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The working titles of this film were Here Is Your War and Story of G. I. Joe. The two title cards on the viewed print read: "Ernie Pyle's Story of/G. I. Joe." Although modern sources and some contemporary sources refer to the film's title as The Story of G. I. Joe, copyright records list it officially as G. I. Joe. The name "G. I. Joe," which became synonymous with American soldiers during World War II, is attributed to cartoonist Dave Breger. In 1942, after learning that the title of his semi-autobiographical cartoon "Private Breger" was under copyright to The Saturday Evening Post, the magazine in which it had been appearing since 1941, Breger changed the strip's name to "G. I. Joe," so that two Armed Forces publications, Yank magazine and the daily Stars and Stripes, could run it for the duration of the war. "G. I." is an abbreviation for "government issue" and refers to supplies distributed by the government. Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair's onscreen technical guidance credit is preceded by the words "Grateful acknowledgement." McNair, who, according to a Hollywood Reporter news item, "first conceived of the film," died while fighting in France in August 1944. Voice-over narration, spoken by Burgess Meredith as "Ernie Pyle," is heard intermittently throughout the picture.
No specific literary source is mentioned in the onscreen credits, but according to a November 1943 War Department record contained at NARS, as well as director William A. Wellman's autobiography, the picture was based on Pyle's book Here Is Your War, a chronicle of the North African campaign. Although not mentioned in any contemporary sources, Pyle's 1944 book Brave Men, which begins in June 1943 and details Pyle's experiences in Italy and France, also was a source for the film.
Ernie Pyle was born in 1900 in Dana, IN, studied journalism at Indiana University and began his writing career as a reporter for the La Porte Herald. He later worked for The Washington News, The New York World Telegram and The New York Post. In 1935, he became a roving reporter for the Scripps-Howard chain of newspapers and, with his wife, traveled throughout the Western Hemisphere writing human interest stories. At the outbreak of World War II, he was sent to London to report on the German bombardment of Britain. Pyle accompanied American troops during the invasions of North Africa and Italy and the Allied landings in Normandy in 1944, and wrote simple, moving pieces about life "in the trenches." As depicted in the film, Pyle was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in May 1944. He also won the Raymond Clapper Memorial award for distinguished war correspondence. On April 18, 1945, Pyle was killed by machine-gun fire during a battle on the Pacific Island of Ie Shima. He never saw the completed film.
War Department records add the following information about the production: Independent producer Lester Cowan first approached the Army about making a "ground forces" picture in September 1943. According to a September 13, 1943 letter to Col. Curtis Mitchell, Director, Pictorial Branch, Dept. of Public Relations of the U.S. Army, Cowan had purchased an "unfinished play" by Clifford Odets on the subject and intended to use it as the "dramatic foundation" of the film. Cowan proposed to Mitchell that following an intensive research period, he would assign "someone to develop a digest from the best material written about our boys in action." The story was to cover training and "as much human interest material as can be secured from soldiers who have returned...from action at the fronts." According to a September 22, 1943 memorandum from Mitchell to Allyn Butterfield, chief of Pictorial Branch's feature film section, playwright Arthur Miller, who is described in memos as a "scenario writer" for Lester Cowan Productions, requested permission to visit military installations to "acquire background data for an approved War Department motion picture script." Miller was also announced as an "adapter" in a January 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item. The contribution of Odets and Miller to the final film, if any, has not been determined. In mid-November 1943, Cowan first submitted an outline, "based upon the material in Ernie Pyle's book, 'Here Is Your War,'" to Col. Falkner Heard of the Army Ground Forces.
Hollywood Reporter news items and production charts note the following about the production: The first director to be announced was Richard Rosson, who reportedly met with Cowan and Pyle in New York, and the War Department in Washington, D.C. Lucien Hubbard, who is credited onscreen for technical guidance, was announced as associate producer in February 1944. In mid-March 1944, production on the film began on location at the California-Arizona Maneuver Area of the Army in the desert near Yuma, AZ. Leslie Fenton, who had directed Cowan's previous picture Tomorrow the World! (see below entry,) was the film's director at that time, and Archie Stout was the cinematographer. Other locations mentioned as filming sites were Camp Carson near Colorado Springs, CO, where sets depicting the bombing of the Monte Cassino monastery were to be built, and Camp Cooke in central California. It is not known, however, if any scenes were actually filmed in these locations.
In early May 1944, production shut down so that a new ending could be written to "accommodate changes in the war." Although Cowan expected the delay to last only thirty days, he encountered many difficulties in revising the screenplay. In a June 28, 1944 letter to Col. Mitchell, Cowan wrote: "It is almost impossible to conceive a picture of Pyle that will please everyone, as he has apparently become all things to all men." In addition to changes in the script, Cowan had lined up locations comparable to the French Channel coast, Norway, Yugoslavia and Holland, in anticipation of an Allied invasion. By late August 1944, as the end of the European war appeared imminent, Cowan arranged with film news services to shoot victory celebrations in various American cities. War Department records indicate that Cowan also considered filming a new ending in April 1945 that would include Pyle's death. None of these proposed scenes were included in the final film, however.
In mid-August 1944, Hollywood Reporter announced that a new director would be assigned to the project as Fenton had "other commitments." Fenton directed approximately six weeks worth of shooting, all of which consisted of battle scenes and other location footage. It has not been determined how much of Fenton's footage was included in the final film. In mid-September 1944, Howard Hawks was announced as Cowan's choice as replacement director. John Huston, who was then a major in the Army and had directed some war-related documentaries, was also under consideration as director at that time, according to War Department records.
Wellman, who was well-known for his hard-hitting aviation pictures, was hired as director in September 1944. In his autobiography, Wellman recalled that he initially turned down the job because of resentment he felt toward infantrymen, who, he believed, unfairly belittled fliers. Pyle invited Wellman to his home in Albuquerque and, after several days of discussion, some with Cowan, persuaded him to take the assignment. According to Wellman's autobiography, the director realized "the great need for such a picture and what it would mean to the thousands of kids that were fighting." Wellman noted that three weeks after he had signed on to the project, "Ernie came to Hollywood. The script of G. I. Joe had been completed and now the polishing job, and Ernie was to be the shine boy. We worked together day after day, and it gradually became a great shooting script." According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Cowan submitted the shooting script to the military for approval in late September 1944.
Prior to Wellman's involvement in the project, Cowan had signed Gary Cooper to portray Pyle in the film. When Cooper bowed out to join a USO tour, he began negotiations with Fred MacMurray. Many other actors and non-professionals then were mentioned for the part, including Fred Astaire, Cowan's reported first choice, James Gleason, Walter Brennan, Barry Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh radio sports commentator Albert Kennedy "Rosey" Rosewell and Pyle look-alike John M. Waldeck, a streetcar conductor nominated by 1,200 St. Louisans. Burgess Meredith, who had been announced as a technical advisor in June 1944 along with Huston, was not cast until late October 1944. According to War Department records, Meredith was Pyle's choice for the role. A captain in the Army, Meredith was placed on inactive status during production. War Department records indicate that the Army offered to grant permission for Meredith's participation on condition that Cowan turn all profits from the picture over to the Army Emergency Relief organization. It has not been determined if, in fact, Cowan did so.
Cowan's company borrowed Robert Mitchum from RKO for the production. "Lt. Walker" was Mitchum's first noteworthy role and garnered him an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. Modern sources state that because of the War Department's participation in the making of the film, the Army allowed Mitchum, who had been drafted, to use time spent on the production toward the completion of his military service. On April 25, 1945, the Army also granted Mitchum a one-day release from basic training so that he could shoot retakes, according to modern sources. In addition to Mitchum's performance, reviewers greatly praised the acting of Freddie Steele, a former boxer, in the role of "Warnicki." Dorothy Coonan, who plays "Red" in the film, was Wellman's wife; G. I. Joe marked her first movie role after a twelve-year hiatus from the screen. A March 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Cowan was seeking Richard Conte for a role, but he did not appear in the final film.
Other actors listed in news items as cast members were Jack Lee, Bob Merrill, Tom Holland, Michael Browne, Sgt. Jack Gross, Cpl. Harry Olsen, John Shay, Gene Garrick, Joe Haworth and Archie Twitchell. Cpl. James D. Slaton, the "most-decorated Yank" of the war to that time, was to play himself in the picture. According to War Department records, Capt. Milton M. Thornton and Capt. Charles Shunstrom, who are credited onscreen with technical guidance, also were to play themselves in the picture. The appearance of these men in the final film has not been confirmed, however. Eugene Borden, Louise Laureau and Louise Kerbrat were cast as a "French family," but no scenes set in France were included in the final film. On May 24, 1944, Hollywood Reporter announced that production on the picture would resume for one day, in order to record the presentation of the Distinguished Service Cross to Lt. Lennie Bessman. Bessman, who won the medal for escaping from a German prison camp, was to play himself in the film, but the presentation was not included in the final film, and Bessman's appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. According to a September 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, Cowan wanted Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Carole Landis and Frances Langford to appear in cameos in the film; Hope's voice is heard during the Christmas radio broadcast scene, but none of the other stars are seen or heard.
As noted in onscreen credits, many real-life soldiers appeared in the picture. According to War Department records, the soldiers remained on active duty during the six-week shooting schedule and were stationed at a temporary Army installation called Camp Baldwin in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles. When they were not being used on the picture, the men were required to maintain a "regular training program" so that they would "make the best possible appearance...both in physical condition and in military techniques." In his autobiography, Wellman commented that all of the soldiers, who had been through "the African campaign, the Tunisian business, Sicily, Rome," were shipped to the South Pacific after the film's completion and "none of them came home." Modern sources add George Chandler (Soldier) to the cast.
In addition to the credited technical advisors, many correspondents were announced in Hollywood Reporter as advisors and/or players, including Michael Chinigo, Dan De Luca, Wes Gallagher, Edward Kennedy, Clark Lee, Bob Neville, Noland Norgaard, Reynold Packard, Fred Painter, Quentin Reynolds, Inez Robb, John Steinbeck, Jack Thompson, Tom Treanor, Richard Tregaskis and Graham Hovey. Pulitzer Prize winner De Luca was to appear in the picture receiving his award alongside Pyle, and George Lait, who is credited onscreen as an advisor, also was to portray himself. Bob Landry of Life magazine is the only correspondent besides Pyle who has been identified as appearing in the picture. Clark Lee reportedly replaced Bob Cunningham as technical advisor, but was himself replaced, after leaving on assignment for the South Pacific. Of those three men, only Cunningham, who is referred to in War Dept. records as Pyle's "closest correspondent friend," received an onscreen technical guidance credit, however.
Sgts. Kenny Thorpe and George Yahlem, Cpl. Enrico Dorazzio, Pfc. Clarence Cohen and Pvt. Edward Lawson were also announced as technical advisors. Capt. Frederick D. Greist was hired as technical advisor for front line and hospital scenes. The participation of these journalists and soldiers in the final film has not been confirmed. Researcher Paige Cavanaugh was Pyle's closest friend and provided the production with scrapbooks on Pyle, according to War Dept. records. Hollywood Reporter news items also reported that Cowan had conferred with Lee Miller, the managing editor of the Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance and Pyle's mentor, on the production, and with Cranston Williams, the general manager of the American Newspaper Publishers' Association.
When production resumed on November 15, 1944, the picture had a two-million dollar budget. Although a Hollywood Reporter news item announced that "no stock footage or newsreel clips" were to be used, the New York Times review claimed that "authentic Signal Corps footage of the North African and Italian campaigns" was included in the picture. According to modern sources, G. I. Joe used footage from John Huston's 1945 documentary San Pietro . Cowan constructed a detailed bombed-out Italian village set for some scenes. Location filming took place in Palmdale and Fort Ord, CA. War Department records indicate that Victorville, CA, also was a planned location, but it is not known if any scenes were shot there. Although a December 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Cowan was negotiating with Frank Loesser for exclusive rights to his hit song "What Do We Do in the Infantry?" the song was not used in the final picture. In April 1944, Jack Diamond was announced as the film's director of publicity, but he apparently was replaced by Ralph Huston in late August 1944. Prior to its domestic release, Cowan arranged for the picture to be shown overseas to the armed forces. Although the Hollywood Reporter review lists a running time of 147 minutes, and the Daily Variety review lists it as 120 minutes, all other sources from the same period list a length of approximately 109 minutes.
G. I. Joe is considered by many critics to be one of the best non-documentary war films ever made. The New York Times reviewer described the film as a "hard-hitting, penetrating drama of the footslogging soldier," an "eloquent motion picture." The Daily Variety reviewer wrote: "The picture is screened with unequivocal realism. There is no hokum. No flag waving. No synthetic sentimentality. No bombast." Wellman regarded the picture as his best, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower called it "the greatest war picture I've ever seen." James Agee wrote in The Nation: "Coming as it does out of a world in which even the best work is nearly always compromised, and into a world which is generally assumed to dread honesty and courage and to despise artistic integrity, it is an act of heroism..." In addition to Mitchum's nomination, the film received Academy Award nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture). "Linda" was nominated as Best Song. (Although modern sources list Jack Lawrence as Ann Ronell's co-writer on the song, only Ronell was nominated.) The film made the New York Times "ten best" list of 1945. On September 24, 1970, Cowan re-issued the picture in Texas, in honor of the late Capt. Henry Waskow, the Army commander who reportedly was the inspiration for Mitchum's character.