Director: William A. Wellman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Mike Smith gave an interesting talk at a local library about the history of the Academy Awards that featured clips from several Best Picture winners representing different eras of filmmaking. He chose the much-honored The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) to represent the World War II era, and commented that while American audiences today seem to need several years to pass before a film can address an important historical event such as 9/11 or Columbine, no such time lag existed for previous generations. Particularly during World War II, movie audiences got dispatches from the various fronts through newsreel footage that spared no one the horrors of war. With the immediacy of the war touching large numbers of Americans, feature filmmakers felt both a freedom and an obligation to present their war stories with the same unflinching reality. The Best Years of Our Lives, released right after the end of the war and dealing with the challenges of repatriated veterans, did nothing to sugarcoat the difficulties faced by double-amputee Harold Russell, who won an Oscar for his affecting portrayal of a soldier coming to terms with the loss of his hands and how his disability will affect the rest of his life.
In a similar vein, The Story of G.I. Joe premiered in June 1945, a mere two months after the death of its central character, Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent who was mowed down by machine gun fire on an island near Okinawa four months before the end of the war in the Pacific. Like illustrator Bill Mauldin, who concentrated on the lives of the ordinary “dogfaces” fighting the war on the ground in his cartoon “Willie and Joe,” Pyle attached himself to the infantry and wrote in plain-spoken style about the lives and deaths of the various G.I. Joes he met. The Story of G.I. Joe, a mournful one if ever there was, can be looked on as a public display of grief for a man who dignified the pain and loss of so many Americans.
The film focuses on C Company, 18th Battalion, a small outfit stationed in North Africa. The CO, Lt. Walker (Robert Mitchum), has to deal with two stowaways. One is Pyle (Burgess Meredith), who approaches him and asks to ride with the company to the front. The other is a stray puppy one of the younger soldiers has tucked into his jacket at the back of the truck. Walker orders little Arab off the truck, but ultimately relents as both Pyle and Arab become unofficial members of the company. This sweet moment is almost immediately shattered when enemy planes swoop down on the company. The men follow their training and scramble for cover while the gunner remains on the truck to shoot at the planes. After the attack, they reassemble, only to discover that Arab will need a new master. It’s a slightly predictable, but nonetheless wrenching moment. “The first death’s the hardest,” says Walker, in understated acknowledgment that there will be more. When the company hunkers down in the evening, we get a sense of the cold desert nights, as Pyle wraps up tightly in the sleeping bag he carries, and Pvt. Murphy (John R. Reilly), too tall for the Air Force, extends his long legs outside his tent, letting a draft in on his complaining tent mate.
As with a real company, men are killed and new ones rotate in. As the soldiers’ identities get obscured by quick succession, beards, mud, and rain, it’s hard to tell one from another. The film provides a core group of soldiers with character-defining behaviors to help us stay connected—‟Wingless” Murphy, horny Pvt. Dondaro (Wally Cassell), family man Sgt. Warnicki (Freddie Steele), dependable Pvt. Spencer (Jimmy Lloyd)—as they manage to survive actions from North Africa to Italy. But it is Ernie Pyle who forms the strong center of the movie. Pyle functions as something of a Greek chorus, which normally would relegate him to the sidelines, particularly as he drops in and out of C Company as his war coverage takes him all over the map. However, Wellman manages to keep him at the forefront, giving audiences familiar with his written dispatches a sense that they are still seeing the war through his eyes. Wellman performs this sleight of hand in a number of ways. For example, Ernie waits with little Arab for the remnants of the C Company veterans with whom he started his “tour” to return from a rain-soaked battle; like Ernie, we don’t see the battle, only its aftermath. We feel the weariness of the men as they come back, one by one, and perform their after-battle rituals, and wince with open emotion along with Ernie and Arab when one of them doesn’t return. In addition, Ernie earns the nickname “the little guy,” putting him on even footing with the troops, and is acknowledged every time he returns to C Company as one of them.
The Story of G.I. Joe doesn’t offer a strong chronology or an orderly passage of time. True to the experience of the GIs, the war just keeps going, and the soldiers keep going with it. The grim conditions are occasionally lightened, even during battle. In a tense sequence where Walker and Warnicki are hunting three German snipers holed up in a ruin of a church, the Americans dart in and out, laying down covering fire and counting with happy grins of camaraderie when one of the Germans falls. During the same action, Dondaro ducks into an inn where he comes face to face with a young Italian woman (Yolanda Lacca). He speaks her language, and the entire scene takes place in Italian with no subtitles. After the battle, Warnicki attempts to find a record player for a recording his wife sent him of their son saying hello. He gestures to the Italians, rotating his finger in a circle to show what he’s looking for, but instead of a turntable, one of them returns with a coffee grinder. What wonderful touches of realism and human connection!
A sense of futility descends frequently. As American troops are pinned down by Germans perched in the culturally significant monastery of Monte Cassino, Warnicki, a Catholic, says he’d rather live for his family than die for a piece of rock. When Allied bombers at long last appear to destroy the monastery, the GIs cheer, only to discover that the rubble of the monastery is as useful a position for the Germans as the intact building was. Eventually, Warnicki loses his battle with the demons in his own head and is shipped off to a psych hospital, a reminder, perhaps, of Pyle’s near crack-up. The question comes up frequently about why Pyle stays when he could go home, a question he can’t seem to answer for himself. The film betrays nothing of his troubled home life, but broken marriages aren’t skimmed over, as Walker’s split is signaled economically when he receives no letters from his wife during mail call.
The central performances of Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum form a strong core for the action going on around them. Meredith, age 38 at the time, seems rather older than the 43rd birthday he celebrates in the film, but as Steven Spielberg said when he talked about casting Saving Private Ryan (1998), the faces were older back then; 43 in the 1940s could look like 63 today. Meredith carries the gravity of those years, the quiet patience and unembarrassed emotion of a person secure in himself, and remains present but unobtrusive throughout the film. Mitchum has always seemed grizzled beyond his years to me, but in this film, he not only looks his age (28), but also acts it as a man barely old enough to lead a command of men not much younger than he is. He is world-weary when he talks about having to write condolence letters to relatives of his fallen troops, but the scene ends rather innocently with Ernie waxing philosophic, only to turn and find Walker has fallen asleep. The two actors work beautifully together and build a relationship that feels solid and genuine.
Although relieved by actual war footage, the sound stage shooting threatens to undermine the reality of the unfolding story. Fortunately, Wellman had such a good grasp on the rhythms of ground warfare and paid such close attention to detail that the film never loses its grip. For example, ensuring bodies retrieved from a battlefield show signs of rigor mortis not only adds veracity to a scene, but also defies those heroic final speeches dying soldiers always seem to have time to spit out before their eyes flutter and their heads drop abruptly to the side. The soldiers carry their rifles butt-up in the rain to prevent water from going down the barrel. There is no final victory to end the film on a high note either, only Ernie Pyle’s gut-twisting final line: “For those beneath the wooden crosses, there is nothing we can do, except perhaps to pause and murmur, ‘Thanks pal, thanks.’” Given Pyle’s vain hope that the horrors he has reported will convince nations not to make war again, that “thank you” belongs to the men and women who served alongside the fallen soldier, not to those of us who have risked nothing. We, it seems, have not learned any lessons at all.