Charles M. Schultz was one of the great memorializers of WWII in that he kept events like the D-Day invasion or the art of Bill Maudlin in the public forum for as long as Peanuts was syndicated. If I remember correctly, it was also through his strip I first became aware of the name Ernie Pyle.
It’s not too far of a stretch to think the former Sergeant Schultz (who saw action in Europe) eventually saw this movie because, before he ever penned a frame of Peanuts, this was the first homage, not necessarily just to Pyle, but also to the soldier that he chronicled for the folks at home.
We jump right in with a truck loaded with men being hauled to the front where the action is. Not only do they pick up a furry passenger, they take on a civilian as well because Pyle (Burgess Meredith) is intent on getting as close to the epicenter of the action as possible. He wants material bearing an authentic mark.
The man who agrees to let him aboard is none other than Robert Mitchum, their scraggily and sleepy-eyed leader, who never seems to be perturbed. As a related consideration, it becomes intriguing to chart his early career with all his bit parts as soldiers finally leading to a heftier role. These included his blink and you’ll miss it cameos only a couple years prior, in everything from The Human Comedy to Corvette K-225, and Cry Havoc. What followed were stepping stones like 30 Seconds Over Tokyo and finally, The Story of G.I. Joe.
It doesn’t feel so much as we are seeing Mitchum transformed into his future persona. He appears unflappable as much off-screen as he is on. It’s more so a matter of Hollywood realizing who he was and what compelling qualities he brought to the lead. Certainly, he’s masculine; he has a handsome, distinctive face, but there is something more to him. It’s the suggestion of not caring about any of the distractions around him. This underlying coolness in any manner of situations. It all catered to his future stardom at RKO.
But back to the trenches. Although we get Artie Shaw out on the front, the production also ladles on the dramatic diegetic scoring a little too thickly when they experience their first casualty. We know the import of the moment only to get clubbed over the head with it just to make absolutely certain it didn’t escape us.
Otherwise, the film causes us to brush up against the elements in an immersive even dispiriting manner courtesy of cinematographer Russell Metty. You begin to live vicariously through the platoon and understand their daily struggles. This is The Story of G.I. Joe at its most effectual, succeeding in precisely what Pyle was striving to do. We get a tactile sense of his life’s work as a war correspondent.
Day after day, company C, 18th Infantry makes its way across Italy. All sorts of men, big and small, fill up their ranks. Freddie Steele, coming off his intriguing turn in Hail The Conquering Hero, is no less watchable here as a grizzled soldier intent on finding a victrola so he can hear his son’s voice. It’s the sole shred of home, keeping him sane in the chaotic world he’s subjected to day in and day out. Many of the others aren’t so lucky, more or less lacking his indefatigable brand of grit. The mental toll is high for all parties.
I know it’s set in a different country but with the rubble, bell tower, infantry, and tanks rolling across the grounds I couldn’t help thinking of the midsection of Saving Private Ryan because The Story of G.I. Joe, as one of its precursors, documents the life of the common man as well as the skirmishes he’s subjected to.
They systematically take down a pair of Germans lurking behind the debris to clear the area. Later, one of their company (John R. Reilly) has an impromptu wedding ceremony in the bombed-out premises — Pyle being tapped to give the bride away. A little over a decade later Stanley Kubrick would end up marrying his wife who appeared in his seminal war movie Paths of Glory. William Wellman cut out the middle man, so to speak, by having his wife (Dorothy Noonan Wellman) in an uncredited role as the nurse who weds the G.I.
Without resting on their laurels, they are tasked with taking a new position. It’s ruled over by a monastery — a religious relic the enemy have conveniently fashioned into an impregnable observation post; they won’t give up the ground. What’s worse, the hesitant allies won’t bomb the building. We’ve reached an impasse until human life finally takes precedence over maintaining ancient artifice. As it should.
The holidays come, and it’s a drab affair, men clinging to dreams of the family and food back home — from turkey to cranberry sauce. Of course, they aren’t granted such amenities where they are so all they have are their private memories. In between the barrage of artillery fire, one of the company’s members (Wally Cassell) picks Pyle’s brain about his time in Hollywood. For a brief solitary moment, he drools over starlets like Carole Landis; it removes him from his current reality of muck and mire.
Christmas might be a complete wash if not for their commanding officer scrounging them up some turkey and a bit of wine as they slog through the perpetually miserable conditions. They manage a bit of yuletide cheer in spite of the bleak landscape around them.
It feels less like propaganda in the typical sense or at least it’s all the more effective as an empathy picture, putting us in the boots of the soldier so we get a feel for the lives they lead out on the front. You begin to realize how extraordinary they are in their very ordinariness.
Ernie Pyle winning the Pulitzer is like a drop in the can. It feels so inconsequential in the face of all they have gone through together, but the beauty is Pyle has gone through it with them. They have mutual solidarity in the thick of this continual absurdity.
On Christmas evening, after a typically long day, he sits down with the leader of the pack and pulls out one last turkey leg from under his jacket. He picks off any fuzz and partakes in the delicacy. It’s a much-appreciated gesture. They trade off taking swigs of Italian moonshine scattered with conversation.
The most revealing revelation is the sergeant’s agitation of having to write the families of every young man who gives his life. In some queer way, he feels like a murderer, and it rankles him to see every new fresh-faced recruit who has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. There’s a helplessness in him and yet it’s his job to keep them together, so he does the best he can under the deplorable conditions.
This scene might be the most meaningful impression we get of Mitchum as a human being because he’s a believable G.I.b but here we see his honest chops as an actor. It’s no coincidence that this is the picture helping him transition to stardom.
The ending continues in this manner, offering up a melancholy denouement that feels like one of the more candid depictions of wartime reality. Where the war rolls on no matter what happens. It cannot wait up for the story of a film to catch up.
Of course, Ernie Pyle would never live to see the finished film, which he actually served as a technical advisor on. He was too busy continuing his work in Okinawa where he was killed by an enemy machine gun. It’s a tragic detail, but it makes The Story of G.I. Joe all the more pertinent. If anything, it gets the truth behind Ernie Pyle’s writing, both his life and his death, right. It is the ultimate tribute to the man who tried to get the stories out of everyday heroes back to the reading public sitting in their living rooms.
“I hope we can rejoice with victory but humbly. That all together we will try out of the memory of our anguish to reassemble our broken world into a pattern so firm and so fair that a never great war can never again be possible and for those beneath the wooden crosses there is nothing we can do but perhaps murmur: Thanks, pal. Thanks…”
~ Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle