Friday, 9 January 2015

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

One of the greatest scenes in all of cinema is to be found towards the end of The Story of G.I. Joe (William Wellman 1945). Ernie Pyle, an embedded journalist, is spending Christmas with an infantry battalion somewhere in Italy in the year of 1944. It is cold and it is raining and he has gone to the hut where Walker, the officer in charge, is staying. Walker is hungry and dead-tired but up even so, writing letters to the parents of the soldiers killed that day. When Pyle comes in he gives Walker a wing of a grilled chicken, and they then drink some Grappa ("Italian moonshine, you get a purple heart for every third sip," Walker says) and talk about the war. They are weary and freezing, unshaven and unclean, and Walker quotes W.C. Fields that the best cure against insomnia is to get a good night's sleep. Pyle shakes his head whilst talking about the soldiers "who live so miserably, and die so miserably". The scene is simple and so agonisingly real, gaining in strength for being so quiet and calm. The kind of scene where, after it has ended, you want to stop the film, go back, and watch it again,

Ernie Pyle was a real person, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent who was killed later in the war, at Okinawa. He was played by Burgess Meredith in the film. Walker is based on Captain Waskow, who was killed in battle in Italy, and he is played by Robert Mitchum in what is one of his best performances. But in the scene described above it is Meredith that stands out, primarily because of the sounds he is making. He does look and sound like a man who has walked through the mud on a cold night.


Otherwise The Story of G.I. Joe is not all together successful, some scenes feel awkward (partly perhaps because most of the characters are played by soldiers rather than actors). But it is unusual, and for the most part powerful. It is not about glory or victory but about what it is like being the soldiers that have to walk for days in pouring rain only to die in the mud, shot by an unseen enemy. Some go crazy, some cry after their wives. We rarely see any battles, we see the soldiers walk away to battle and then we see the empty faces of those that come back again.

There have been many war films, some good, some bad, some extraordinary. This is one of the good ones, and with a few extraordinary scenes, and for its focus and pathos it deserves to be remembered. This year is celebrates its 70th anniversary, and even if you cannot find the time to watch all of, at least watch those exceptional five minutes of two men celebrating Christmas in despair, under the shadow of imminent death.

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