#458) The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

#458) The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

OR “Ernie Pyle, U.S.W.C.”

Directed by William Wellman

Written by Leopold Atlas & Guy Endore & Philip Stevenson. Based on the books “Here Is Your War” and “Brave Men” by Ernie Pyle.

Class of 2009

The Plot: “The Story of G.I. Joe” is the story not of the classic action figure, but rather the popular ’40s term for the average-Joe WWII soldier. Based on a true story, war correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) tags along with the C Company, 18th Infantry, U.S. Army as they fight in Tunisia and Italy. Led by Lt. Walker (Robert Mitchum), the rookie infantry is tested battle after battle, fighting the elements, their deteriorating mental health, and an ongoing casualty rate. Despite all the hardships, Pyle stays with them, telling their stories to his readers, praising them as the best outfit in all the army.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “gritty portrayal of the realities of war”, as well as Burgess Meredith’s “understated realism”. There’s also an essay by AFI writer/AMPAS librarian Amy Dunkleberger.

But Does It Really?: This is a tough one. Obviously, “G.I. Joe” is a well-made film (Director Wellman is no stranger to great war movies), but WWII movies made during the actual war have a tendency to assume the audience knows all the terminology, leaving future viewers in the cold. The Dunkleberger essay makes a compelling case for “G.I. Joe” being in the NFR, if nothing else as a tribute to the real-life Pyle. I want to support “G.I. Joe” on this list, but without a solid legacy or influence 75 years later, it’s a tough sell. “G.I. Joe” is a good movie, but I question its standing among the greats.

Everybody Gets One: After a brief stint in the Naval Reserve, Ernie Pyle sought to become a journalist. Indiana University didn’t have a journalism degree at that time, so Pyle majored in Economics, but took every journalism class they offered. His work editing the school paper led to a job as a columnist for the Scripps-Howard syndicate. After 17 years of well-received human interest write-ups, Pyle became a war correspondent during WWII, always sympathizing with and celebrating “G.I. Joe”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Typical ’40s wartime jargon, plus shoutouts to bandleader Artie Shaw and pin-up girl Carole Landis.

Title Track: “The Story of G.I. Joe” was released in some areas under the slightly different title “Ernie Pyle’s Story of G.I. Joe”. According to Pyle in one of his last columns “I never did like the title, but nobody could think of a better one, and I was too lazy to try.”

Seriously, Oscars?: A critical success but a financial misstep, “The Story of G.I. Joe” received four Oscar nominations, losing to, among others, future NFR entires “The Lost Weekend” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn“. Robert Mitchum’s Best Supporting Actor nod was his only nomination in what would be a 53 year acting career.

Other notes 

  • Ernie Pyle was initially against his writings being adapted into a movie, but producer Lester Cowan was persistent, wanting to do for the infantry what 1943’s “Air Force” did for the Air Corps. Once they settled on making the film a salute to the average soldier, Pyle agreed.
  • “The Story of G.I. Joe” is based on Pyle’s time with the 36th Infantry Division at the Battle of San Pietro, and the 133rd Infantry in the Battle of Monte Cassino. To add to the realism, many of the extras in the film were real life veterans of these battles, en route to more fighting in the South Pacific. Sadly, many of them would be killed in the South Pacific before the film was released.
  • It’s so interesting watching a young Burgess Meredith (well…younger: he was 38). Known for his larger-than-life performances in “Rocky” and the “Batman” TV series, Meredith is equally good playing reserved, down-to-earth folk like Ernie Pyle. No big emotional monologues for Meredith, he just quietly observes the proceedings and holds the movie together.
  • Also dated: sex-starved soldiers. We get it, there truly is nothing like a dame, but that doesn’t mean you get to be a creepy horndog to the handful of women in this movie.
  • Speaking of, Nurse Murphy (who Pyle “gives away” in a makeshift wedding ceremony) is played by Dorothy Coonan, star of “Wild Boys of the Road” and wife of director William Wellman.
  • One of the movie’s subplots is Sgt. Warnicki, who keeps trying to find a record player so he can listen to the recording his wife sent of their son talking for the first time. When he does finally find one, the needle is broken. As Pyle might say, “That’s not fair at all. There was time now…
  • Once again, Robert Mitchum’s performance does nothing for me, through no fault of its own. I guess I just don’t have an acquired taste for the man’s work. He mutters a few lines, has a nice heart-to-heart with Pyle, and then [spoilers] is killed off-screen. Like Gary Cooper in “Wings”, I’m baffled as to how this was Mitchum’s breakout role.
  • Right before production began, the Normandy Invasion of D-Day occurred and signaled the beginning of the war’s end. While previous war films of the time ramped up the victory propaganda, “G.I. Joe” characteristically ends with a less extravagant, more hopeful prayer for peace.

Legacy 

  • “The Story of G.I. Joe” helped propel Robert Mitchum from fresh-faced new talent to established movie star. Mitchum would go on to play more nuanced characters in such films as “The Night of the Hunter“, “Out of the Past“, and “Cape Fear”.
  • Unfortunately, Ernie Pyle did not live to see the final film: he was killed in combat while covering the invasion of Okinawa, two months before the film’s premiere. He received tributes from President Eisenhower and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and in the ensuing years has been honored by the U.S. Postal Service, Indiana University, and even The Peanuts.
  • In 1963, Donald Levin was trying to come up with a name for his new action figure, and remembered the name “G.I. Joe” from this movie. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle!

Listen to This: During the movie, the soldiers listen to an episode of “Command Performance” hosted by Bob Hope. This was a real wartime radio program produced for the Armed Forces, and a 1942 episode with Hope and Lena Horne made the National Recording Registry in 2005. Listen to it here.

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