Film history isn’t a highlight reel of universally agreed-upon classics. It’s an epic story. But some chapters of the story draw more attention than others. Secret Cinema is a column dedicated to shining a light on compelling, little-noticed, overlooked, or faded-from-memory movies from years past. Let’s talk about the films nobody’s talking about.
This year’s Best Picture nominees include War Horse, a Steven Spielberg film that follows a horse’s peripatetic journey from England and across Europe over the course of World War I. Via Twitter, critic Matt Zoller-Seitz expressed his pleasure at the nomination in spite of the film’s mixed response before wishing “there were an Alternate Best Picture of 1947 category.” It’s a good line that touches on one explanation for why War Horse didn’t impress some critics and failed to catch fire with audiences: Spielberg made a film that was old-fashioned both in its sentimentality (though I’d use the phrase “emotional directness”) and its cinematic language. It’s consciously out of step with the films of the day, approaching the material in a style that would have fit in nicely in Hollywood’s Golden Age. But as much as I love the film, and remain a bit baffled by those put off by Spielberg’s masterful command of a classic style, it’s also unmistakably several degrees removed from the experiences it depicts, the work of someone lucky enough to know war primarily from watching old movies.
For an example of a film that used some of the same tools as War Horse while drawing on direct knowledge, look to The Story Of G.I. Joe, a war film made while World War II was still in progress. It’s directed by William Wellman, a veteran of the first World War, and inspired by the life of Ernie Pyle, a Pulitzer-winning war correspondent for Scripps Howard noted for his on-the-ground reporting. To honor that approach, Wellman’s film follows a single infantry division’s brutal, trudging path from Tunisia through Sicily and on toward Rome. Burgess Meredith, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Pyle, plays him as a man given to quiet observation, and the film often lets him fade into the background of the movie, watching, writing, and the letting the men tell the story in their own words.
Wellman understood the value of firsthand experience when it came to this sort of story. A pilot in World War I, he survived being shot down by anti-aircraft fire, though the injuries from the incident troubled him the rest of his life. He drew on his service when directing Wings, the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, even though the honor didn’t do as much for Wellman professionally as it might have for someone else. A man who sometimes let his strong opinions overwhelm him, Wellman earned the nickname “Wild Bill” before he became a director, but his Hollywood career didn’t allow him to lose it. Wellman worked steadily from the silent era through the ’50s, but often without the opportunities or recognition of other major directors. He’d make the most of whatever came his way, whether its potential was great or limited. And despite having made a number of classics—The Public Enemy, The Ox-Bow Incident, A Star Is Born, Beau Geste—and the efforts of Wellman admirers to improve his standing via projects like the 1995 documentary Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick, he remains less than a household name. (I had to track down The Story Of G.I. Joe as a Korean import, despite it being one of his best films.)
Without a stockpile of abiding concerns and stylistic tendencies, Wellman never caught on with the auteurist crowd, either, but an overabundance of directorial presence would only hurt a film like The Story Of G.I. Joe. It has a fair number of visually striking moments, but takes an appropriately prosaic approach to its story, letting the circumstances of the war drive the drama. In one scene, two soldiers wander into a ruined church, take out some German snipers, wonder at the awfulness of killing men in a house of God, then resume the business of taking down the enemy. It’s at once a stunning bit of unavoidable sacrilege and business as usual during wartime.
Taking its cues from Pyle, G.I. Joe puts the stress on the everyday routine of the infantry soldier. That includes a few terrifying flashes of combat and a lot of drudgery and subhuman living conditions. These range from tents so small men must choose whether their heads or feet get shelter from cold nights in the desert to months spent living in the mud of an Italian hill, pinned down by a monastery the enemy is using as an observation post and protected from bombing by its status. (As with the church that doubles as a combat zone, war here has a habit of making a mockery of God.)
In the film’s second half, Wellman slows the narrative to spend time with the men on that hill as the constant shelling and dangerous patrol work take a toll on their mental state. It’s a daring move, inviting viewers to share the tedium of war as a day-to-day grind, but Wellman pulls it off. Former middleweight boxing champ Freddie Steele co-stars as a gentle sergeant who spends his downtime trying to repair a phonograph so he can listen to a recording of his child made by his wife. When he finally succeeds, he’s not comforted by the sounds of home but maddened by them, breaking down in a rage and wanting to kill the enemy who’s keeping him away from his family. By the time Steele snaps, Wellman has made it clear that it’s not always direct combat that breaks a man. In the desert, the men listen as a broadcast of an Artie Shaw song segues into the sounds of DJ Axis Sally, who taunts the men with the names of the women waiting for them back home and beguiling references to jukeboxes, soda shops, and “a girl’s soft laughter in the moonlight.” The men shrug it off, but that kind of talk has a way of seeping under the skin.
The film is filled with those sorts of taken-from-life details, thanks in no small part to Pyle’s heavy involvement in the creative process. That’s not to say there’s no Hollywood in the film. Wellman offers the ugliness of war through a filter. We first meet the infantry troop as they’re being told by a tough-talking lieutenant played by Robert Mitchum to leave behind a small dog they’ve rescued from the battleground. When Pyle arrives, Mitchum relents and, though the soldier who’s adopted him is the first character to die, the dog remains with the men throughout the film, a soft, gentle, warm constant in the midst of all that chaos and cruelty. While not all the human characters make it to the end, the dog survives. Who could bear a war movie in which he didn’t?
Pyle knew that not everyone was so lucky, however, and the movie reflects that. Characters set up as protagonists disappear between scenes, their passing marked by crossed-out lines of the insurance form of a soldier who’s decided to name his brothers-in-arms as his beneficiaries in place of the family he doesn’t have back home. Then there’s Pyle. Meredith, an acting sergeant when cast in the part, has already started to resemble the old men he would play in the ’70s and ’80s. Like Pyle, he’s gray and bald before his time. The men call him “Pop,” and in one scene they learn he’s reached the advanced age of 43. “I’m 26. If I knew I lived to be 43 I wouldn’t have a worry in the world,” one soldier says. “Yes you would,” Meredith replies. “You’d be just like me, worrying about whether you’d get to be 44.” The real Pyle did get to be 44. But he didn’t see 45. As the war wound down in Europe, Pyle went to the Pacific where he fell victim to machine-gun fire on an island off of Okinawa.
Two months later, the film premièred with a hopeful ending that has Meredith’s Pyle walking off into the sunset. Rome has fallen. Berlin is next. Viewers knew the real Pyle, one of the most famous journalists in the world at the time, didn’t make it, but the film doesn’t acknowledge his death. Sometimes it’s best to blunt the edges of the ugly things that make us tell stories in the first place. War is hell. That sentiment rings hollow as mere words, but narratives have a way of filling clichés with meaning. For Pyle that meant giving voice to the average guy—let’s call him G.I. Joe—off fighting the war. For Wellman that meant squeezing Pyle’s writing into a form that made sense to Hollywood, and to those used to watching Hollywood movies. The Story Of G.I. Joe is frontline reporting transformed into a narrative that showed the folks back home as much of the truth about the sacrifices their men were making overseas as it dared, with some reassurance that those sacrifices were worthwhile. When used well, the language of classic Hollywood—now and then—has a way of making the awful truth something we can understand, and maybe even bear.
Next: King Kong (1976)