THE STORY OF G.I. JOE was released in mid-July,1945. The war in Europe was over, but the Pacific inferno ground on horribly, the prospect of invading Japan looming like Apocalypse of the horizon. Like the other, by then more sober war films that year, this utterly unglamorous, downbeat story of exhausted men only did so-so with the nervous, exhausted public (it came in 30th), but it’s regarded as the most realistic of the many combat pictures that came out during the conflict. No less than Dwight Eisenhower called it the finest of its type he had seen. Beyond paying honest tribute to the men, it served as memorial to beloved correspondent Ernie Pyle, whose writings the script was lifted from, and it boosted a busily toiling minor actor into a run at the big leagues that he would turn into a legendary career.
Director William Wellman eschewed rose-colored propaganda pitching and phony-baloney melodrama to instead create a truer picture of what so many were undergoing. Running 108 minutes, on adriotly-finished (or rather, well-ruined) sets and effective simulations of crummy weather, the film traces the middle-aged Pyle (Burgess Meredith) as he follows his favorite adopted company through action in Tunisia and Italy, tenderly documenting their anguish,teamwork, valor, frustration and loss. Two years in the business had given 28-year old Robert Mitchum gigs in 26 films, with one lead in a B-western. His superb portrayal here as the quiet lieutenant/captain who leads the outfit won him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and he was off to the races.
The terse action scenes, handled without absurd heroics, accented by excellent sound effects and the set design are not the showpieces of the script,which instead makes its points through the situational interplay of the believably disheveled foot sloggers: bearded, mud-caked and miserable, more interested in staying dry (impossible) and staying alive (questionable) than in making trite speeches about apple pie and Brooklyn. The schlock is kept in line. Killing and dying are not treated lightly.
Also Oscar nominated for Screenplay, Music Score and Song (“Linda”). With Freddie Steele, Wally Cassell, Jimmie Lloyd, William Murphy and Billy Benedict. The alluring voice of the infamous ‘Axis Sally’ was supplied by a Shelley Mitchell (not to be confused with a later acting coach).*
*Mitchum’s nomination (he lost to James Dunn’s beautiful turn in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn) was his only one in a five decade career. In April,’45, before this finished shooting, he went into the Army (a brawl with cops making the choice jail or war), then Japan folded and he was back out in October. Burgess Meredith, aside from being married at the time to Paulette Goddard, was a captain in the Army Air Corps, released from duty to play Pyle. Serving honorably and playing one of WW2’s icons did not prevent 50s blacklisters from keeping him offscreen for nearly a decade. Freddie Steele had been Middleweight Champion of the World. The “Tacoma Assassin” won 125 out of 142 bouts. Wally Cassell, grandly christened in his native Sicily as Oswaldo Silvestri Trippilini Rolando Vincenza Castellano lived to be 103. I can’t locate any info on the velvet-voiced Shelley Mitchell, but ‘Axis Sally’, in reality a Mildred Gillars, spent 12 years in prison. She later became a nun (Nazi to nun? :the prosecution rests), then a kindergarten teacher. The 150 soldiers the Army loaned to the film shipped out across the Pacific, to Okinawa, where many stayed forever, including Ernie Pyle, killed by a Japanese machine gunner on April 18, 1945.