Friday, July 29, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) ***
Directed by: William A. Wellman.
Written by: Leopold Atlas and Guy Endore and Philip Stevenson based on the books by Ernie Pyle.
Starring: Burgess Meredith (Ernie Pyle), Robert Mitchum (Lt. / Capt. Bill Walker), Freddie Steele (Sgt. Steve Warnicki), Wally Cassell (Pvt. Dondaro), Jimmy Lloyd (Pvt. Spencer), John R. Reilly (Pvt. Robert 'Wingless' Murphy), William Murphy (Pv. Mew), Sicily and Italy Combat Veterans of the Campaigns in Africa (Themselves).

William A. Wellman was a solid, respectable filmmaker of the studio era. He made a few great movies – The Public Enemy (1931) and The Ox Bow Incident (1943) are the first two that come to mind, but he considered The Story of G.I. from 1945 to be his finest film – even if after completing it, he wasn’t able to watch the film again. He had become friends with Ernie Pyle, whose story the movie tells, and as the film was being completed, Pyle died while covering the war in Japan. A war veteran himself, Wellman wanted to bring realism to his war movie. Watching the film today, there is no doubt that it has aged a little. That at times, it is too sentimental, and if a film like this were released now, it would be criticized for being old fashioned. And yet, if you look at The Story of G.I. Joe in context to the war movies being made at the time, Wellman’s film seems gritty and realistic by comparison. This is not the typical flag waving, America Fuck Yeah war movie we are used to seeing in American films made during and right after WWII. This is a film that does its best to depict what the soldiers on the ground are really going through, and while it has been surpassed many times since, it deserves praise for doing so while the war was still going on.

The movie centers of Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith), a war correspondent and his adventures with Company C of the 18th Infantry in Italy during the war. Although Pyle was 20 years older than most of the soldiers, he marched right along side them, to get an idea of what they went through. Most war correspondents stayed back from the front lines – writing stories about the Navy and the Air Force – but Pyle wanted to get right into the war itself, and cover it honestly. Although he covered many aspects of the war, he always considered Company C to be “his” company – he felt at home there.

It is through Ernie that we get to know the men of C Company – most notably Captain Walker played by Robert Mitchum in the role that made him a star, and brought him the only Oscar nomination of his great career. Amazingly, even this early in his career, Mitchum already had the wounded masculinity, the look of regret in his eyes, and the realization that death was right in front of him at all times that would come to define his persona. The depiction of Company C would follow him in this regard. This is not a movie about heroics, but about a group of men who are simply trying to do their job and get home alive. Death hangs above the entire movie, rarely commented on, but a constant, unspoken presence. It is these scenes where the movie is at its strongest.

The film was highly praised in 1945 – Dwight Eisenhower, a man who knew war, even went as far as to call it the greatest war movie he had ever seen. But it has been largely forgotten since then. I think this perhaps because it walks an uneasy line between the more patriotic films like Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941) and Samuel Fuller’s grittier, more realistic The Steel Helmet (1951). At times, it seems that Wellman wants to have it both ways, and this makes for a not completely successful film. For every scene of gritty, realistic death, there are scenes like the soldier constantly trying to play a record of his son speaking, or scenes involving the dog the company adopts as their own that don’t quite fit. Despite how good he is in the film – and he is very good – and almost think the movie would have been better had they dropped Burgess Meredith’s Ernie Pyle character out of the movie altogether. It is his voiceovers of the stories he wrote (that brought him a Pulitzer Prize) that seem most dated and out of place. Had Wellman concentrated on bringing more scenes like the ones where Pyle is absent, and the men of Company C take center stage, this could have been one of the great war movies of all time.

That it isn’t, is the movies failing. And yet, I still think that the film deserves a lot of respect. Wellman is stretching himself here, and trying to drag the war movie along with him, into a grittier realism than had been depicted on American screens in the 1940s before. It isn’t surprising that he wasn’t able to quite pull it off. But I admire the film for at least attempting to do so.

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