|As they march into yet another devastated Italian town, one of the soldiers of Company C neatly sums up the average infantryman's experience of World War II: "When this war's over, I'm gonna buy me a map and find out where I've been." Released less than three months after the German surrender, The Story of G.I. Joe is a gritty portrayal of the reality of war: defeat as well as victory, blood and mud as well as glory.
William Wellman's film was based on the newspaper columns of war correspondent Ernie Pyle (played by Burgess Meredith), and through him we get to know a small group of ordinary infantrymen as he follows them from North Africa into Italy. They're led by Captain Bill Walker (Robert Mitchum), who claims he earned his rank by living longer than the other lieutenants, and Sergeant Warnicki (Freddie Steele), a tough, gruff career soldier who carries a carefully wrapped recording of his son's voice across Italy in search of a gramophone. The soldiers--many played by real veterans of the Italian campaign--mature as we get to know them, becoming battle-hardened but increasingly exhausted.
Meredith is effective as Pyle, who quickly becomes something of a company mascot. He earns the respect of the GIs by sticking around when the shells start to fly, and he becomes an even bigger hit when he brings them all turkey and cigars at Christmas. But if this quintessential ensemble piece belongs to anyone, it's Mitchum as the battle-weary C.O. Fiercely loyal to his men, he feels every death as a personal loss but refuses to flinch from his duty. Mitchum brings an extraordinary depth of emotion to his performance, and he received a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
Much of the film's strength lies in the contrast between the human side of war--bored men trying to stay sane in cramped dugouts--and the inhuman randomness of its destruction. After every battle, ambush, or artillery attack there's a terrible moment when we wait to see who is dead--"We lost three," says Sergeant Warnicki as a few men stagger in from a patrol. The nerve-shatteringly realistic battle sequences bring to mind Saving Private Ryan, and The Story of G.I. Joe is a strong competitor with Spielberg's acclaimed film for the title of greatest-ever war movie.
Several of the soldiers who appear in the film, along with Ernie Pyle himself, died in action before The Story of G.I. Joe was released. Fifty-five years later it still stands as a memorial to them and to all of the ordinary men and women who died in World War II. --Simon Leake