I do not know - and I suppose if I really wanted to know, I could find out - what the stops are along the history of "realistic" war films; what caused people to start making movies in which combat was a joyless, dispiriting slog full of mortal dread and not a noble calling that brings out the best in the soldiers fighting. What I do know is that in June of 1945, a little more than a month after V-E Day and a bit less than two months before V-J Day, United Artists premiered a movie called The Story of G.I. Joe, based on the writings of Pulitzer-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle. And as befits an adaptation of some of the most important war reporting of the 1940s, the film is very much a work of realism: and that after several years of combat movies that, bless their hearts, could hardly be described that way. I don't know if G.I. Joe was the first American production to deal with the grubby, hellish side of World War II so frankly and unapologetically, though certainly it came out at a time when propaganda films still were the order of the day, even if the nature of that propaganda had grown steadily less blithely jingoistic over the course of the war. Propaganda it ain't - one thing that's more or less guaranteed is that nobody would want to join up right after they watched this film, and it refrains entirely from talking or even thinking about the righteousness of America's place in combat, preferring instead to simply posit that, good or bad, this is what shit was like over there.

To explain what the thing is, I think it might be nice to hand things over to Pyle himself, he having a very clear way of saying much in just a few words and a richly appealing voice, which is why he had a Pulitzer and I'm an unpaid blogger:
"They are still calling it 'The Story of G.I. Joe.'I never did like the title, but nobody could think of a better one, and I was too lazy to try.

"It is a movie about the infantry. There isn’t much of a story to it, and there’s no conventional love interest running through it. The War Department co-operated and furnished two companies of soldiers, who were moved to Hollywood, plus lots of equipment such as trucks, tanks, guns and what not...

"If it isn’t a good picture, it will not be for lack of good intentions. They have worked a year and a half on it, and spent more than a million dollars. They’ve slaved to avoid 'Hollywooding' it. They’ve sought, and listened, to advice from men who know what war is.

"They’ve had at least one veteran war correspondent there all the time. The army has kept never less than three overseas veterans of combat out there constantly. As I left Hollywood, one of these veterans said, 'I think it’s going to be a good picture. At least I think it will be the most authentic war picture ever made.'


"My own part in it is very minor. My part is played by Capt. Burgess Meredith. The makeup men shaved his head and wrinkled his face and made him up so well that he’s even uglier than I am, poor fellow."

He's right that there isn't much of a story to it: in 1942, the Pyle character played by Meredith is on assignment in Tunisia, where he first encounters C Company of the U.S. Army 18th; he later tracks them down in Italy, as they're staggering towards Rome, and he follows along till they get pinned down by Germans in a hilltop monastery. There are no great acts of heroism and no brave advances, there are no missions to be completed and no thrilling victories. It's just a cluster of soldiers doing what they can to stay put together in the midst of cramped misery, by turns violent and boring.

It is a film that could only have turned out the way it did under the hands of director William A. Wellman, a director that people like me persistently tend describe in terms like "criminally underappreciated" and "forgotten master" and "for the love of fucking Christ, why don't you have a stack of Wellman DVDs in your house right now?" He was one of the most bullshit-averse directors in the history of American cinema, directing movies with a blunt force style that admits neither sentimentality nor cynicism, and is too deliberately staged to be called "documentary-like", though that's the best way to get us to the harsh, gritty graininess of so many of his films. And The Story of G.I. Joe is harsher and grittier and grainier then maybe anything else he did; I admire it less than his later "this is what WWII was really like" picture, 1949's Battleground, but you'd have to be utterly visually illiterate to deny that G.I. Joe has a more guttural impact in its depiction of a damp, muddy, uncomfortable, underlit, cramped lifestyle that's forced on the soldiers in war. He and cinematographer Russell Metty - no less the production design team, and makeup artist Bud Westmore, whose skill at turning the professional and nonprofessional actors into sallow, weary-eyed toilers covered in dirt, sweat and fatigue contributes inestimably to the film's effect - depict a hard world in jarring chiaroscuro, where there's little room for human beings to live happily.

And yet live they do; after its savage depiction of the state of warriors in war, the most distinctive thing about G.I. Joe is its depiction of the little things those warriors do to keep themselves human. And it is here that the film saves itself from being merely a brutal slog through human suffering, to instead be a very sympathetic, if never exactly affectionate or kindhearted look at the lives of soldiers. With no real story behind it, all that remains are little human moments, some of them insisted on more vigorously than others - the lengthy subplot of one Sgt. Warnicki (Freddie Steele) trying to find a phonograph in the blasted-out homes of Italy, so that he can listen a recording his wife made of their son, takes up quite a lot of screentime - and all of them gamely played by a pretty strong cast: Robert Mitchum, in his breakout role, plays the company leader, with the rest of the team filled by names you've never really heard of, like William Murphy and Wally Cassell. But it's good that that the film had no stars (it's also unsurprising, both because of his acting and because of the role, that Mitchum is the one who ended up with all the career momentum afterwards), since it's so much an exercise in watching basically normal people struggle through rough times. Adapting a pair of Pyle's books, the screenwriting team of Leopold Atlas & Guy Endore & Philip Stevenson sketch out simple, elemental characters, a little bit too fleshed-out to be exactly "one-note", though it's easiest to think of them all in iconic terms after the movie wraps up: the womaniser, the one with the life insurance policy. Still, the writing and the acting both serve to make those feel more like convenient ways to describe people whose complexity we don't quite get to see, rather than men who lack complexity altogether.

It's not a revisionist film (1945 was too early for anything like that), though it's a shockingly mordant one. War, in this telling, may be necessary, but it's ugly, messy, and bitterly unpleasant even in the moments when a little bit of humanity can be carved out (a wedding between a member of the company played by John Reilly and his nurse sweetheart played by Dorothy Coonan Wellman, the director's wife, is interrupted by shelling), with humor that's strictly of the gallows type (Mitchum's Capt. Walker, shouting insults to an unseen German, who lobs them back in his own language). If soldiers are seen as admirable, it's only because they're putting up wit an unimaginable amount of shit for reasons that, on the ground, don't make sense and don't matter - no paeans to freedom, security, liberty or Americana here, just a group of downtrodden men doing anything they can to survive and win. It's not an anti-war movie, but something even rarer; a war-agnostic movie, one whose indifference to the scale of war beyond the life and death of these handful of men, is particularly jarring coming after so many American war movies were so pridefully certain of their moral authority. I'll give the final word back to the author, in the form of a film-ending monologue cobbled together by the screenwriters from various pieces Pyle had written, delivered by Meredith in a level, tired monotone:
"This is our war, and we will carry it with us as 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 all together we will try, try out the 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. And for those beneath the wooden crosses, there is nothing we can do, except perhaps to pause and murmur, 'Thanks pal. Thanks.'"
At the age of 44, Ernie Pyle died on the Japanese island of Iejima on 18 April, 1945, two months before the film based on his work premiered.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1945
-One of the few Technicolor films noirs, Leave Her to Heaven, is released by 20th Century Fox
-Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra co-star in the smash MGM musical hit Anchors Aweigh
-Detour is made by PRC, perhaps the greatest of all Poverty Row films in history

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1945
-In a newly freed France, the epic Children of Paradise, shot in secret during the Occupation, premieres
-David Lean's tragic romance Brief Encounter is the first masterpiece of post-war Britain
-Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City inaugurates the post-war Italian Neorealist movement