Wellman and His Frontline Correspondents

By Caden Mark Gardner  

William A. Wellman’s best-known World War II pictures, The Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground remain touchstones in his prolific filmography.  While many wartime and postwar films on World War II have faded from public memory, what gives these films a sense of timelessness is the fact beyond the action sequences of each there is a specific attention paid to lived experiences of these men in battle.  The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Battleground (1949) are defined by the films being ensemble pieces about a collective, united front that spotlights the lives of these men.  The former film is based on the war correspondent Ernie Pyle, himself a character in the film (played by Burgess Meredith), while the latter film, Battleground, is uniquely the product of a Hollywood screenwriter turned soldier, Robert Pirosh, who led an American patrol at the Battle of the Bulge.  Pyle and Pirosh are correspondents not just to their audience of the American public but prove to be why these films continue to endure.

Ernie Pyle does not have an official screenplay credit to The Story of G.I. Joe (Leopold Atlas, Guy Endore, and Philip Stevenson are the credited writers) but his books Here is Your War from 1943 and Brave Men from 1944 served as the central texts to the film.  Pyle’s Pulitzer Prize-winning war journalism made him such a household name that the film often went by Ernie Pyle’s Story of G.I. Joe when the film was released in June of 1945. That title was in many ways a tribute to Pyle, who was killed in the Battle of Okinawa on April 18th, 1945, making the cinematic treatment of his correspondences a posthumous work. 

 Nobody will ever know what Pyle would have made of the dramatization of his work or himself on the frontlines, although he was said to have remarked that he wished he and United Artists thought up a better title than The Story of G.I. Joe.  Meredith’s Pyle is never presented as more than an attentive observer of the soldiers in their battles and behavior, often walking around camps with his hands nestled in the pockets of his bomber jacket. There is an unpretentiousness to the character and the performance, the power comes primarily from Meredith narrating logs of Pyle’s reporting from the Italian campaign captured in the film.  Pyle’s notoriety, however, carries him a certain mystique on the frontlines with the soldiers shaking his hand in appreciation of telling the truth of what is happening to them. 

Perhaps one of the most unique things in looking back at The Story of G.I. Joe is that it was released between the surrender of Italy and Nazi Germany but combat in the Pacific Theater in Japan is still happening.  The film is extremely open about the fact that these battles, even with the audience foreknowledge of victory on the horizon, took a true human toll.  Wellman’s camera captures these soldiers in the heavy contrasts of light and shadows, the open fields and the skeletal remains of buildings and churches.  Robert Mitchum, in an early great role, has a weariness that slowly engulfs his hardened exterior over the course of the film as the leader of C Company, Captain Bill Walker. Even the men who have managed to survive live with the weight of survivor’s guilt and trauma that becomes all-consuming.  The specific nervous breakdown of Freddie Steele’s Sgt. Warnicki is still quite startling to watch, the film presenting a PTSD response that would plague a whole generation of men from this conflict.  The world that would reward Pyle the Pulitzer feels so far away with the images of mules carrying corpses and white wooden crosses pervading the hills as burial grounds of the fallen.  What is this future for this land and these soldiers still trying to survive? It is in Pyle’s final narration of the film, with the audience knowing that he would later die in the Pacific Theater, that becomes all the more poignant in that respect. He says:  

“You know, that is our war. And we will carry it with us when we go from one Battleground to another.  Until it’s all over.  We will win. I hope we can rejoice with victory but humbly. That altogether we will try out of a memory of our anguish to reassemble our broken world into a pattern so firm and so fair that another Great War can never again be possible.

For those beneath the wooden crosses, there is nothing we can do except to pause and murmur, ‘Thanks, pal. Thanks’.”

While The Story of G.I. Joe received strong critical praise and multiple Oscar nominations, it was not the box office success for United Artists that year (it would be Alfred Hitchock’s Spellbound (1945)).  After World War II officially ended with the Japanese surrender, there were World War II pictures and films addressing the psychological impact of soldiers returning from war, such as the commercially successful and Best Picture-winning The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946. There were many filmmakers who both captured the battles through wartime documentaries like the Five Came Back* filmmakers, Ford, Wyler, Stevens, Capra, and Huston whose films postwar were informed by their experiences, but there were also many who served in the conflict that wanted to retell their experiences. This would include Robert Pirosh, who was best known for being a screenwriter for The Marx Brothers films and other comedies like René Clair’s I Married a Witch (1942). As a U.S. Army Master Sergeant, Pirosh would lead a patrol in Bastogne, Belgium during The Battle of the Bulge. There was no better person in Hollywood than him to tell the story of the famous allied forces victory against the Nazis. But by 1949, MGM head Louis B. Mayer questioned if there was possible audience fatigue for a World War II film when being presented with Pirosh’s script that would become Battleground.  Mayer’s future MGM successor Dore Schary, however, believed in it dating back to him first overseeing the project at RKO Pictures.  The film ended up being a critical and commercial success that would help with Schary’s rise at MGM and Pirosh’s career; he would ultimately win an Academy Award for his screenplay. 

With Wellman at the helm he would revisit similar terrain as he did in The Story of G.I. Joe which included incorporating as many real-life soldiers as extras possible and putting many MGM contract players like Van Johnson and John Hodiak through military training.  G.I. Joe and Battleground both share the strengths in showing soldiers in male camaraderie, weathering through the intense elements (The Battle of Bulge infamously went through Christmas into the New Year), and the notable Christian imagery.  But where The Story of G.I. Joe was journalistic in its dry yet sobering tales of war, Wellman and Pirosh’s dramatization of the 101st Airborne’s efforts has a broader emotional range, undoubtedly tied to Pirosh’s own background in comedy.  The imagery of Christmas trees where ornaments include a female mannequin’s leg or the soldiers playing baseball with snowballs are personal touches of people who saw it up close.  The film has a nostalgia in looking back at the affectionately known, “The Battered Bastards of Bastogne” in their confrontations against the Nazis with Pirosh and Wellman not shying away from naming what their enemy believed in: their notions of a ‘super race’ or ‘superior race’ form of fascism.  The heroism and the bravery of these men are not flashy nor propagandized by Wellman and Pirosh. Battleground presents an ensemble of men with their own predilections and personalities who must work together to survive to defeat the Nazis.  The mixture of lightness and gravitas allows it to earn its emotional beats that can be both somber and rousing. 

Wellman’s own background as a veteran had him take making a war film deeply seriously dating back to his masterpiece, Wings (1927).  But as he was middle-aged by the time World War II was happening, his deference and admiration for both the work of Pyle, Pirosh, the many real-life soldiers and wartime journalists that inspired both The Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground are what drove these films to be what they are. These films are deeply embedded in their surroundings and the personalities that inhabit them.  While they both have the Wellman touch of being spirited and kinetic in its action set pieces, it is the dialogue and even the moments of silence that ground these films as being the products of men who saw and served on the frontlines. 

Caden Mark Gardner is a critic and co-author of the upcoming exhaustive and imperative new text Corpses, Fools and Monsters: The History and Future of Transness in Cinema with fellow Maze contributor Willow Catelyn Maclay

*Five Came Back, a study and by author Mark Harris about filmmakers who fought in World War 2, later turned into a documentary series.