Story of G.I. Joe

"Except for Wellman's G.I. Joe with its feeling of death and mass murder, all war films are kind of adolescent, completely insincere."

-- Sam Fuller, director of The Steel Helmet

When Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, astute film reviewers pointed to antecedents such as Lewis Milestone's A Walk in the Sun (1945) and Sam Fuller's The Steel Helmet (1951). Reviewers with especially good memories also pointed to William Wellman's Story of G.I. Joe. A good memory was required in this case because Story of G.I. Joe had never been available on home video -- in any form. Only people who had seen it theatrically (or had caught it during an ultra-rare television appearance) could testify to its status as one of the great war movies. But this major omission has been addressed. Image Entertainment has recently released Story of G.I. Joe on both DVD and VHS.

Based on the World War II experiences of Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle, Story of G.I. Joe (1945) eschews the action-movie heroics so common in war movies, and it rejects any vestiges of a typical plot structure. It takes us into the trenches of infantry combat, using an episodic structure that reflects the types of experiences that Ernie Pyle endured during WWII. He accompanied American soldiers in North Africa and Italy and immersed himself in the world of the infantry soldier, living with them in muddy trenches and scavenging for food. His dedication to the soldiers won him their respect and allowed him an insider's perspective that few journalists were ever permitted.

When transferring Ernie Pyle's experiences to celluloid, director William Wellman emphasized the naturalistic and the unglamorous. Seldom has a movie so convincingly portrayed the physical discomfort that soldiers experienced during war. We see them as they gripe and complain, as they endure boredom and hunger. Wellman's camera remains with the soldiers, effectively limiting our perspective to what the ground soldiers experienced.

pics from Story of G.I. Joe

[click photos for larger versions]

When soldiers enter combat, Wellman doesn't provide clear objectives. The battle scenes are noteworthy for their chaos. Shots suddenly ring out and soldiers dive behind rubble. We don't know if any objectives other than "survival" even exist. As bullets whiz past their heads, soldiers size up the situations and sergeants silently signal commands. Wellman's camera doesn't hype these scenes for their heroic values. No one dies a hero. The camera allows scenes to unroll in medium and long shots. Wellman's respect for the soldiers comes through in this unwillingness to imbue the scenes with false emotions. Instead, he wants us to understand their weariness (one soldier is so exhausted he falls asleep while standing up in the shower), their misery (their uniforms are eternally encrusted in mud), and their fear (they endure relentless shelling by heavy artillery).

Structurally, the movie takes us on a journey to the battlefront. Therefore, in general, the movie is comprised of two types of scenes: men trudging along muddy roads and men waiting for orders while burrowed into the sides of hills. The episodic structure resembles a series of journal entries, simply arranged in chronological order, with the main rationale for each episode's inclusion being its representativeness. Instead of surprising us with unusual revelations and unexpected developments, Story of G.I. Joe surprises us with its bluntness and authenticity.

Unlike other war movies made during the '40s, soldiers frequently question what's happening. "I wonder when we're going to start winning this war," says a commander. And the movie stresses the confusion of the soldiers. The towns they pass all look the same and become a blur:

"Didn't we take that yesterday?"

"No, that was 'San' something else."

"When this war is over I'm gonna find me a map and find out where I been."

In the movie's most prolonged sequence, soldiers dig in at the base of a hill, while Italian artillery bombards them from a monastery on the top of a nearby hill. Because the monastery is considered historically important, the Army hesitates to attack. With their hands tied, the soldiers dig deep into the hillside, watching dirt fall from the ceiling as explosions jolt the ground. Every evening, the Captain asks for volunteers to join a mission to pickoff the enemy soldiers who operate the artillery. And every morning, the survivors of these missions stumble back into camp, dazed and bleeding.

Burgess Meredith plays Ernie Pyle and it's one of his best performances. He becomes our eyes and ears, allowing us entrance to the world of the soldier. Meredith gives a quiet performance. He's largely an observer but through him we see Pyle's dedication to the soldiers. Pyle was determined to make his readers in America understand what the infantrymen endured, the sacrifices they made for the war, and their dedication to getting the job done.

Robert Mitchum plays Captain Walker. This is the performance that brought Mitchum his one and only Academy Award nomination. He is featured in less than a quarter of the movie's running time, but his powerful presence is felt throughout the movie. Whereas Robert Aldrich's superb Attack presented a scathingly cynical portrait of the men who commanded infantry, Story of G.I. Joe is compassionate. Captain Walker can be stern but he always has the best interest of his men in mind.

Image Entertainment's DVD includes an extensive gallery of Ernie Pyle's original newspaper columns. Viewers can navigate through these documents by using their remote controls. Knowing that Pyle died during WWII adds a distinct poignancy to this columns, especially when they are read in chronological order up to the date his reports stopped altogether. The DVD also contains newsreel footage of Pyle talking with G.I.s in Italy (although this footage is fairly brief). The 35mm transfer is in generally good condition. You'll see some dust specks and the detail in some scenes has been slightly washed out, but the transfer is sharp and exhibits good contrast.

This is an essential DVD for war movie fans.

Story of G.I. Joe is now available on DVD and VHS from Image Entertainment. Suggested retail price: $24.99 for DVD and $19.98 for VHS.