William Wellman’s “The Story of G.I. Joe”

stogijoerevYou didn’t think that G.I. Joe just represented action figures and a cheesy ‘80s cartoon, did you?

While the famed toy line will celebrate – get ready to feel old – its fiftieth birthday next year, the name itself goes all the way back to World War II, when it was simply a no-frills nickname for American G.I.’s; the Joe itself simply stood for “average Joe.” And 42 years before starring in the 1987 G.I. Joe animated movie, Burgess Meredith headlined The Story of G.I. Joe as Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who chronicled his travels with a group of soldiers (“Company C, 18th Infantry”) as they engaged in combat in Tunisia and Italy. The movie is also notable for giving Robert Mitchum his first and only Oscar nomination – Best Supporting Actor, one of the film’s four overall noms – for his role as Lieutenant (later Captain) Walker.

Instead of Duke, Roadblock or Flint, there’s Wingless Murphy, Warnicki, and Mew. Murphy was rejected from the Air Corps on the grounds of being too tall and Warnicki misses his young son (unnamed; simply called “Junior”) whom he has never seen, while Mew considers his outfit to be his family as he has none of his own; he goes as far as to list them on his list of beneficiaries on his G.I. life insurance form.

The film starts with Company C suffering defeat in the Battle of the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, then stopping a German offensive and capturing an unnamed town in Italy. They then attempt to advance on Monte Cassino (where the famous monastery, the Abbey of Monte Cassino, was destroyed by Allied forces during the war) but are unable to advance and are resorted to living in leaky underground caves while getting shellacked by enemy artillery outside and suffering multiple casualties. This even lasts through Christmas, which provokes Captain Walker to obtain turkey and cranberry sauce for his men by gunpoint. To go any further would mean revealing spoilers, such as they are in a 68-year-old movie.

627While the storyline, credited to three writers (Leopold Atlas, Guy Endore and Philip Stevenson) wonderfully humanized the characters while eschewing blatant “rah-rah America” flag-waving in favor of gritty realism, and the actors are memorable – Mitchum especially, as this was the picture that had propelled his ascent to stardom –  the story behind the scenes is perhaps much more fascinating. Meredith, at the time a little-known character actor, was actually serving in the Army at the time he was cast as Pyle, even though the studio initially wanted a leading-man type; Mitchum was supposedly in consideration for the part before he was ultimately cast as Capt. Walker instead. Director William Wellman (1927’s Wings, the first-ever Best Picture Oscar winner) was hellbent on authenticity for G.I. Joe, as 150 active soldiers from the Italian campaign were hired as extras for six weeks of filming, and he insisted they speak as much “G.I.” dialogue as possible. Wellman also wanted as few Hollywood actors as possible, and any who were cast were ordered to live and train with the soldiers or be booted from the project.

The scenes in Italy were based on Ernie Pyle’s real-life experiences with soldiers of the 36th and 133rd Infantry Regiment in the battles of San Pietro and Monte Cassino. The 133rd was his favorite – indeed, Pyle referred to them as “my company” and had covered them in Northern Ireland and Tunisia three years prior to the film‘s release, and the fictional 18th Infantry in the film was modeled after that particular outfit.

The Story of G.I. Joe was nominated for four Oscars (Supporting Actor, Score, Screenplay and Original Song) and was named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2009 for its “cultural, historical or aesthetic significance.” Unfortunately, it’s not widely available to home audiences; I was fortunate to catch it on YouTube, but it’s since been removed and you may have to resort to getting a used copy of the film somewhere or just wait until it airs on Turner Classic Movies.

The film ends with Pyle‘s calm voiceover: “There is nothing we can do, except perhaps to pause and murmur, ‘Thanks, pal, thanks.’ ”  He was referring to the fallen heroes of Company C, but he could also have easily been talking about the filmmakers.

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