Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Movie Review: The Story Of G.I. Joe (1945)


A poignant view of war from the perspective of lowly infantrymen, The Story Of G.I. Joe is a glamour-free chronicle of the ravages of war. 

It's 1943, and war correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) joins the raw recruits of the US Army's C Company, 18th Infantry, as they truck their way to the front lines in North Africa. Lieutenant Bill Walker (Robert Mitchum) is aware his men lack experience, and not surprisingly their first test ends in defeat at Kasserine Pass.

Months later Pyle rejoins C Company, now making their way through Italy. Walker has been promoted to Captain, and the men have become expert killing machines, efficiently dislodging German defenders from a church bell tower. But after endless days of marching and combat, the increasingly exhausted and jaded soldiers get bogged down at Monte Cassino, where fortified German positions pin them down into a muddy battle of attrition.

Ernie Pyle was a celebrated World War Two correspondent, his newspaper columns bringing the war home through stories of sons and husbands fighting and dying in distant lands. With a cast combining professional actors and actual servicemen, The Story Of G.I. Joe is based on Pyle's witnessed accounts and newspaper columns, although details were understandably simplified. Remarkable for the 1945 context, the movie is devoid of any propaganda or jingoism. 

Instead, this is the grim realism of war, men trudging for endless miles on foot, in the mud and rain, sleeping rough, combating fatigue, boredom, depression and desperation, and longing for home. Director William Wellman zooms in close and uses silence to great effect, capturing the transformation of raw recruits to battle hardened but increasingly soul-dead professional soldiers. The few scenes of combat are tense and sharply choreographed, while away from the front lines the incessant dull thud of artillery serves as a constant reminder of the unfolding destruction.

Pyle was in his forties, and in relative terms an old man in the eyes of the infantrymen. Yet he earned respect by sharing every step of their experience, and the unlikely warm bond between soldiers and journalist forms the heart of the film.

While the group's humanity is revealed through their concerted caring for a small dog, Wellman is able to define a few of the men as individuals, although their background stories and personalities are shrouded in the collective experience. Murphy (John R. Reilly) had his heart set on the glamour of the Air Force but was deemed too tall. Dondaro (Wally Cassell) is a rampant womanizer and seeks female companionship in every bombed out corner. Warnicki (Freddie Steele) is a quiet family man, and spends the Italian campaign desperately searching for a phonograph to try and listen to a voice recording of his young son. And Mew (William Murphy) has no family, and has to decide who to name as beneficiaries on his life insurance policy.

Walker is their leader, but unable to prevent the pain of war from extinguishing the spark in his eyes. In his first leading role Robert Mitchum does more with less in portraying a steady presence, until a searing scene unleashes the pain and guilt accumulated from marching an endless succession of young men into the arena of death.

The Story Of G.I. Joe distills the war experience to exhausted drudgery amidst physical destruction, an inescapable nightmare where nothing thrives except death.






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