advance.
As Kinne’s men are loading themselves onto trucks to take them into battle, they meet their new platoon leader, Second Lieutenant Teiss (played by Brett King). Along the journey, they don’t know where they are are going until they arrive in Bastogne. Upon arrival, they draw guard duty on the east end of the city, where they meet troops returining from the front. The retreating infantrymen tell Kinne’s squad there’s an entire German panzer corps conning their way. Knowing this is about to get bad, the 101st continues to move east and sets up their positions. In no time, they draw fire from German machine guns.
As a result, Kinne’s men are sent to clear a heavily forested area which would provide cover for more German guns, and after doing so they establish new positions. Later that night, PFC Holley, PVT Layton, and PVT Kipton (played by Douglas Fowley) are on guard duty on a roadblock when they are warned to be on the lookout for English-speaking Germans disguised as Americans. Right after getting this “heads-up,” they are approached by a Second Lieutenant who aroused PFC Holley’s suspicions despite the fact he passed the daily challenge and knew the correct password.
Conditions worsen the following day as snow begins to fall and the men find out Holley’s suspicions were spot on; their perimeter has been infiltrated by masquerading Germans. Patrols are dispatched to find these Germans. They hit the “jackpot” when PVT Layton encounters another suspicions Lieutenant. Layton plays coy, but soon the jig is up and a battle breaks out which ends with the German being wiped out by an artillery barrage.
As the weather worsens, the number of encounters with the Germans increase. As the battle for Bastogne intensifies, the Germans make a demand for surrender, which brings us to the legendary moment in all of the Battle of the Bulge. When presented with the German demand, the commander of the 101st Major General Anthony McAulliffe replied with a single word: “Nuts!”
The action doesn’t relent just because the calendar hits Christmas Day. The division’s chaplain (played by Leon Ames) uses his Jeep as an altar to hold a holiday service for the men of the 101st, but it is interrupted by German artillery. The German assault continues until the weather clears enough for Allied air power to knock out their guns and cargo planes can drop badly-need food, medicine, and ammunition in Bastogne.
The re-supplied 101st Airborne division along with elements of General George Patton’s 3rd Army broke the German siege. As the battle draws to a close, SSG Kinne receives orders to take his men back to France in preparation for further action.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
The key to today’s hidden sports analogy lies in the word “siege.” Granted, there are some serious differences between a battlefield in Belgium in 1944 and football fields in America some four decades, and the stakes were significantly different, nevertheless both saw a siege in their own right.
In 1944 in Bastogne, the battle was between the Germans and the 101st Airborne. In 1987 in Boston, Dallas, and every other National Football League (NFL) city, the battle was between the owners and the players. In much the same way the 1930s and 1940s were geopolitically a tumultuous time, there was no real peace in the NFL labor relations in the 1980s.
There are historians who believe World War II was simply a continuation of World War I as they shared several common causes. In that vein, there’s really no doubting the NFL player’s strike of 1982 and that of 1987 were the same labor stoppage with a five-year halftime. After all, both were about free agency…which was all about money.
Specifically, both strikes were about something called the “Rozelle Rule.” Free agency existed in the National Football League, which allowed players to sign contracts with any team they wished. But the “Rozelle Rule” – named for NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle – allowed the commissioner to compensate teams who were losing players with players and/or draft picks. This effectively blocked free-agent signings since teams did not want to risk the losses they may incur at the hand of the commissioner’s arbitrary compensation to the team losing the free-agent player.
Like any conflict, while the strike of 1982 may have been primarily about the “Rozelle Rule,” other ancillary issues crept into the milieu. In this case, the sticking point in the negotiations morphed from the restrictions on free-agency into straight-up money concerns.
Specifically in 1982, the National Football League Player’s Association (NFLPA) demanded a wage scale based on 55 percent of the NFL’s total gross revenue being ear-marked exclusively for player salaries. Naturally, the owner’s refused this concept, which led to 57 days of no NFL action on the field between September 21 and November 16, 1982. This lead to the shortening of the season from 16 to 9 games for each team. This becomes important in a bit…
Five years later in 1987, when the collective bargaining agreement which ended the 1982 strike expired, the NFLPA staged another walkout after the second game of the season. Again, the dispute between the owners and the players centered on money and the “Rozelle Rule.” However, the difference this time was the owners learned a valuable lesson from the strike five years prior.
Like the Wehrmacht at Bastogne in 1944, the NFLPA adopted “siege warfare” in both the strikes of 1982 and 1987. From those sieges, the NFLPA also shared the Wehrmacht’s result from Bastogne…complete defeat.
The whole point behind “siege warfare” is simple; if you can can isolate your opponent and cut their supply lines, you can starve them into submission. That’s exactly the approach the Germans took with the 101st Airborne at Bastogne. By forcing the cancellation of games, the NFLPA attempted to cut off the NFL owners from their revenue source.
But both the Wehrmacht and the NFLPA miscalculated. The Germans gambled that the Allies couldn’t stop a major winter offensive and rescue an entire besieged division. The NFLPA gambled the NFL owners would cave in to the union’s monetary demands rather that risk potentially catastrophic revenue losses if no games were being played.
The Germans didn’t account for the fact General George Patton had basically anticipated their plan. Likewise, the NFLPA didn’t understand that after 1982’s strike cost the NFL almost half its season, the owner’s had a Patton-like plan knowing that another work stoppage loomed on the horizon.
A key component of the owner’s strategy was understanding that the television networks would be willing to broadcast anything to fill the massive holes in their programming schedules an NFL strike would create. The players missed the major warning sign about this which came from the 1982 strike. Desperate to fill Sunday afternoons without football, the networks which carried the NFL found alternate programming.
NBC negotiated carriage rights in America for the Canadian Football League (CFL), and covered them as if they were NFL games. CBS resorted to re-showing previous Super Bowl games and live coverage of Division III college football. Those experiments didn’t work, and knowing their was likely going to be another strike in 1987, the owner resorted to a time-honored strike-breaking tactic. They employed “scabs.”
Scab – noun
So, when the NFLPA went on strike in 1987, the owners put their plan into action. The replacement players took to the field for Week 4 of the NFL season, and “Scab-Ball” was born.” The union thought fans would never watch the replacement players, and while game attendance plummeted, television ratings only dropped by about 20%. In other words, when one considers the money the owners were saving by not playing the “real” players along with the fact that advertisers weren’t screaming in the short-term about the shrinking television audiences, it didn’t take long for the NFLPA to realize their “siege” plan was in trouble.
To make matters worse for the NFLPA, thanks to the recent collapse of the Unites States Football League and the folding of the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, the owner’s had a robust pool of players to recruit as replacements. Granted they weren’t of the “elite” caliber of the striking NFL players, but they weren’t stiffs either.
While some fans turned their noses up at “Scab-Ball,” it’s relative quality meant not enough of them were doing so to give the desired effect to the NFLPA’s “siege.” Not only weren’t enough fans turning their backs on the NFL, once it was clear the “siege” wasn’t going to work, several high-profile NFLPA members broke ranks and crossed the picket lines (much like the Germans disguised as Americans in Bastogne).
Once star players like New York Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau, Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Randy White, New England Patriots quarterback Doug Flutie, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Steve Largent, and – the “starriest” of them all – San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana abandoned the NFLPA, the “siege” and the strike were both broken.
The “Scab-Ball” era only lasted three games, but it had a lasting effect; the biggest being that it changed the NFLPA’s approach to labor disputes. Since the two failed “sieges” of the 1980’s, as of this post the NFLPA has never attempted another mid-season labor stoppage.
The Moral of the Story:
If you’re going to besiege the castle, you had better be sure you can take out the target…regardless of whether it’s a Private First Class or “The King.” Otherwise, you’d better have plenty of bandages.
P.S. If you’re curious for more Dubsism takes on Van Johnson films…
For a great story about the connection between Barbara Stanwyck and the greatest game ever played in the “Scab-Ball” Era, click here.
Did you know the 1963 comedy classic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World foreshadowed the collapse on the United States Football League? Here’s how…
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