The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Story of G.I. Joe

I went to Indiana University in Bloomington for college, getting my journalism degree from the IU School of Journalism. The building was named Ernie Pyle Hall or shortened to 'the Pyle.' The school was named after famed journalist and war correspondent Ernie Pyle who rose to fame during World War II for his columns about the fighting in Europe and the Pacific. His exploits were given a feature film adaptation in a criminally forgotten war film, 1945's The Story of G.I. Joe.

It's 1942 in North Africa and inexperienced American troops are being pushed back on all fronts against the veteran German troops. A journalist and columnist from Indiana, 42-year old Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) joins the American infantry on the front lines looking to tell their stories for the American people back in the states. The tide begins to turn though as the green Americans learn how to fight, pushing the Germans back and winning North Africa. As the war jumps to Italy, Pyle is right there with the troops, documenting everything he sees. Pyle keeps moving around but always seems to find himself with one infantry company with its commander, Captain Bill Walker (Robert Mitchum), and troops not only getting to know him but welcoming him in, the journalist becoming one of them. What does the war hold though? What awaits both Pyle and the American troops?

What an excellent movie. I think the biggest compliment I can give is that 'Joe' is one of the most authentic war movies ever made. It's not just authentic though. It's real, emotional and resonates long after viewing. Director William Wellman wants to tell the story of the grunts, the men on the front lines and does so without any huge displays of patriotism or heroism. These are just 20-somethings who just want to get home. The quickest way to accomplish that? Win the next battle and the next until they get to Berlin. We don't meet any staff officers or get a wider, bigger picture of the war. We get to know the troops, see them on the march, in combat, waiting and waiting. In ways that movies with a much bigger reputation/following didn't do, you really get the sense of what it was like being in the infantry in WWII.

That authenticity comes from Pyle's writings, two of his compilation books serving as inspiration for the screenplay (writers Leopold Atlas, Guy Endore, Philip Stevenson) that was nominated for an Academy Award. Pyle's columns were simple and straightforward, effective because he got a message across that left quite the impression. A relative unknown at the time, Meredith was cast as Pyle, bringing the man to life with a quiet, understated performance. He steals the movie in subtle fashion. Like Pyle's columns, Meredith isn't overbearing or trying too hard. Like good journalists, he listens and looks and waits for the story. He doesn't force it.

It's a feeling that reflects the entire movie. Nothing feels forced. A lot of ground is covered, but you don't feel rushed. There's a natural flow to the story. Overall, 'Joe' is ahead of its time. It was released the summer of 1945 as the war was winding down, but there's not an ounce of propaganda involved. It's just war. We see the effects of battle on the troops, some eventually cracking. We see the looks in the soldiers' faces as they look back on a fallen comrade. They don't talk about the power or glory of war. It's a dirty, nasty business and people die. It is a little touch, but the soldiers have beards and mustaches, the product of days and weeks up at the front without a rest. 'Joe' was filmed in a stark, minimalist black and white that leaves all the focus on the story. There are some beautiful shots throughout mixed in with all the dreary waiting and waiting for something to happen.

In 1945, Mitchum had been working for several years in Hollywood, usually with supporting roles. This is a supporting role, but my goodness, what a part. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Lt. (later Captain) Walker, the commander of C Company, 18th Infantry. With Meredith as Pyle, Mitchum's Walker provides the heart of the movie. A genuine friendship develops between the two men, one a 43-year old writer, the other a young officer trying to get his men through the war unscathed. Like his best parts, Mitchum is the picture of realism. There aren't BIG, LOUD moments but real, emotional ones. His scene with Pyle during the battle for Monte Cassino shows the wear and tear on him, the war stripping him down as he sees the casualties mount. It is a subtle, perfect scene, Mitchum showing all the talent we'd come to expect to see in the coming years.

One other performance is really worth mentioning, and that's Freddie Steele as Sgt. Warnicki, a hard-edged, tough NCO who all the men look up to, including Walker and Pyle. A former boxer who had a short-lived career in Hollywood, Steele is excellent. It's just a fascinating character. His main storyline is that he receives a record from his wife who's recorded his young son's voice, a voice he's never heard. Problem? He needs a record player, the payoff a heartbreaking conclusion. The other infantry include Wally Cassell as fun-loving Dendaro, John R. Reilly as Murphy, a washed-out pilot, and William Murphy as Mew, just trying to fill out his life insurance form.

There are too many moments to mention. There's combat -- Walker and Warnicki working up a bombed-out street to take out 2 German snipers -- and then the more personal, the company resting on Christmas in a brief respite from battle. I loved Mew trying to figure out what name to write on his insurance form. I loved Arab, the little mutt dog the company adopts. It all builds to a very real, very moving, heartbreaking ending. This is war seen through the eyes of one of the best war correspondents to ever write. An excellent movie, one of the best war movies ever made.

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945): ****/****
Rewrite of March 2009 review

1 comment:

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