BACK-STORY: “The Story of G.I. Joe” was released in 1945 and is based on the columns of war correspondent Ernie Pyle. It was directed by William Wellman who had been a pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille in WWI and at first refused to do a movie about the despised infantry until he met Pyle and saw the adoration the infantry had for him. Once on board, Wellman insisted on realism and convinced the Army to loan him 150 soldiers training near the production. The movie also used several actual war correspondents. So the actors would not look foolish alongside real soldiers, Wellman put them through the first actors’ boot camp. Sadly, Pyle was killed before the opening of the movie and many of the real soldiers were killed on Okinawa. For this reason, Wellman never watched the movie after its release. The movie was a hit and is considered one of the most realistic war films. It was nominated for four Oscars (Supporting Actor - Mitchum, Song, Score, and Screenplay).
OPENING: The 42 year old Pyle (Burgess Meredith) attaches himself to Company C, 18th Infantry as it prepares to go by truck into action in Tunisia. He meets Lt. Walker (Robert Mitchum) who agrees to let him accompany them all the way to the front. The men are rookies with a nervous bravado about them. The hound in the group named Dondaro (Wally Cassell) greets Pyle by saying: “Hey Pops, why wasn’t you born a beautiful dame? Or even an ugly one?” That night they lounge in their pup tents and listen to Artie Shaw as played by Axis Sally. Her taunting about their girls back home registers various facial reactions in a series of close-ups. The soldier talk is tame, but realistic.
SUMMARY: The first death occurs soon after as a plane strafes and one of the men dies off screen. Walker: “The first death is always the hardest.” The Company mascot, a cute little dog named Arab (“Squirt”), is passed on to one of the survivors.
Next thing we see is the unit facing defeat at Kasserine Pass (although not mentioned by name). The defeat is seen through Pyle’s eyes as he follows the degeneration at headquarters. A montage of columns follows. The film skips Sicily and has Pyle reuniting with the now seasoned unit in Italy. The men are genuinely glad to see Pyle and give him the typical gentle ribbing. At mail call, Sgt. Warnicki (Bobby Steele) receives a recording of his son “Junior”, but will spend the rest of the movie trying to listen to it.
The only battle scene has the men taking an Italian town house to house. The assault culminates with Walker and Sgt. Warnicki cat-and-mousing with German snipers in a bombed out church. The scene is bereft of dialogue, but has great sound effects (but no music). It really sounds like a WWII battle. The tactics of covering fire and maneuver are also realistically portrayed. After the liberation of the town, the men settle down for a while. The movie is true to the stop and go nature of war. During this interlude, Murphy (John Reilly) weds his nurse fiancé (played by Wellman’s wife Dorothy). In the honeymoon suite/ambulance, he falls asleep before the camera has to cut away.
The next big set piece involves the capture of a monastery on a hill (obviously meant to be Monte Cassino). This is one of the grubbiest scenes in war movie history. The men are dirty and unshaven and living in caves surrounded by a sea of mud due to the incessant rain. Patrols go out and return with less than they started with. One of the victims is Murphy. The men take the deaths in stride, but clearly the strain mounts. We see this attrition through Pyle (“The G.I. lives so miserably and dies so miserably”) and Walker (who agonizes over being a “murderer”). Everyone is weary, but they do what they have to do. “Every step forward is a step closer to home.” They maintain their sardonic G.I. humor throughout. After another vicious artillery barrage, a soldier says “Gee, a guy could get killed around here”. Warnicki snaps when he finally hears Junior’s voice. Finally, Eisenhower bombs the religious site and although the movie alludes to this making the monastery a tougher nut, the movie moves on after a brief final assault that includes actual war footage.
CLOSING: The last scene is a reenactment of Pyle’s most famous column “The Death of Captain Waskow”. The men are resting when a mule train arrives from the front carrying dead bodies. One of them is Capt. Walker. The men are stunned and their facial expressions reflect the love of soldiers for a well-respected officer. One by one members of the unit pay their last respects laconically. “I’m sorry, old man” is a typical eulogy. But the war must go on so they march past into the sunset. Pyle: “For those beneath the wooden crosses, there is nothing we can do except perhaps to pause and murmur “Thanks pal, thanks”.
As a post script, we see actual footage of Pyle interviewing a soldier. Cool.
the real Ernie Pyle
Acting - 9
Action - 6
Accuracy - 6
Realism - 8
Plot - 8
Overall - 8
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Probably. It is bloodless and not graphic. There is a sweet wedding scene. The soldier language is toned down. The acting is stellar.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie starts with a disclaimer that the “characters and events are fictional”. Several of the main characters are based on soldiers that figured prominently in Pyle’s columns. Walker is based on Henry Waskow and sentiments voiced by Sgt. Frank Eversole. Warnicki was based on Sgt. Jack Peterson who had a son named “Junior”. There actually was a dog, but its name was “Nigger”. Just kidding – it was “Squirt”. (I assume the dog threatened to sue if his real name was used in the movie.)
The main divergence from truth is the fact that although Pyle travelled with Company C, 18th Infantry in Tunisia, the unit did not fight in Italy. Pyle accompanied a different unit in Italy. This Hollywoodizing of the facts is totally justifiable for the continuity of the film. After all, the movie and Pyle were interested in boosting the G.I.s in general, not in particular.
The two battles – San Pietro and Monte Cassino – are simplified and not meant to accurately depict actual battles. This is not a movie about strategy and tactics. It does not give the big picture. A minor flub is having Eisenhower order the bombing of Monte Cassino when it was actually done by Gen. Harold Alexander.
The final scene is close to the famous column except that the incident actually occurred at night. It is well done and quietly poignant.
CRITIQUE: “The Story of G.I. Joe” has a reputation as one of the best of the circa-WWII movies. That reputation is well-deserved. It holds up well partly because it does not have to compete with the recent crop of hyper-realistic combat films started by “Saving Private Ryan”. It is a simpler soldier slice of life picture. As such, it is better than most modern attempts to depict soldier life. The dialogue is sparse and rings true. The only flaw being the language constraints of 1940s cinema. A remake would undoubtedly have a lot of f-words.
The acting stands out. Meredith is perfect as Pyle. He met Pyle before filming and spent time with him. He looks like the famed war correspondent, but more importantly he portrays Pyle’s ambiguous feelings about war and the men who had to fight it. Meredith was an Army Captain at the time of the filming and was given an honorable discharge by Gen. Marshall so he could do the movie. MItchum is superb in perhaps his best performance. He earned his only Academy Award nomination. Ex-boxer Bobby Steele is another who puts in his best effort as Warnicki. (His other recognizable role was in “Hail the Conquering Hero”, but he is more central in this one.) The rest of the cast is fine and “Squirt” is adorable.
The cinematography is outstanding. There are lots of close-ups of facial expressions. These are often more powerful than the dialogue they replaced. The landscapes are appropriately stark. The soundstage for the monastery scenes is one of the muddiest in movie history. The sound and soundtrack are very good.
The film is true to the reality of war being mostly downtime followed by brief periods of terrorizing violence. This makes it reminiscent of another great WWII film – "A Walk in the Sun". Like that film, it avoids dysfunctionality within the unit, but that was typical of that era’s war movies.
CONCLUSION: Dwight Eisenhower called “The Story of G.I. Joe” the best war film made on WWII. That is high praise and may have been true at the time. Although it does not stand up to modern films like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Enemy at the Gates”, it holds up better than most 1940s WWII films. The only real complaint I have is there is still a movie about Ernie Pyle waiting to be made. Watch it if you can find it – it ain’t easy.