William Wellman’s THE STORY OF G.I. JOE tells the tale of boots-on-the-ground combat soldiers through the eyes of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for Scripps-Howard newspapers. The film was one of the most realistic depictions of the brutality of war up to that time, and made a star out of a young actor by the name of Robert Mitchum . In fact, this was the one and only time Mitchum ever received an Oscar nomination – a shocking fact given the caliber of his future screen work.
Burgess Meredith plays Pyle, who embeds with the 18th Infantry’s ‘C’ Company in order to give his stateside readers the grim realities of war from the soldier’s point of view. The men accept him, affectionately calling him ‘Pop’, as he shares their hardships, heartbreaks, and victories. Meredith’s voice over narrations are taken directly from Pyle’s columns, detailing the cold nights, dusty roads, and slogging across muddy rivers, as they campaign through the rugged Italian terrain. Pyle and Captain (later Lieutenant) Walker (Mitchum) bond, the diminutive writer and the battle-hardened Walker sharing Grappa as they discuss life, love, and the pain of losing comrades in the midst of war.
Mitchum stands tall as Walker, his breakthrough role after toiling for five years in mostly ‘B’ Westerns. Walker, with his scruffy beard and stoic demeanor, is the embodiment of the American fighting man, fiercely loyal to his troops, tough when he has to be, tender during somber moments. The haunting final scene, as the soldiers solemnly pass by Walker’s corpse, will bring tears to the eyes of even the hardest hearted viewers. Mitchum’s restrained performance, under the watchful eye of director Wellman, led to his casting in larger roles and eventual superstardom.
Former Middleweight boxing champion Freddie Steele does outstanding work as Walker’s second in command, Sgt. Warnicki, whose eventual crack-up after trying to hold it together for so long is amazing to behold. The rest of ‘C’ Company’s main players (John R. Reilly, Wally Cassell, Jimmy Lloyd, William Murphy) all get their chances to shine, and real-life veterans of the Italian, Sicilian, and African campaigns are featured to add further authenticity.
William Wellman’s insisted on having his actors train with actual soldiers in California to insure that authenticity – they didn’t call him ‘Wild Bill’ for nothing! Wellman, DP Russell Metty, and the rest of the crew worked as a team, much like the soldiers themselves, to create a realistic depiction of the harshness of war. Wellman was a combat veteran himself, having been a fighter pilot during WWI, which helped provide the backdrop for his Oscar-winning film WINGS. Otho Lovering’s editing deserves special credit for putting it all together.
The real Ernie Pyle was killed in action covering the Pacific front in Okinawa on April 18, 1945, two months before THE STORY OF G.I. JOE was released. War correspondents like Pyle were just as brave as the soldiers they covered, putting themselves in harm’s way in order to bring the battle directly to the public, and sharing the human interest drama of the foot soldier’s struggles and triumphs. As we set aside this day to honor those who served, I leave you with this quote on returning veterans from a man who served in his own small way, the late Ernie Pyle:
“Our men can’t make this change from normal civilians into warriors and remain the same people. Even if they were away from you under normal circumstances, the mere process of maturing would change them, and they would not come home just as you knew them. Add to that the abnormal world they have been plunged into, the new philosophies they have had to assume or perish inwardly, the horrors and delights and strange wonderful things they have experienced, and they are bound to be different people from those you sent away.”