On the Front Lines – The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

Ernie Pyle was a war correspondent during the Second World War whose accounts of that time happened to earn him the Pulitzer Prize. It was not simply relating what went on during those various skirmishes and battles that he saw but the way he would do so, from the point of view of the common soldier, the fighting man, the infantry who would risk life and limb time and again for freedom and for country. These people would leave wives and children and more to do so and Pyle recognized that and so when he reported things, he did so as one of them, beside them and when the time came, died with them. The Story of G.I. Joe which is based upon the writings of the man and features him as characterized by Burgess Meredith is not simply about him but about those men, those soldiers who fought for the freedoms that people now enjoy.

Though it is taken from actual accounts, the movie itself is fictionalized in some respects to tell a flowing narrative that audiences might cling to and as such, they follow the men of the C Company, 18th Infantry as they head to the front lines. Accompanying them is Pyle, a rookie himself at this time and throughout the film, viewers will come to know him and some of the soldiers he travels with like Private Dondaro, Sergeant Warnicki, Private Murphy and after a fashion, Lt. Capt. Bill Walker as played by Robert Mitchum in one of his biggest roles to date. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly harder for the soldiers in many respects, be it weather, the battles themselves or their morale which takes a beating the longer they remain in action. War is not easy and director William Wellman shows the audience just how bad it can get. Though much of it is exciting and some of it evokes a few laughs, there is sadness present as well for one cannot help but feel bad for these men who give so much of themselves.

The cast is in fine form throughout, Freddie Steele who just wants to hear his son’s voice, Jimmy Lloyd, Wally Cassell who plays the ladies man, John R. Reilly and William Murphy among them. They give it all they’ve got to bring these characters to life, to make them feel like the ‘everyman’ that they are and thus when things happen to these men, those watching feel those things too. Meredith is good as reporter Pyle yet he feels like more of an outsider than anything else as it is not really Pyle’s story that is being told and so it is that the focus is not upon Pyle but the men. The man is present and he observes and writes and experiences what the men do but it is the soldiers upon whom Wellman trains his camera. As for Mitchum, the man does a great job as the leader of the unit, whipping them into shape, being there when needed and suffering alongside them. Tragedy would strike his character down in the last act of the film, providing one of the most moving scenes within and leaving things off as war often does.

Altogether, The Story of G.I. Joe is an incredible film and it is easy to see why the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress would want to preserve it for all time. It is thanks to those war correspondents like Ernie Pyle that the world would come to know how the war was faring and how the men were doing and while the man might have died himself, his legacy was a great one.

4 out of 5

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