Monday, April 24, 2017

Story of G.I. Joe, The (1945)

Director: William Wellman


Throughout World War II Hollywood had come to develop a habit of glamorizing the American soldier and his righteous service overseas. Adapting Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s works into a motion picture would bring a much more tangible and tragic aspect to the genre of war films during WWII. The Story of G.I. Joe came to be one of the most powerful war pictures to release while the conflict was still waged around the world, stirring audiences, both civilian and soldier alike.

The Story of G.I. Joe is a drama of a war correspondent’s experiences working alongside infantry during World War II, building a comradery with the men, learning of their backgrounds, and their tragedies while living on the front lines. Inspired by real events covered by the actual war correspondent, Burgess Meredith portrays Ernie Pyle, a middle aged journalist who follows a company of infantrymen lead by Lt. Bill Walker (Robert Mitchum) all the way to the front lines. Along the way Pyle gains the men’s respect by keeping up with the grueling task of living on the harsh fields of battle. Pyle learns the stories and backgrounds of each member of the company, sharing their common man tales in his correspondents back home.

Through Pyle we see as the men struggle with psychological burden of being a soldier. We watch as members of the company struggle with the feelings of inferiority, loneliness, and homesickness. Meanwhile we observe the interesting aspects of their backgrounds, making each one a unique and interesting person as these men so far from home become a family in their own right. Death along with physical and mental fatigue are an ever present reality that the men must deal with. Walker’s journey has him battling conflicts of what he does as a soldier, wondering if it makes him a hero or murderer. As Pyle moves throughout the Army he tends to continually return to cover Walker and his men as his favorite company, learning of a Pulitzer Prize win along the way. Catching up with the company again Pyle is taken by the surprise of a fallen Walker in recent battle as his company moves forward, leaving the audience with a message of thanks for men that fought and dead in this war.

Unlike many war features observed during this period The Story of G.I. Joe is not one that glorifies or sugar coats battle, presenting it with characters that must push through difficult living conditions all the while under constant danger. In fact, the film does not cover fighting, or the actions of bravery that take place during battle, rather it paints the portrait of men when they are camped between conflicts or marching to their next point of battle.

The story delves into the humanity of a war weary group of soldiers in their desperate attempt to keep themselves motivated to continue on, whether it is fighting to return home, to prove something to themselves, or simple to fight for the man next to them. This is not the usual patriotic, fight-the-good-fight style of picture Hollywood had churned out for the past number of years, but one that brings an emotional center that share war being hell psychologically.

The brain child of producer Lester Cowan, The Story of G.I. Joe is directed by the great William Wellman. It took a great deal of convincing to get Wellman to agree to do the project. Wellman, a former World War I fighter pilot, was not too keen with infinity after developing a rivalry during his service during the Great War. Following many fail attempts by Cowan to woo Wellman, including a number of uninvited visits to the Wellman home and even gifts for him and his children,  it was Ernie Pyle’s own words of inspiration to Wellman himself that convinced the filmmaker to proceed with the project.

The 37 year-old Burgess Meredith was still a lesser known actor in Hollywood, despite his wonderful work in 1939’s Of Mice and Men and his many appearances on Broadway. Cast to play the starring role of Ernie Pyle, Meredith was chosen from a small pool of middle aged actors that Pyle had approved of.  Meredith, who was a member of the armed forces while being cast for the feature, was allowed a discharge by the US Army in order to play this role. To prepared for the part he spent time with the Pulitzer Prize winner Ernie Pyle while he was recovering in New Mexico following trauma of the European conflict. Pyle’s only worry of the picture was that a Hollywood depiction would make him look like a fool, but Burgess Meredith’s warmhearted portrayal served well for both Pyle and Meredith.

The leading soldier in the picture was portrayed by Robert Mitchum, a strapping 27 year-old film noir actor lent from RKO. His role as war weary Army officer Bill Walker, based loosely on Henry Waskow of Ernie Pyle’s works, is the center character which is observed through the story of an average American soldier. His portrayal is troubled, likable, and sorrowful as a man that is taken away from the comforts of home, carrying out his tasks well, but at the price of his psychological health and ultimately his life. His work on the picture would be so well receive critically Mitchum would receive is only Oscar nomination in the category of Best Supporting Actor. Shortly after the film’s completion Mitchum was drafted into the Army himself.

The supporting cast was partially filled with actual servicemen who had served in battle and had returned home where they trained in California before shipped off to the Pacific. This touch of casting adds to the realism of the picture as the men brought the emotional struggle to the film with them.

Among the supporting cast was Freddie Steele, a former boxer who turned actor, playing usually tough guys in pictures. Here he plays interesting role as tough soldier who dreams of the day he can return home a see his wife and their son who was born after leaving for the service. His goal throughout the picture is to find an operational phonograph to play a gift record from home containing the voice of his son saying hi to him. His near hopeless search adds to the frustration of the war that by the time he finally hears his sons voice for the first time, it drives him to nervous breakdown, needing to be subdued by his fellow soldiers to keep him from harm. It makes for a touching side story that would bring grown men to tears.

The Story of G.I. Joe opened to critical and box office success. Above all it became a near instant favorite amongst war pictures for its more realistic depiction of the weariness of an average American soldier. Sadly Ernie Pyle would never see the picture in its final state as he passed away on assignment in the Pacific two months before the film’s release.

Praise for the picture would come from the very top as General Dwight D. Eisenhower deemed the picture as the finest he had ever seen. Actual G.I.’s were given screenings of the film, praising it for its content, bring its fair share of men to tears. Director William Wellman found the picture to be so touching and personal after getting to know Pyle that he would refuse to watch it for the sake of not breaking down emotionally..

That year the picture would be nominated for four Academy Awards and in 2009 would be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Even today The Story of G.I. Joe is an emotional war story that stands well with the test of time. Its effect on filmmakers can be seen in more recent war pictures bringing with it a common soldier aspect that makes depiction of war more tangible and effective for audiences. It remains one of the greatest war pictures to have been produced with still in conflict of World War II.

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