North Africa at the height of the Second World War, and the American Army unit of Company C, 18th Infantry, are making their way across the desert lands towards the fiercest fighting, knowing what they are up against is a formidable foe not all of them will survive. At a stop along the way, one soldier picks up a mongrel puppy and clutches it to his chest as the order comes to leave, but his lieutenant Bill Walker (Robert Mitchum) tells him to get rid of it seeing as how it's likely the mutt will get killed. However, when war correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) gets hold of it, he changes his mind...
Pyle seems to have an almost magical effect on the soldiers in this film, which was based on his writings as a reporter on the front lines of the conflict: he was a real person, and tragically he never got to see his own life on screen although he had been an advisor on bringing it to its realisation for when he and most of the genuine troops you saw in this were taken to the Pacific to fight the Japanese, he was killed by a machine gunner shortly after. Then again, many of those soldiers we see filling out the background to this were cut down in their prime as well, making this even more of a monument to their sacrifice than it would otherwise have been.
Thus the decision was made by the filmmakers to create a tribute to the average soldier - the G.I. Joe of the title, nothing to do with the line of toys and cartoons which happened along about forty years later, not to mention the blockbuster action movies of which this was something of an antithesis. There was nobody here who was placed high above their comrade as the great hero as they were all heroes, though there was nothing great about their experiences as the story does not end on a note of triumph, but a note of reflective regret that the world has come to this with its bombs and bullets flying, and a resolve to keep ploughing ahead to bring it to some kind of resolution.
That said, when audiences saw this it was Mitchum who became a star as a result, probably down to what happens to his character, but also because his depiction of a tough but fair officer (he is promoted to Captain later on) was precisely the sort of man everybody wanted as a superior, knowing when to give the orders, but also doing what was best for those ranked beneath him. Nevertheless, in its attempts to appeal to all soldiers, or at least all soldiers known to those back home, there was a generic feel to many of the characterisations which left the actors with one note aspects to portray: the rookie who likes the dog, the Sergeant who tries all through the movie to play a recording of his young son's voice, and so forth.
As for Meredith, he was the picture of humane sympathy, and treated with reverence by the men he reports about for he is a link to those they are fighting for, telling their friends and families what it's like to be in this conflict when they can barely make much sense of it themselves being so close to the action. The bigger picture is a vague one as director William A. Wellman sought to keep the smaller picture in focus, the most obvious life changing event conveyed as the threat of death which is ever present, but still less preferable to the muddy and grimy landscapes the soldiers must struggle through. This had a major impact in its day, with General Eisenhower claiming it to be the best war movie ever made, and it certainly has a resonance in its refusal to go the accustomed flagwaving route, although for all its clear-eyed take on the subject, it couldn't quite resist allowing sentimentality to influence the drama. Considering how many were feeling, that could be forgiven. Music by Louis Applebaum and Ann Ronell.