Last night I watched a movie called The Story of GI Joe, and although I’ve seen parts of it over the years, last night was the first time I’ve seen it in it’s entirety. The movie made a strong enough impression on me that I decided to write a few paragraphs about it today.
If it is possible to capture the misery, tragedy and transition of the infantry soldier during combat in two hours, this movie comes as close as any I’ve seen.
The movie was made in black and white in 1945. I would guess that between some of the characters and they way they were portrayed, coupled with the age of the movie, many people my age or younger could consider the movie outdated. But when I compare this movie to such movies as Full Metal Jacket or Saving Private Ryan for example, there was no gore, no sense of adventure or suspense you may experience watching those movies. This movie tries to illustrate the misery of war through the eyes of famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle, without, in my opinion, a lot of commentary, drama or overstatement.
The movie starred Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle, (Did he ever look young?) along with Robert Mitchum as Captain Walker, who was the company commander of C Company, 18th Infantry Regiment. Now the 18th Infantry was and is a real unit within the Army and it has a long and impressive lineage. I had the honor of serving in that regiment back in the 80’s. During WWII it was one of three regiments (the other two regiments were the 16th and 35th Infantry) that made up the 1st Infantry Division, also known as the Big Red One. The 18th did fight in Tunisia and Sicily, but it did not fight in Italy or at Monte Cassino as depicted in this movie. In fact, the day that the US Army marched into Rome the 18th landed at Omaha Beach, so that little piece of the story is fictional.
That being said, everything else in the movie is historically accurate as far as I can tell. I also know that at least some of the incidents portrayed in the movie actually occurred because I read about them in Pyle’s book.
The movie follows Pyle, as he travels with and writes about Company C. During his “journey” with these American fighting men. He meets and develops close relationships with Captain Walker and the rest of the company. It becomes apparent early on, that the troops he traveled with and wrote about came to respect Pyle for sharing their hardships and danger with them. He comes and goes to and from C company throughout this part of the war. The story is told, in my opinion, as seen from the eyes and experiences of Pyle. Although the movie is about him, at the same time he manages to place the focus on the ordinary infantryman.
Pyle first meets C company and the then Lieutenant Walker after they first arrive in Tunisia, part of a green and untested Army. It depicts the scene when the company suffers its first combat death, by showing a dead soldier which we just met lying on the road near an ambulance as the company pulls away. A short time later, Pyle and Walker are in the battalion HQ as the situation on the ground deteriorates, and they are forced to abandon their Command Post (CP) and flee the German breakthrough at Kasserine Pass, leaving behind one of their dead.
Pyle later catches up with C Company in Sicily, and the now Captain Walker explains that his company, (since the defeat at Kasserine) has come together and become a hardcore veteran group of killers (out of necessity).
I found the scenes that show the company fight it’s way though Sicily and Italy’s hills and villages pretty compelling and well done. The movie does a good job intermixing actual combat footage with the actors as they recreate the battles and lives of the Infantryman. As a former infantryman myself, I think they did a superb job of recreating and depicting the day to day misery that the typical infantry soldier would have experienced anywhere they fought during that war, but in this case Italy.
The movie also struck a realistic chord with me, as it shows very understated and unceremonious scenes of soldiers being killed in action. One minute they are there, part of the fight, then they suddenly fall and are gone. No blood, gore or realistic scenes of what enemy fire actually does to the human body, but that is OK with me. To me, the realism was that one moment they were alive, the next they were lying dead. No overly dramatic depictions of these men and how they died in combat. The simple fact that they died suddenly and violently was dramatic enough.
The movie reminded me of just how awful and brutal the Italian Campaign was (was there a campaign anywhere during that war that wasn’t brutal ?) I personally think maybe the war fought in Italy has been overshadowed over the years by the campaigns fought in France, Belgium, Germany and many campaigns in the Pacific. Salerno, Anzio, the Po Valley and the Rapido River crossing, Monte Cassino and the breaching of the various German defensive Lines, just to mention a few, were all slow, intense and costly operations for the Allies who fought and died, often miserably, for every yard gained and retaken from the Nazis.
I think Robert Mitchum does a great job. As the company gets bogged down in miserable conditions, and the death toll rises, at one point he fights a losing battle to stay awake, he laments to Pyle, that there are so many names of those in the company that have been killed under his command that he feels like a murderer. You can believe he was really burned out.
There is a scene when he points his weapon at and threatens to kill a mess officer if he doesn’t come up with hot turkey and cranberry sauce for his troops, all of who missed out on that Christmas Day meal because they were on the front line. Later, Pyle pulls a left over turkey leg out of his pocket, picks the lint and whatever off of it, then offers it to the captain.
There is another painful scene where one of the veteran and most dependable sergeants in the company comes apart and loses control. While several of the troops fight to control him and forcibly take him back for medical care, this plays out, with the soldiers, who are filthy, wearing rags and covered on mud and slime, in front of an incredulous group of newly arrived replacements who are clean, dry and shaven. They no doubt wonder just how bad the situation is that they find themselves in. The contrast between the grizzled veterans and the new troops couldn’t be more obvious, but at the same time it’s understated.
Finally, Pyle, after being a way for a while, catches up with the remnants of C company. As he joins them during a break, a long column of mules are led down from a hilltop, each bearing the body of a dead American Soldier, slung across the mule in a most undignified manner. As they start arriving bearing their gruesome cargo, the men start to recognize some of the soldiers brought down as being their own. Some of these dead soldiers are soldiers we have followed and come to know from the beginning of the film.
The scene that plays out (which was made famous in one of Pyle’s books) is difficult to watch without triggering some emotions. In the end, after the troops pay their last respects, the survivors headed out limping and trotting to catch up with the advancing column of GIs as they continue onto the seemingly endless war that still needs to be won.
Tragically, in real life, Pyle was later sent the Pacific, and he was killed by a Japanese machine gun during a battle on an island just off Okinawa. I’m not sure he ever got to view the movie about himself. As old as the movie was, I was pretty impressed by it and the story it told. Parts of the movie triggered reactions within me, that sometimes are better left alone, but life doesn’t always work that way. Overnight, I dreamt about the movie and the characters as I tried to sleep. On the other hand, it made me proud to have earned the right to wear blue rope and crossed rifles that signify my having served as an Infantryman. In the end, I think it is a really good film which vividly portrays the misery of ground combat, as well as the suffering that is visited upon those we send to fight our wars.