Home Video Reviews
Missing in action from television showings or theatrical screenings for over 20 years, The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), starring Burgess Meredith as war correspondent Ernie Pyle, is finally available on DVD from Image Entertainment. The film will also have its world television premiere on Turner Classic Movies on Friday, May 24 at 8:00 pm ET with an encore showing during our Memorial Day war marathon at 6:00 pm ET on Monday, May 27.
The Story of G. I. Joe, directed by William Wellman, 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 Image DVD of The Story of G. I. Joe features a fine transfer of the original film (though there is some minor print damage in places) and includes a newsreel clip of Pyle talking with some soldiers and one of his newspaper columns which illustrates his unpretentious reporting style. According to the DVD liner notes by James Tobin, author of Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II, critics were extremely enthusiastic about Wellman's film when it was first released, 'calling G.I. JOE "a living human document high above any niche ever attained by a 'war picture' (The Washington Post and "painstakingly realistic" (Newsweek). Time's reviewer called it "far and away the least glamorous war picture ever made...a movie without a single false note. It is not 'entertainment' in the usual sense, but General Eisenhower called it 'the greatest war picture I've ever seen."
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. 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 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."
For more information about the DVD of The Story of G.I. Joe, visit Image Entertainment. For more information about the TCM premiere of the film, visit TCM's This Month page on May 1st.
By Jeff Stafford and James Steffen