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