Sunday, July 22, 2012

World War II: 'Story of G.I. Joe'

A few years ago I was reading an excellent book on 1940s filmmaking, “Boom and Bust” by Thomas Schatz, and one section discussed several World War II films released in 1945 and early 1946. They were cited as examples of excellence in realistic filmmaking, war films that some at the time considered anti-war films because they didn’t portray the usual Hollywood heroics.

So, based upon this information, I have decided to review four of these films starting today with “The Story of G.I. Joe.”

This superb 1945 film is one of the best World War II films released during the war itself and remains one of the best ever war films. It is based upon the writings of Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent whose columns could be found in newspapers across the country during the war.

One of my prized books is a ninth edition release of Pyle’s “This Is Your War,” first published in 1943. My version is from 1944 with the original dust jacket, and the owner even clipped one of Pyle’s columns from the paper and used it as a bookmark. It’s ironic that the column is about the difficulty Pyle had being on furlough after spending so much time in Europe and Africa. The book is a collection of his columns modified for a novel narrative, and this volume examines the fighting in North Africa.

What makes his writings so memorable is his ability to capture the human side of war. In addition to describing the battles, he evokes the camaraderie of the men, including their living conditions, accomplishments and fears. He wanted these men to be the subjects of his columns, listing names and addresses and spinning their individual tales with a keen eye for detail and humility. He praises these men not as heroes of war but as heroes of humanity, surviving what many of us today could never conceive of.

“The Story of G.I. Joe” perfectly captures the essence of Pyle’s writings. Pyle himself is a character in the film, played with understated perfection by Burgess Meredith (above left, with Pyle). In the film, Pyle keeps coming in touch with the men of U.S. Army Company C, 18th Infantry. The film begins in North Africa as men are heading toward their first battle in Tunisia. Pyle quickly fits into the group, and the men clearly like having him around. A sudden attack results in a death, which Lt. Walker (Robert Mitchum) replies with understanding, “The first death’s always the worst.”

Later in Italy, Pyle catches up with Walker and his men, who fondly remember the correspondent. Here Pyle is witness to an intense invasion of an Italian town. He also captures everything from the joy of mail call to the quickly arranged wedding of a soldier and an Army nurse. A large part of the film’s latter portion focuses on the company’s perilous location and how many weeks pass before they can move on, including a memorable Christmas holiday spent in a foxhole.  

The film is superbly directed by William Wellman. I love the beginning, as a private is allowed to keep a dog, a mutt, as Pyle joins their unit, who is also like a stray dog adopted by the men. Wellman also does a memorable job throughout the film by showing reactions – reactions of the men to the first man killed or of them simply listening to the radio broadcasts of Axis Sally, a German-American with a sexy voice who reminds the men of what they are missing back home as a way of getting into their heads.

In fact, the first 15 minutes clearly lets us know this movie is different from most flag-waving war films made during the 1940s. That’s because the Office of War Information wanted these films to boost spirits back home, whether it’s showing our men winning the war or telling us to hang in there and stay united against the common enemy. “G.I. Joe” forgoes the melodramatic heroics. Supporting characters come and go, and some are killed off unexpectedly. Sudden losses are common in wartime, and the audience experiences these as well.

Wellman isn’t afraid to show the rain and mud. Like Pyle, he understands the importance of details in telling this story. Late in the film, Pyle says, “The G.I. … he lives so miserably and dies so miserably,” and the film captures this. And yet, like Pyle’s writings, the film has great affection for its characters and what they are doing. 

The film also does a realistic job of portraying reporters. Pyle kept his ears open and mostly his mouth closed, listening to and watching what was unfolding, never forcing himself into situations where he was unwanted.  

The performances are outstanding throughout. In addition to Meredith, Mitchum (above) is magnetic, receiving his only Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. Also terrific are Freddie Steele as Sgt. Warnicki, a man whose wife has sent him a record recording of his son, and he’s obsessed with finding a record player. Wally Cassell as Pvt. Dondaro, the camp lothario, is also superb.

“The Story of G.I. Joe” was released in summer of 1945 and was well-received by the critics. Sadly, Pyle was killed in the Pacific in April of that year, just months before the film’s release. Thankfully, this film does a brilliant job of capturing the essence of his work while being an outstanding movie about the realities of war.  

Next up: A film about the war in the Pacific


  1. Filmboy, I've been looking forward to this series since first hearing about it recently, and it's off to a great start. Hollywood really threw itself into supporting the war effort as soon as WWII began, but so many of those films today seem trite and jingoistic. With so many made during the war, some of them are bound to stand out from the rest, and I agree that this is one of them.

    I like your observation that Wellman "understands the importance of details in telling this story." Even though a lot of movie lovers admire him, Wellman has never been one of my favorite directors. His films too often seem a mix of strengths and obvious flaws. This is one of a handful of his many movies that I really like, though.

    Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum in what was probably his first important role both make strong impressions. Mitchum later developed a recognizable screen persona, sort of like Cary Grant did. I love that Mitchum persona, but here he doesn't trade on that familiar persona, and I think his performance is all the better for it. I'm looking forward to your next installments.

    1. Thank you, R.D. I agree with you about Mitchum. Here he's just starting his career, and like you said his performance is all the better because he hasn't developed that persona yet. As for Wellman, his career did have ups and downs, but this is one of his best, if not his best.

  2. William Wellman was very proud of the film "The Story of G.I. Joe". He had great respect for Pyle and for the men portrayed. No stranger to war and to war movies, Wellman felt this movie above all of them gave an honest and respectful picture of the miserable reality faced by the G.I.'s. I think it's an important film and yours an excellent article.

    1. Thank you, CW. I agree this is an important film and one that people don't know enough about.

  3. Great post Classicfilmboy, and an important subject. There are definitely films that, as you indicate, were meant to boost morale, and those like G.I Joe, that tried to tell it like it was. I admire this movie too, and the work of Ernie Pyle - a reporter beloved by the troops. And I too have an early edition of "Here is Your War." Can't wait for the others you'll cover.

    1. Thank you, Christian. Glad you are also a fan of Pyle's work.

  4. I like this one too. I've always admired Wellman's war films. "Battleground" is another one that eschews heroism in favor of grit and reality.

    Wellman knew what war was really like and stressed the toll it took on the everyday soldier. It's been years since I've seen, but I would like to see "The Story of G.I. Joe" again.

    I recently saw "Wings" on the big screen, and it really gave me pause to consider it was made less than 10 years after the war ended, using actual equipment flown by actual pilots in the war. There's no sentimentalizing of war there either.

    One dialogue scene in France takes place with hundreds of graveyard crosses in the background. A triumphant return home is muted somewhat by scenes of a mother and father whose son did not return home.

    Looking forward to your look at the other films in the series.

    1. HI Kevin, Thank you! I'm jealous you had a chance to see "Wings" on the big screen. It's been years since I have seen it and I really should do so again.