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Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle follows the fortunes of Company C of the 18th Infantry during their campaign in Italy. Meeting up with them periodically - at one point, during the climactic battle of Cassino - he observes the stress of combat take its toll on the men's psyches. Among the soldiers he befriends are: Lieutenant Walker, who gradually rises to the rank of Captain; Sergeant Warnicki, who wants nothing more than to find a phonograph to listen to a recording of his son's voice sent from home; and Private Dondaro, who fantasizes constantly about women and even carries a bottle of perfume with him to sniff periodically. The men live continually with the knowledge that not all of them will make it home.
The Story of G. I. Joe (1945) is at once an homage to Ernie Pyle (1900-1945), who captured the American imagination with his gritty story of the lives--and deaths--of ordinary infantrymen, and to the men whose stories he told. Pyle once wrote: "I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that war can't be won without." In addition to his regular newspaper column, Pyle published various collections of his writings such as Here is Your War (1943), Brave Men (1944) and the posthumous volume Last Chapter (1946). Born near Dana, Indiana, Pyle wrote for a newspaper in LaPlante, Indiana before becoming a journalist for the Scripps-Howard newspaper the Washington Daily News in 1923. His wartime column was published in newspapers throughout the country. Pyle was shot by a Japanese machine gun on the island of Ie Shima in April of 1945; he was never able to see the finished film, which wasn't released until September 1945. The home of his birth was recently moved to downtown Dana, Indiana and turned into a State Historic Site. For further reading on Pyle, see James Tobin's 1997 biography Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II.
Director William "Wild Bill" Wellman was a World War I combat veteran, having served in the Lafayette Flying Corps of the French Foreign Legion, a team composed entirely of Americans. Before working on this project he had made several films centering on aerial combat, including the hugely popular Wings (1927) and The Legion of the Condemned (1928), which are still considered among the best of the genre. Initially, Wellman refused to direct the project; after the persistent requests of producer Lester Cowan and an invitation to stay with Ernie Pyle in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he finally relented. Wellman describes one of his evenings with Pyle in his memoirs, A Short Time for Insanity (1974): "During the meal, I saw two G.I.'s who had recognized Ernie, though his back was to them. I could tell they were talking about him by their frequent glances in his direction. Unknowingly, this was to be my first baptism of the greatness of this little giant of the G.I.'s. When we were halfway through our dinner, the two G.I.'s got up and left. Just before they passed through the door, they took a last look at Ernie, said a few words to each other. I felt that they wanted to come over and talk to him but thought that perhaps this wasn't the time or the place. Not right in the middle of a man's dinner. I'll never forget the expression on their faces when they looked at Ernie."
Although Robert Mitchum had already appeared in several films, including Clarence Brown's adaptation of the William Saroyan novel The Human Comedy (1943) and the war film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), it is this film which established him as a star. Wellman recalls: "I very foolishly made the test of one of the most important scenes in the picture, the one where he was the tired officer writing letters to the mothers of kids who'd been killed. It was my big mistake. Really, for I saw something so wonderful, so completely compelling, that I was mad at myself for not having built the set before so that I could have made the test the actual scene that came out in the picture." For his portrayal of Walker, Mitchum was nominated for an Academy Award. Burgess Meredith was also praised for his performance as Ernie Pyle, who had selected him personally for the role. Serving as an Army captain at the time, Meredith was put on "inactive status" so he could participate in the film. Another standout is Freddie Steele, who portrays Sergeant Warnicki in the most substantial role of his career. The 1937 World Middleweight Boxing Champion, Steele appeared as himself in the boxing drama The Pittsburgh Kid (1941) and subsequently received a number of small parts in films, including the crime drama Call Northside 777 (1948). The cinematographer Russell Metty contributes much to the stark look of the film, from the sharp close-ups of the grimy faces of soldiers to the expressionistically photographed ruins of a church. Besides winning an Academy Award for his work in Spartacus (1960), he is known for Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958) and the series of films he photographed for Douglas Sirk in the 1950s such as Written on the Wind (1956). This was his only collaboration with Wellman.
Although the film was shot primarily in the rocky deserts of Southern California and at the Selznick Studios, where the ruins of an Italian town were meticulously recreated, the producer Lester Cowan and director William Wellman went to great lengths to give the film the feeling of authenticity, even using many of the G.I.'s who actually participated in the battles depicted in the film. The result was considered the most authentic war film of the era. According to Wellman biographer Frank T. Thompson, "The War Department assigned 150 veterans of the Italian Campaign who were about to be shipped out to the Pacific. The soldiers were on a six-week "working leave" to do the film. They were given frequent periods of liberty, but, in effect, they were in regular training throughout the duration of the shooting schedule."
Master raconteur Wellman describes the experience of working with the G.I.'s during the shoot: "There was one thing I will always remember about them. When they weren't working, you could always find them behind the sets throwing knives. We had built a half-ruined Italian village. A big portion of the picture was shot there. It was a replica of the many real towns these kids had taken, defended, and lost. When we shot scenes in the different streets, in front of cafes, municipal buildings, church, or whatever, they went about their business in a deadly sort of way. There was no kidding, very little laughter, and a great deal of silence. Between shots, they would sit down or lean against a wall, just look around, say nothing; but their expressions spoke volumes; then, when they were excused, they would disappear behind the set and start throwing knives again."
"I don't know how to describe the sound of a knife being thrown at a log or a set two-by-four or a telephone pole, but that's what you heard, until I was ready to take a scene and the quiet whistle blew. Then it stopped, and it became strangely silent until the scene-finished whistle blew, and it started again, whiiiit-thud, whiiit-thud, day in and day out. I used to hear this stygian sound at night in my sleep. It wasn't the sound alone that got me; it was the constancy." Many of the G.I.s who appeared in the film were subsequently shipped out to the Pacific, only to lose their lives in Okinawa. Wellman sums up: "We had a lot of laughs together, a lot of work, a lot of drinks, and I got them a little extra dough. It all seems so futile now. It's the one picture of mine that I refuse to look at."
The Story of G.I. Joe was enthusiastically received upon its release. General Dwight D. Eisenhower went so far as to call it "the greatest war picture I've ever seen" and Wellman himself regarded it as the finest work of his career. James Agee characterized the film as a "tragic and eternal work of art," emphasizing the film's subtlety of conception: "With a slight shift of time and scene, men whose faces have become familiar simply aren't around any more. The fact is not commented on or in any way pointed; their absence merely creates its gradual vacuum and realization in the pit of the stomach. Things which seem at first tiresome, then to have become too much of a running gag, like the lascivious tongue-clacking of the professional stallion among the soldiers (Wally Cassell) or the Sergeant's continual effort to play the record of his son's voice, are allowed to run their risks without tip-off or apology. In the course of many repetitions they take on full obsessional power and do as much as anything could do to communicate the terrific weight of time, fatigue, and half-craziness which the picture is trying so successfully to make you live through." While recent World War II films such as Saving Private Ryan (1998) may go further in depicting the visceral horrors of war, the artistic achievement of The Story of G.I. Joe is arguably more lasting: it portrays the camaraderie, courage and underlying fear of the ordinary fighting man without once resorting to easy sentimentality.
Producer: Lester Cowan
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Leopold Atlas, Guy Endore and Philip Stevenson, based on the writings of Ernie Pyle
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Editing: Albrecht Joseph
Music: Ann Ronell
Art Director: James Sullivan
Principal Cast: Burgess Meredith (Ernie Pyle), Robert Mitchum (Lt. Walker), Freddie Steele (Sgt. Warnicki), Wally Cassell (Pvt. Dondaro), Jimmy Lloyd (Pvt. Spencer), Jack Reilly (Pvt. Murphy), Bill Murphy (Pvt. Mew), and Combat Veterans of the Campaigns in Africa, Sicily and Italy.
By James Steffen